Friday, October 29, 2010

Pink Ribbon Earns KSA Place in History

Photo Credit Rania Rezek

Women in Saudi Arabia made history last night, shattering the existing Guinness Book of World Records in the formation of the largest human pink ribbon chain emphasizing global awareness in the battle against breast cancer.

I don't know if the rest of the world actually realizes or appreciates what a seemingly impossible feat this really was to achieve in such a deeply cultured, strictly religious, and male-dominated society like Saudi Arabia where women are hidden behind black drapes when out in public. KSA has a reputation for being known as a place where women should not be seen or heard from, where women must have a legal male guardian all their lives, and where the rights of women are seen by the rest of the world as being limited, antiquated, and oppressed.

Logistically speaking, the odds were against us. Since females are prohibited from driving here in the "Magic Kingdom," what that means is that every single woman who participated in the event - except those who may have been close enough to walk to the site - was driven to the venue by a man.

Organizing and pulling off a stunt like this was a daunting task in a country where mass gatherings are discouraged and where men and women mingling together in public places is strictly forbidden. There were no men allowed inside the Ministry of Education Sports Stadium, which had never before been used to host an event for women. In fact I was told by an event organizer that the management of the stadium had initially refused to open the stadium for women. A call from higher powers quickly corrected that issue and the management was on board. Other male protesters in law enforcement and city government who voiced their objections were also quashed, and their objections turned into offers of assistance and support.

I also learned that the religious authorities were in a tizzy (no surprise here) over the fact that women would be gathering together like this en masse. However, at every turn the objectors were overruled. The event's organizers had gone through all the proper channels, followed protocol, received approvals and official documents from every required governmental agency, and had the full support of the government to proceed with this monumental occasion. In fact, if it weren't for the major clout backing this event, women in Saudi Arabia would likely have never been able to pull it off. The clout I'm speaking of responsible for the conception and implementation of this ground-breaking event was Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan and the Zahra Breast Cancer Association of which she is a founding member.

I had the honor and privilege of meeting Princess Reema at the event last night and was taken aback when she thanked me for the post I had written announcing this event and told me she reads my blog! I awkwardly apologized for sometimes complaining about things here in KSA and lamely joked with her that there wasn't much else for me to do here. She was very gracious, charming and regal, while at the same time being so very normal and approachable - exactly the way I imagine a princess should be.

We arrived at the stadium shortly after 5pm, when the gates were opened. There was already quite a large crowd of women, with more and more arriving with every passing minute. Once inside the gate, there was a table where we had to obtain ticket stubs in order to then go to another table to get our pink hooded ponchos which were provided free of charge to all attendees. Because of the enormous crowd of women, this process took at least half an hour. There were also a variety of booths for sponsors, including Zahra Breast Cancer Association, Al Bidayah Breastfeeding Resource and Women's Awareness Center, and Avon. Free bottled water was also available.

For weeks beforehand, the old stadium was readied for the event. The bathrooms were renovated and the hole-in-the-ground toilets were replaced with regular seated toilets. I'm guessing that there are only men's toilets at the facility since women had historically never been allowed to attend any events held there before this because of this society's strict gender segregation policies. The grassy field was watered and tended to and was perfectly manicured. I can't recall ever seeing that much grass in one place here in Saudi Arabia since I've been here! The VIP section in the center was furnished with nice padded chairs for special guests (including me!), and there were beautiful large throne-like chairs where the princesses in attendance were seated.

The daytime temperature had reached an irritable and stifling 100F (37C) and the humidity was a muggy 70%. Needless to say, that stadium was packed with a lot of uncomfortable sweaty women who were anxious and excited to come together for a common cause despite the weather conditions. Every single woman had to be counted by the Guinness representative before she was allowed to do the Avon Walk for the Cure on the track around the grassy field, which had been carefully marked into the pattern shaped into the large breast cancer awareness ribbon. I was part of the first group of 100 to be counted and to begin the journey around the track. As we passed the grandstands where thousands of women were seated, waiting for their turns to be counted, the women began cheering and waving and singing the Saudi national anthem. Excitement was in the air - it was phenomenal and very uplifting.

Estimates were that there were about 6000 women total in attendance, however some were unable to stay the entire time due to transportation issues. The crowd was made up of not just Saudi women, but included expats from many countries around the world including the USA, England, Europe, and many Asian and African countries. I met young women from at least two local international schools who were tranported there by the busfuls. I also met women who had flown in from Riyadh just for this event and others who had driven from Mecca and Taif. Even in the sweltering heat and in the midst of only females, some of the women who came still felt compelled to wear their face veils because of all the cameras around.

There were also hundreds of volunteers who assisted in so many ways to make the event a success. It took well over an hour for the ribbon formation to take shape and be filled in. Those of us who were first on the field began to sit on the grass. We were already all hot, sticky, and sweaty anyway, so it wasn't like we were concerned about getting a little grass, insects, or dirt on us at that point! And actually sitting on the grass made me cool down a little bit. Slowly the sea of women dressed in pink ponchos united for a cause became the symbol for Breast Cancer Awareness. The exact official count has not yet been released by Guinness, however it is clear that Saudi Arabia exceeded the German record of 3640 participants set in 2007.

The heat, the humidity, the crowds, the pushing, the waiting, the standing, the discomfort, the sweating - was it all worth it? YES!!!

This was an historic achievement in so many ways for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I think it shows that Saudi Arabia wants to be an active and integral part of the modern global community. I also feel that it indicates that Saudi Arabia doesn't want to be perceived as that strange and oppressive country that many people around the world fear or criticize because it has always been such a mystery. I think this event also shows that the royal family and many people of Saudi Arabia want the country to progress and are not afraid of change if it's for the good of the country. I hope I'm right!

At any rate, I am proud to say that I was there; I was part of it.

Arab News article "Saudi Pink Ribbon Breaks Guinness Record."

Saudi Gazette article "Kingdom Breaks World Record."

Click here for the Guinness Website article and awesome photos about another breast cancer awareness record that was broken on October 1st.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cleaning Up Jeddah

I know I've done my fair share of complaining about how dirty, unkempt, full of rubble, and run-down parts of Jeddah can be, so a couple of days ago I decided to put my money where my mouth is and joined in with a group of Jeddah's youth to clean up a beach here. The event was organized by Jeddah's Young Initiative Group (YIG), which evaluates where there are needs in the community and then seeks to help or make improvements.

My husband thought I was nuts for going out in the late afternoon heat (it's still hitting the low 100s here), and I was probably the oldest person there helping, but he did drive me there, since I cannot drive in this country simply because I am a woman. This two-hour clean-up campaign covered a stretch of sandy beach along the Corniche on the Red Sea where there are swings for children and not much of anything else. The beach was littered with soda cans and pop tops, plastic eating utensils, paper, plastic bags, shards of broken glass, cardboard boxes, straws, and other various types of debris. The water's edge was afloat with lots of seaweed, which was also removed by our group.

Participating men and women were divided into small work groups and were assigned to work in separate segregated areas, so that there would be no hanky panky happening while we were all there working and sweating, plus there were several police patrol cars on hand to ensure there was no gender mixing. My group had a couple of female medical students from Batterjee Medical College, a reporter from the Saudi Gazette and her sister who was a teacher, and an adorable 7 year old who had volunteered to help along with her older brother. We were all provided with plastic gloves and large garbage bags. There were also a few rakes on hand for those brave souls who waded into the water to collect the seaweed.

Luckily there was a slight breeze which staved off the heat, but that breeze also caused us all to be lightly dusted in a coating of fine sand which then clung to my sweaty face. Nice and gritty!

As someone who has witnessed firsthand how many of Jeddah's residents litter as if someone else will come along and pick up after them, I think educating the residents, young and old, to this problem is key. When I first moved here three years ago, I was appalled at the filth and litter here. I remember sitting in a car in a parking lot and seeing a young boy get out of the back seat of a huge GMC Yukon. The front window rolled down and the boy's mother handed him a load of garbage (McDonald's fast food), which he then proceeded to just throw on the ground in front of our car! I was shocked and disgusted. And there was a garbage can sitting on the sidewalk about ten feet away! This kid's mother is the problem for not teaching her son about taking pride in his city and keeping our planet clean.

At over 400 members and growing, YIG has been instrumental in filling in the gaps in this community where there may not be social causes or government organizations actively solving the many problems and issues of this city. "Cleaning the Streets of Jeddah" is one of their ongoing programs, along with "Emergency Medical Help Assistance," "Fixing Under-Privileged People's Homes," "Teaching Orphans," and "Distributing Essential Home Appliances."

If you are interested and able to offer your help by volunteering your time or donating equipment or money for any of these worthwhile projects, you can find YIG's contact information on this page.

Here is the link to an Arab News article about the Anti-Litter Clean-Up event I participated in, and here is a link to the Saudi Gazette article about it as well.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Zain Commercial: Window of Hope

Zain is a well-known mobile phone company here in Saudi Arabia, even though they are a relatively new company here, launching their operations within the Kingdom in August of 2008. This is the second outstanding television commercial they have produced that I am sharing with you on my blog (here is the link to the first Zain commercial I previously posted).

Whatever firm Zain hired to produce these exceptional commercials for them was a brilliant and inspirational move on their part. The one-minute commercial below is a tribute to the people of Gaza. It shows the deplorable conditions they are forced to live in, the war-torn rubble their children must play in, and the resilience, strength, and hope the people of Gaza continue to have despite their circumstances. The accompanying music is a shortened version of the beautiful and haunting song "Wonderful Life." Seeing these poor smiling children amidst their depressing and devastated surroundings while singing "It's a wonderful, wonderful life" is very moving.

Zain has partnered with UNRWA (United Nations Relief & Works Agency) in this worthwhile fund-raising campaign to provide relief aid for Palestinian refugees. Zain customers can make contributions by simply texting a message. Taken from their website: "The campaign’s main highlight was a 'reality' TVC that was shot in Bourj el-Barajneh, Lebanon, capturing true life moments of Palestinians living in the area. By allowing the camera to transmit reality, and by using actual Palestinian refugees as cast, Zain is hoping to open the world’s eyes to the cruel conditions endured by the Palestinians, and to give the refugee population a better future."

To view more of Zain's wonderful television commercials, here is the link to their website page listing them.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Making Breast Cancer History in Jeddah

Women in Jeddah will be coming together this week for the purpose of highlighting awareness of breast cancer by attempting to form the world's largest record-breaking human pink Breast Cancer Awareness ribbon in history.

The event will take place on Thursday, October 28, starting at 5:00 pm and ending at about 9:00 pm at the Ministry of Education Sports Stadium in Al-Rawdah District. Only females 12 and over will be admitted and should be pre-registered (see below). Free pink ponchos will be provided for all participants to ensure that the uniform pink color matches throughout. Women are advised to wear comfortable clothing and shoes.

The goal is to attract 7,000 women to the event in order to break the current standing record in the Guinness Book of World Records. Conceived by HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, this event has been organized and coordinated through several organizations here in Saudi Arabia, including the Zahra Breast Cancer Association and Al Bidayah Center, which have teamed up with Avon's Walk for Life.

Breast cancer continues to be a major health problem for women in Saudi Arabia due to several contributing factors. Saudi women are more likely to wait to see a doctor until it's too late and the cancer is already in advanced stages. Saudi women are less prone to be assertive about their own health issues. They are discouraged from asking questions, from reading about their disease and treatments, or from doing their own research. Saudi women have the legal standing of children and can be denied healthcare by their legal guardians, usually their fathers or husbands. Saudi women always live with the fear that their husbands will view them as "damaged goods" and that the man may either divorce them in their time of need or take on a second wife. And then there is always the perceived embarassing nature and stigma of the disease itself.

To Register for the Event (Females over 12 years only):
E-mail your full name, mobile number and e-mail address to Manal Quota at:

Event Details:
Date: Thursday, October 28, 2010
Time: 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Location: Ministry of Education Sports Stadium in Al Rawdah - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Blogger in KSA Blocked Within the Kingdom

Sand Gets in My Eyes is one of my favorite reads among the blogs coming out of Saudi Arabia. It is written by an American woman with grown children who has lived in Saudi Arabia for several years with her American husband who works for Aramco. Her posts are always well written and thought provoking. She writes with passion about important topics regarding women's and children's issues and societal problems.

Her blog has been blocked from viewing within Saudi Arabia. This happened to my own blog about a year and a half ago. Websites that are blocked are usually blocked because they contain pornography or show too much skin, religious (especially when they are critical of Islam), or sites that are critical of the Saudi government or culture. Many people do not realize the stress that bloggers in the Middle East are under because there is no freedom of speech here like in the West. Saudi blogger Fouad Al-Farhan was imprisoned in KSA in December of 2007 for criticizing the corruption in this country and advocating for change. No charges were ever brought against him, he had very limited contact with his family, and he was thankfully released four months later.

Above is the page that people within Saudi Arabia see when a website is blocked in the country. This situation can often be rectified by the government department which blocked it in the first place, likely the result of receiving a complaint and going ahead and blocking the blog without really looking into it. If enough people send in requests to unblock the website, then someone at the Saudi government internet office will physically go in and look at the site and hopefully come to the conclusion to unblock it.

Here is the link to the page where you can file an "Unblock Request." It's a very short and easy to fill out form. Please help FREE Sand Gets in My Eyes!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Challenging Misconceptions of Islam

This 8-minute long CNN video segment features a Public Service Announcement on Islam and Islamophia, as well as an interview with Dr. Deepak Chopra talking about his new timely book, Muhammed - A Story of the Last Prophet.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Zaytuna College

Photo Credit: Zaytuna College website photo gallery

In late August of this year, the first Muslim four-year liberal arts college in the United States opened its doors to students in rented classroom space at a Baptist seminary. Zaytuna College is not yet accredited and building a physical campus will not even be considered for another five years, but the inaugural class made up of only fifteen students is hopeful and convinced that they have made the right decision to attend school there. Berkeley, California, is the home base of the college and the Q'uran is the main school textbook. Students are required to have a working knowledge of Arabic - the equivalent of one year's study of university level Arabic. Their admissions policy states that non-Muslim students and faculty are also welcome at the school. ZC envisions its enrollment to grow to 2000 in the next ten years.

Zaytuna College logo"Zaytuna College is committed to demonstrating, through practice, teaching, and the free exchange of ideas, Islam’s critical role in the modern world," states their website. ZC is offering two majors in their Bachelor's Program: Islamic Law and Theology, and Arabic Language.

The Arabic word "zaytuna" means "olives." The olive branch has long been considered a symbol of peace and the olive tree is a symbol of longevity. The tree and its many products are a lifeblood of the Middle East region. It is also revered in verses from the holy books of the three Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

All fifteen inaugural students are U S citizens from across the country. Their heritages are Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian. They all have excellent academic backgrounds, impressive community service records, and are of high morals and character with a desire to make a difference in the world.

One of Zaytuna's founders, the charismatic Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, is considered an Islamic rock star of sorts among his followers. Yusuf is US born and bred, converting to Islam at the age of 17 and studying with prominent Islamic scholars for more than ten years in Saudi Arabia, parts of Africa, and the U.A.E. Very shortly after 9/11 happened, he was personally consulted by President Bush for advice. Yusuf is regarded as very moderate and is highly critical of Islamic radical terrorists and preaches for a return to true Islam - "stripped of violence, intolerance and hatred." The Sheikh has a large following around the world and often leads groups of religious pilgrims on organized tours through the Sacred Caravan to Islam's holy sites in Saudi Arabia, offering lectures and and classes in the process. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of spending a delightful evening here in Jeddah with the women from one of these Omra groups led by Yusuf.

Photo Credit: Christina Hernandez - 'Sheikh Hamza Yusuf addresses the inaugural class at Zaytuna College'Yusuf was famously quoted in The Guardian (newspaper of the U.K) as saying, "Many people in the west do not realise how oppressive some Muslim states are - both for men and for women. This is a cultural issue, not an Islamic one. I would rather live as a Muslim in the west than in most of the Muslim countries, because I think the way Muslims are allowed to live in the west is closer to the Muslim way. A lot of Muslim immigrants feel the same way, which is why they are here."

Regarding the location of the proposed building of the Islamic center near Ground Zero, Yusuf wrote an opinion piece for the Christian Science Monitor in which he asked, "How can you say ‘How dare they?’ when the American Muslims building the mosque are fighting the fanaticism and xenophobia of those who flew the planes into the twin towers?”

To read more about Zaytuna College and how its founders hope to change the negative image many Americans have now about Islam, you can listen to and/or read a story NPR did about it last month.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

UPDATE: At Long Last, A Widow Leaves Saudi Arabia


Painting by Tagreed Al Bagshi

Asima, the Western widow I had previously written about in a four-part series, whose Saudi husband passed away a decade ago, is no longer in Saudi Arabia. Although I am not at liberty to supply particulars, I can tell you that she and her two children are safely outside the country.

Because of the ages of her two children at the time of her husband's death and because of the way the Saudi system demands that every grown woman must have a legal male guardian, called a "mahram," the young mother and her children were trapped in Saudi Arabia for close to ten years by her husband's family. She would have been allowed to leave the country without her children, but she refused to do that. Luckily for her, her oldest child was a boy, and once he reached the required age, he became the legal guardian of his mother and his younger sister, enabling them to finally leave the country. Had her two children been girls, neither one of her daughters would have ever been able to leave this country without the permission of their legal Saudi male guardian.

Painting by Tagreed Al BagshiSaudi Arabia's guardianship system has come under fire in the past few years, with more and more Saudi women speaking out and demanding their basic human rights to make their own decisions about their education, health care, business, marriage, careers, and travel. As the existing law stands right now, no Saudi woman can pursue her education, or work, or travel without the express consent of her mahram. Despite the fact that in June 2009, Saudi Arabia pledged to the U.N. Human Rights Council to put an end to the male guardianship system, to grant women their own full and separate legal identity, and to make gender discrimination illegal, very little progress has been made.

While many Saudi women are generously given these choices by their guardians, there are also many who are abused by the system and are denied a say in their own lives. This gender discrimination situation has been criticized by human rights groups that are upset that Saudi women are regarded as children in the eyes of Saudi law for their entire lives, with some even saying that Saudi women are considered to be no more than a man's property.

Painting by Tagreed Al BagshiSabria Jawhar, a respected Saudi journalist and named by Arabian Business Magazine as one of the world's most influential Arabs in its "2010 Power 100 list," wrote about an instance of abuse of the guardian system:
"It was reported recently that a Saudi woman protested that her father rejected several potential husbands because they did not belong to the family's tribe. The father confined her to the house as punishment and denied her outside employment. He even sent her to a mental institution when she continued her protests. She sued her father in court, but found herself at the wrong end of a tongue-lashing from the judge who said she did not respect her father. She now lives in a women's shelter."

Here is another article about what a young Canadian woman had to endure because of Saudi Arabia's guardianship system.

Painting by Tagreed Al BagshiThere are some Saudi women who are perfectly content with the way things are and believe that Saudi women are better off than Western women because of it. These women feel that since they are happy with the status quo, then all Saudi women must be happy. Last year in response to KSA's agreement to make changes in the guardian system, a group of privileged Saudi women spearheaded by two Princesses launched a campaign called "My Guardian Knows What's Best for Me," in favor of keeping the Saudi guardianship system intact. Within a couple of weeks, they had collected more than 5000 signatures. They are also opposed to socializing between opposite genders as well as being against men and women working together.

So while some Saudi women are speaking out to demand the right to make their own decisions on their own merits as perfectly capable adults, there is a counter-movement thwarting their efforts and citing religion, culture, customs, and traditions as their excuses for why things should remain the same. Some Saudi women activists, led by the country's most visible women's freedom fighter Wajeha al-Huwaider, have organized the Black Ribbon Campaign in protest of Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system. Al-Huwaider says, “I am an adult woman that has been earning my own income for over a decade now but according to the Saudi government, I am a dependent until the day I die because of my gender.”

Painting by Tagreed Al BagshiMaybe the guardianship system was a good and logical idea back when it was first implemented many years ago, back when most Saudi girls never got past a 4th grade education before they were married off to an older cousin and started having babies. But today's Saudi woman is often times better educated, is arguably more motivated than her male counterpart, and with today's technology, she is much more aware of the basic human rights enjoyed by women around the world that she is being denied. Could it be that an independent and well-educated Saudi woman is considered a threat to the family, or as unwanted competition in the workplace to the Saudi man who has reigned unchallenged and has exercised unlimited control over all women in this country?

The guardianship system failed the widowed Asima, who along with her children, were basically held captive in Saudi Arabia for a decade, and it continues to fail the many other women who are routinely abused and denied the right to play a role in their own lives and destinies. Saudi Arabia should keep its promises that it made in June 2009 to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Set the women here free. It's time.

The haunting paintings of Saudi women in this post are by Saudi female artist Tagreed Al Bagshi. To me, Al Bagshi has captured the intimacy of life here for many Saudi women who seem to exist in a gilded cage: the boredom, the apathy, the loneliness, the despair, the lethargy, the sadness, the isolation, the hopelessness.
Visit Al Bagshi's website at:

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

One of my Favorite Dishes

Although I'm not a huge eggplant fan, one of my favorite dishes features eggplant. I never ate eggplant when I was a kid. It was never offered to me and I probably wouldn't have even tried it if it had been. The first time Adnan (who is a wonderful cook) made eggplant for me, I was skeptical. But from that first bite, I was in love with this dish. The flavors all work so well together and it's unbelievably delicious. Try it for yourself!


1 Large Eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch round slices
1-2 pounds Lean Ground Beef
Onion, Garlic, Parsley, Salt, Pepper, and other spices and herbs to your liking
1 Cup Plain Yogurt
Mint, Dill, Italian Seasoning, Cilantro, or other spices and herbs to your liking

GROUND BEEF MIXTURE: We like to keep an already-made amount of this versatile mixture available. That's why you can use a larger amount of ground beef if you want, so you can save some to use in other recipes later. It freezes well and is quick to thaw. It's great to use in many Middle Eastern or Italian dishes, and when there's just a little bit left, we just throw it into scrambled eggs in the morning and it's delicious.

Start with a little olive oil warmed in a frying pan.
SAUTE in some chopped onion and some fresh garlic over medium heat.
ADD in your ground beef and cook thoroughly.
You can also ADD in your favorite spices and herbs, like Italian Seasoning, Fresh Cilantro, Parsley, a little Salt and Pepper, etc.
Set this mixture aside.


In a small bowl, MIX the Yogurt with your favorite Herb and Spices, like Mint, Dill, or Cilantro.
ADD a little Italian Seasoning if you like.
My personal favorites with this dish are Mint and Dill.
Set this mixture aside too.

EGGPLANT: My hubby used to fry the eggplant slices in a little Olive oil on top of the stove, but they tend to absorb a lot of grease that way. The method he has been using lately is to bake them in a 400 degree oven for about 10-15 minutes on each side.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
First, lightly DIP the eggplant slices in olive oil.
Place them in a baking pan.
BAKE for about 10-15 minutes, until they appear a nice golden brown color.
TURN the slices over and return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes.
REMOVE when they are tender and a nice golden brown color.

Some people don't like the texture of the eggplant skin when it's fried or baked this way, so they peel the skin off first. The skin becomes a little tough and chewy, but I personally really like it when it's that texture.

SERVE 2-3 slices of eggplant per person.
TOP with the Ground Beef mixture, and then the Yogurt Sauce.
SERVES 3-4 People.