Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ladies First: Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates

I just watched “Ladies First: Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates,” a short New York Times video documentary regarding the historic elections in Saudi Arabia last December.  The film features three different Saudi women who were not only granted the right to vote in local municipal elections for the first time ever last year, but who also decided to run for office.  

While Saudi Arabia remains a kingdom, at the local level there are city councils consisting of elected officials.  It should be noted that Saudi men were barely given the right to vote and hold public office in 2005.  The next election wasn’t until 2011.  That same year King Abdullah announced that women would be able to vote and run for office in 2015.   

Offering a glimpse inside the lives of these brave, yet very different, Saudi women, the film follows the frustrations and roadblocks females face in her day to day existence, much less in running for public office.  If the man in a Saudi woman's life is not supportive of her dreams, he has the right to reject her desires - because every Saudi woman has the legal status of a child her entire life, and every decision about her life ultimately rests with her legal male guardian.  

I highly recommend watching this film if you are interested in how things work (or don’t work) in Saudi Arabia.  Great job by Mona El-Nagger, an Egyptian journalist who has been covering the Middle East for ten years. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"You're Lucky You Are Cute!"

"You’re lucky you are cute.  If you weren't, you wouldn't be sitting here next to me." I can't tell you how many times my husband has said that to me over the years.  While I feel like he is mostly joking, deep down I can't help but think that there must be some truth to it.  Lucky for me, he still thinks I am cute at age 65.  Lucky for me, he likes chubby women!  I've even asked him, "What if I were grotesquely disfigured in some kind of freak accident or a fire?" He says that it would be a deal breaker for him - and again, I feel like he is joking, but I certainly hope I never have to find out.  

The thing is that many, if not most, Saudi men probably feel this same way.  

I remember back almost 40 years ago when I first met my husband at university and I was getting to know him and his friends.  I would ask them a lot of questions about their culture, religion, education, views on life, and their thoughts about women.  I can recall asking several of his friends what qualities were they looking for in a wife? Every single one of them answered, "She must be beautiful."  

Surprisingly there weren't any other real attributes they were looking for in a woman. Personality didn't matter.  Intelligence didn't matter.  Neither did kindness, character, or even if she was an all-out bitch.  Physical beauty was the number one most important asset these Saudi men wanted in a woman.  Interestingly enough, the Koran is quite explicit about what type of woman a man should seek out when searching for a mate – and it’s not physical attractiveness.  Devotion to her religion is the quality that the Koran says a man should look for.

I know this makes my husband and other Saudi men sound like they are extremely superficial, and in this area, maybe they are.  But one needs to understand certain realities about the Saudi culture.  Extreme gender segregation is enforced from the onset of puberty.  Dating is not allowed.  And not only is it unacceptable to mix socially with the opposite sex, but it is also against the law - and one can be imprisoned or even lashed for being alone with a non-relative of the opposite sex.  Realizing these things, it’s easier to understand why physical beauty is so important to Saudi men.  In very conservative and traditional families, a couple may only meet face to face once prior to marriage, so first impressions are very important - and let's face it, in this situation looks matter.  

Some of my friends have told me about their relationships with their Saudi husbands.  Some of them are constantly belittled by their husbands about their weight or their cooking. Several of my friends have had weight loss surgery and some have had cosmetic surgery.  Some of them are persistently threatened with the very real possibility of their husbands taking a second wife, and several have even had to endure the pain when he actually went through with it.  Still others have been physically abused by their mates, while some are pressured to change themselves to be more to his liking.  I have always figured that my husband chose me because of who I am, not because of what he wanted to change me into.

Every morning at breakfast over our coffee, my husband looks at me across the table, with my disheveled hair and puffy eyes, and he tells me how beautiful I look.  And throughout the day when I least expect it, he repeats it again, and again.  I know I am lucky that he still sees me as that pretty young thing he first laid eyes on so long ago.  Even when I make him upset or do something mischievous, he still sloughs it off and says, “You’re lucky you’re cute!”  We rarely fight or get upset with one another.  Our marriage is an easy going one of mutual respect and lots of love.  He makes me laugh.  He makes me happy.  He makes me feel special - and beautiful.

I can only wonder how I got so lucky.  

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Flash Mob, Saudi Style

This video was produced by a large supermarket chain in Saudi Arabia called HyperPanda in honor of Saudi National Day which is celebrated on September 23rd.  Enjoy!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Waad Academy

Waad Academy just opened its doors this past fall to welcome students.  I recently had the chance to tour this impressive state of the art facility located in the Obhur area of the city.  

This new school offers a brand new concept in education here in Jeddah, focusing on turning out well-rounded individuals by feeding the mind, heart and body.  So in addition to academic achievement, Waad’s philosophy incorporates spiritual and physical well-being as well. 

This academy has succeeded in creating a nurturing learning environment, using modern technology, creative designs, and delicious colors which sets it apart from other local schools.  

The main building houses the administrative team, the beautiful and spacious auditorium which accommodates 1000, and the cheerful lunchroom. 
Shooting off from the main building are brilliantly designed wings which provide separate boys and girls campuses, which will eventually serve students from KG2 through Grade 8.  
There is also a beautiful modern library – which is "oh-so-much-more" than just a library.  
One unique and creative feature of the school are its mega slides, which certainly help to make learning more fun at the academy.  
The school's sporting and recreation facilities are extraordinary, including themed outdoor play areas, gymnasiums offering an assortment of indoor activities and sports, basketball and tennis courts, plus a soccer field, running tracks, swimming pool, and a rock climbing wall.
A host of extracurricular activities and a wide variety of after-school programs are also available to students.  There is even a wonderful nursery on site for the children of teachers and administrators.
Waad Academy encourages the involvement of parents in the child’s education and progress and also invites the entire community to participate in planned social and sporting events.    
The attention to detail makes it obvious that years of thought and planning went into the making of this institution.   The future of education in Saudi Arabia is here and now at Waad Academy. 

To learn more about Waad Academy, CLICK HERE.  

Sunday, April 10, 2016

My Favorite Photo from 2015

I was challenged to choose my favorite photo from last year and write a blog post about it when I came across a website called Social Print Studio and saw some of their favorite photos from 2015.   Social Print Studio is a San Franscisco-based company that creates really cool metal prints and photo books.

I take well over a thousand photos each month - some months I take 3000-5000 photos if I have visited somewhere special - so picking a favorite wasn't an easy task at all.  But I like this epic photo that I chose as my favorite so much that it also graces my photo blog as its header.

My favorite photo from 2015 is one that my husband actually took of me with several young Saudi women at the huge IECHE Education Fair that was held in Saudi Arabia's capital city of Riyadh in April 2015.  This annual fair is attended by thousands of Saudi students and their parents who are searching for the right institution of higher education for their child's chosen field.  The CPVPV (Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a.k.a. Saudi Arabia's religious police) even has a large booth at the event, trying to recruit new trainees.  The event is open to all and is free.  Hundreds of universities and technical schools from all over the world are represented, trying to attract students to their programs.  It is quite an impressive event.

Because of my ready smile, rosy complexion and light hair, I am frequently asked by total strangers here in Saudi Arabia to pose for photos with them.  These young ladies approached me at our booth and asked me if I would mind having my picture taken with them.  Of course I obliged!

Even though the quality of this photo could be a little better, what I love about this photo is that it dispels the notion that Saudi women are oppressed or unapproachable and it shows how really normal they are.

They just dress differently - that's all!

I love how you can actually see their eyes smiling even though you can't see their smiles underneath their veils.

I love that the one young woman is taking a selfie of us - such a typical and normal thing that most people do around the world now, yet it's something that outsiders may not ever imagine Saudi women would do because of the unfortunate misconceptions about them.

I love that these veiled women were as interested in me as I was in them.

I love that they all hugged me afterwards before they went on their way, leaving me with a warm fuzzy feeling that many people may never experience because their hearts and minds are not open to it.

I chose this photo because I love the feelings I get when I see it and how it gives me hope that one day we can all live together in peace and understanding and that we can accept and appreciate one another, differences and all.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Pesticide Deaths in KSA: "It's Allah's Will..."

One day when we left our apartment shortly after to moving to Saudi Arabia, we were engulfed by a thick misty smoke-like fog.  I suddenly couldn't breathe.  I quickly covered my mouth and nose with my scarf.  My husband was furious as he knew all too well what it was.  A resident of the building we lived in had likely called the city or some extermination company to spray for annoying insects and pests. 

On any given day, many parts of the city of Jeddah are consumed with a dense and dangerous haze of insecticides that can send people to the hospital with respiratory problems or worse.  People have reported that some places are fogged with pesticides twice a day (morning and night), others twice a week, and some maybe only twice a year.  

Municipalities in many areas of Saudi Arabia routinely spray insecticides most often without warning.  Entire blocks will suddenly become engulfed in toxic mists of poisonous fumes.  Many people have ended up in the emergency rooms of local hospitals.  A friend of mine recently reported that her entire family fell ill when the Baladiya (municipality) switched from its usual type of insecticide to a different stronger one used to control mosquitoes.  Fortunately the family sought treatment at a hospital emergency room and they are all okay, but others haven't been so lucky.   

Even though there are bans in Saudi Arabia on certain types of pesticides which contain toxic chemicals, in particular aluminum phosphide, products containing it can still be purchased or brought into the country fairly easily.  These particular products are not intended for personal or home use and are frequently sold to untrained civilians who improperly use it inside homes with often times deadly results - and all too often small children are the victims.  

Apparently when humidity or moisture makes contact with aluminum phosphide, a dangerous gas called phosphine is produced.  Symptoms of phosphine poisoning can include difficulty in breathing, dizziness, headache, numbness, lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea.  Just a few hours of exposure to the toxic gas can result in death within 24 hours.   

I remember reading about the tragic deaths in February 2009 of two young Danish children living in a compound here in Jeddah after inhaling the toxic fumes of an industrial grade pesticide while they slept.  There have been many other similar tragedies.  During a period of about one year and a half between late 2007 to early 2009, more than a dozen deaths occurred in Saudi Arabia, mostly children, from deadly insecticide poisoning.  Two Ethiopian boys died in January 2009.  Two Saudi children in September 2008.  A Filipino woman in October 2007.  An Afghani teenage girl in Jeddah in March 2014.  Three Pakistani children in Madinah in September 2008.  Two Egyptiangirls in August 2007.  An entire Pakistani family of six living in Riyadh died at the hands of their careless upstairs neighbor in July 2007 when he poured toxic pesticide down his drain, poisoning and killing the whole family below.  Countless more have been hospitalized over the years - and it continues to this day.  

The problem of the misuse of aluminum phosphide / phosphine gas is so alarming that a film documentary called “Phosphine” was produced in 2014 with the cooperation of Saudi public health authorities in an attempt to educate the public of the dangers of using this lethal type of toxic substance. I have embedded the film here for you below.  It is in Arabic but with English subtitles. It has been viewed almost 5 million times.  Hopefully it will reach enough people to make a difference so these unnecessary tragedies will be avoided. 

One of the most disturbing themes of the documentary was how the families of the victims were dismissed so easily with the logic that it was God's will that their loved ones died.  This lack of taking responsibility is the prevalent attitude toward death in Saudi Arabia and justifies careless unnecessary deaths when taking small preventative measures would have saved lives.  For example, most people here still do not use seat belts and don't use car seats for babies.  Instead, mamas continue to hold babies in their arms in the front passenger seat and when there is an accident and baby dies because it became a human projectile crashing through the windshield, they say it was God's will.

I realize there are health concerns, what with dengue fever and the Zika virus, and this is why the municipality regularly sprays as a preventative measure, however shouldn’t the public be made aware of what type of chemicals are being used and given proper warnings prior?  Some people have reported their animals dying as a result of spraying.  Simple activities like walking or jogging must be curtailed due to these trucks coming around and spraying.  People can literally taste it in the air!  Some have been suddenly enveloped in the smoky fog while walking to the grocery store.  What are the dangers, the neurological effects, and other health risks after repeated exposure to these chemicals?  Don’t we citizens have a right to know?


Read more about this subject:

Two detained over Basateen poisoning

2 Danish kids die in incident at compound

Afghan girl dies in pesticide poisoning; four hospitalized - March 2014

Editorial 2009 - Pesticide Deaths

Insecticide Kills Again 

Silent killer: Saudi YouTube film "Phosphine" gains over 3.5 million views

Monday, March 14, 2016

Yanbu Flower Festival 2016

The 10th Annual Yanbu Flowers and Gardens Festival is in full swing and is scheduled to end next weekend, unless it is extended as it has been in years past. 
The entrance reminds me of Universal Studios or Epcot Center, with a big globe of flowers with 
"Flower Festival" written around it.
A couple of years ago in 2014, the festival established a new record for the world's largest flower carpet in the world, using millions of colorful blossoms in the process to achieve it. 
Yanbu is just a three hour drive north from Jeddah, so it's easy to make a weekend trip out of it.  
Some visitors manage to do it in one day up and back. 
The festival attracts thousands of visitors every year.  It is well planned and well executed.  
There are sections for food, souvenirs, a recycling exhibit, a mosque, and a play area for children.  
The carpet of flowers area is simply amazing to behold.  
It's hard to believe something like this exists in the desert of Saudi Arabia.  
The above photo shows a display in the recycling exhibit.  Grade-school children participated in making creative recycled art or repurposed useful items.  There is also beautiful recycled garden art and other things like planters and furniture. 
Souvenirs from Holland are available for sale, including live plantings or grow your own gardens.  
One can climb stairways up to several small rolling hills that are covered in flowers and topped with beautiful gazebos.
 The floral display are creative and include hanging plants and water fountains. 
The event can be enjoyed by all - men, women, and children.  
Kudos to the municipality of Yanbu for a job well done, and specifically to the Royal Commission for Yanbu at the Events Garden in Yanbu Industrial City.
Can you believe that this event is free to the public?
Yanbu itself is a wonderful city along the Red Sea and worth visiting. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Metaphorically speaking, if any group of people in the world epitomizes the West African proverb "Speak softly and carry a big stick," which was popularized by Teddy Roosevelt, it is the women of the GCC countries.

If you have any doubt about the power, the resourcefulness, the drive, or the motivation of Middle Eastern women, then you must watch this video.  It is truly awe-inspiring and quashes any doubts about the quiet strength and determination of Arab women.

Focusing on being positive, the importance of education, and achieving one's goals and dreams, WEORITU is an independent youth initiative promoting female empowerment in the Middle East.  The above video called #WECANDOIT is one of their first projects.

There are plans in 2016 to release the full interviews of the women who participated in the above video, relating their inspiring stories about their achievements and challenges they overcame to make their marks on the world.  

Another undertaking of the group is a photography exhibit called the Inside Out Project, featuring portraits of over 70 amazing Arab women who are making a difference in their communities and setting great examples for the younger generation.  The photo project is part of a world wide art challenge spawned from French artist JR who explains the Inside Out Project in this interesting and inspiring TED Talk, whose mission is to change the world through art.  After watching the video, I can see that he is well on his way to achieving his goal. 

Photo from

In 2014 the group also produced the video #HAPPYQ8 - which features the upbeat world phenomenon song by Pharrell Williams.  

With all the negativity in the world today, I really appreciate this group of motivated young people and their efforts to spread positivity.  If you are in the position where you can contribute monetarily to assist in their mission, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Current Art Exhibitions Now in Jeddah

Now through February 9th, there are a couple of art events that are open to the public going on for those of you in Jeddah.  I hope that you are able to attend these two exhibitions, which are open each evening from 5:00pm-10:00pm.  Both venues are fairly close to each other off of Tahlia Street, so it is possible to go to both events in one evening.

Artwork on display at Al Khayyat Center for Fine Art (Photo by Vicki Callagan)

The first event called "Art for All and All for Art" is being held at the beautiful and ritzy Al Khayyat Center, which houses such famous upscale designers like Dolce & Gabbana, Etoile, Fendi, Tom Ford, Stella McCartney, Roberto Cavalli, Christian Louboutin, Versace, Valentino, Tory Burch, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, Armani, and many more.  This place is the Rodeo Drive of Jeddah.   Enter through the "Main Entrance" for the event (across from Louboutin) and take the elevator up to the 3rd floor. 

Here you will be treated to a variety of artworks by an array of amazing artists - sculptures, paintings, collages, photographs, Anime, live demonstrations, and more.  Many of the artists are on hand to talk to about their art.  There are even two incredible Dali sculptures on display.  Interesting and graceful bronze and wooden sculptures by Bahraini artist Fuad Ali Albinfalah are definitely worth a look.

A stylized Dali sculpture of an elephant at Al Khayyat Center
One of the exhibits on display at the Al Khayyat Center is called "Western Women's Journeys in Saudi Arabia" by photographer Abeer Bajandouh, which features photographs and and book of interviews with twelve Western women who are living in Saudi Arabia. And I am one of them! 

I am in front of photo of me holding my US Passport and holding a copy of the book (photo by Vicki Callagan)
The second event is being held nearby at the lovely Saudi Center for Fine Art (, which is located directly behind Noujoud Center from Tahlia Street.  They are closed Friday, but also open in mornings.  Nojoud Center houses Wojooh, Cortefiel, Mango, Adidas, H&M, and other shops.  This exhibition features the works of two artists, Tamara Jones and Awad Abu Salah.  Tamara is an American artist and a personal friend of mine who has been living in Saudi Arabia for the last four years.  She paints and also does amazing digital photography which reflects nature and has a very earthy quality to it.

Artist Tamara Jones in front of two of her paintings on exhibit at Saudi Center for Fine Art

I highly recommend if you are in Jeddah to make the effort to attend these two wonderful exhibitions, running now through February 9th. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Gender Segregation is Insulting!

Few things about life here in Saudi Arabia get me all riled up like the extreme gender segregation does.  It is one of the things that I dislike the most and one of the things that I feel does WAY more harm than good.

In my opinion, gender segregation is largely responsible for many of this country's social problems.  Gender segregation stunts healthy emotional growth.  The high divorce rate can be cited as a problem partially caused by gender segregation.  At puberty young boys and girls are suddenly separated socially from each other and there is no interaction with the opposite sex.  As a result many young people who marry do not know how to communicate, act or behave around the opposite sex.

Photo Credit:

Many young Saudi men are often accused of harassing women - and it's directly due to the way this society is set up with severe gender segregation, plus the lack of accountability for men and their actions.  Instead, this society usually chooses to put the blame on women by punishing them for men not being able to control themselves around fitna-inducing temptresses.

At the university level, young female students often fantasize, become obsessed with, and even fall in love with male professors who conduct classes for women from a remote location via closed circuit television.  I’ve heard many stories about how female students frequently pursue these male professors, who are often married, much older, and not even particularly attractive.

And now the latest issue regarding gender segregation has come about involving two women who were elected to the municipal council in Jeddah.  These women were elected to their positions, just like the men on the council were.  Yet there is an anti-women crusade going on to prevent these women from taking their rightful positions on the council alongside their male colleagues.  

This faction is trying to preclude these duly elected female officials from participating effectively on the council, marginalizing the women by forcing them to sit outside the council chambers, like children who are being punished, instead of full-fledged elected members of the board. 
Seriously? Women in Saudi Arabia achieved a major milestone when they were allowed to vote and run for public office for the first time in their lives in December 2015 - a HUGE step forward for Saudi women.  But now others are trying to prevent them from effectively carrying out their duties.  Gender segregation carried to such an extreme like this is not only insulting to the women, it is extremely insulting to the men on the council who are being perceived as incapable of being trusted or of controlling themselves around a couple of female colleagues and incapable of seeing women as anything other than sexual objects. 

To make matters worse and to exemplify the severity of this extreme gender segregation, the two councilwomen, Lama Al-Suleiman and Rasha Hefzi, have now received death threats for attempting to take their rightful place at the meetings.  Fortunately there has been support for the women from the community, but there are some who oppose them.  
Don’t miss these two articulate opinion pieces recently written by a couple of Saudi women about this very subject:

“Saudi Women’s Work and Challenges in the Council Just Starting” by Maha Akeel

“Women’s Empowerment” by Nabeela Husni Mahjoub

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"The Spirit of Jeddah" 2016

I am happy to share with you this video produced by the US Consulate General of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  The under five minute video features clips from the city's recently held historical festival "Kunna Kida," which translates to "We were like this" in Arabic and captures the flavor of the festival.  The festival was held in Al Balad, the oldest sector of the city, which began as a small fishing village more than 1400 years ago.

In this delightful video, Jeddawis are on hand to share information about their ancient city, their fascinating culture, and their lives here in Jeddah.  Their spirit shines through and really gives the viewer a true impression of the pride and love these people have for their beloved city.

The narrative is all in Arabic, so for English subtitles, be sure to click on the "CC" option below the video in the lower right of the screen.

Be sure to subscribe to the US Consulate General Jeddah YouTube Channel to keep abreast of their future offerings.  Enjoy!


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Scenes from 2016 Jeddah Historical Festival

The 3rd annual KUNNA KIDA, Arabic for "We were like this," just concluded its ten day run in Jeddah's oldest district, the historic area called Al Balad, which in 2014 was named a UNESECO World Heritage site.  I had a fabulous time the evening I went with a group of about ten friends and two guides (thank you and shout out to Abid and Rawan!).  The historical festival celebrates the history, culture, traditions, and arts of this region.  What was incredible to witness is the joy, the pride, the efforts, and the genuine warmth of the Saudi people who bring this festive event to life and those in attendance whose excitement was palpable.

As soon as we stepped inside the gates, we were transported back in time to a much older Jeddah.  We were greeted and welcomed by joyous Saudi men in traditional clothing who sang and danced for us as we entered.  It was a great kick off to a well planned and executed festival.  There were many booths offering homemade handicrafts available for purchase, refreshments, artifacts on display, and re-enactments depicting various aspects of life in Jeddah from the 1930s - before the oil industry changed the country forever and when Jeddah was just a small fishing village on the Red Sea totally surrounded by high stone walls on all sides. 

Thousands of families attended, many coming from other areas of the country as schools were out of session for a winter break.  Little girls dressed in colorful traditional dresses and wore on their heads the cap-like golden coin ornamental headpieces worn for special occasions. 

It was amazing to see the large variety of handicrafts made by Saudi women.  Among other things, there was even an operetta that was scheduled to be performed for the event - unfortunately I missed it.

The colorful lighting enhanced the beauty of the old buildings as the crowds busily made their way through the narrow streets and walkways.   Some structures were erected specially for the festival and will remain up for about six months before being removed.  I could see many changes in the Al Balad area, including new souvenirs shops and a new library.  Jeddah Our Days of Bliss has been very active in working with the government to rejuvenate the old historic area of the city - and they are doing quite an impressive job.   The Bliss team has also worked as consultants with the festival organizers.   

At the new Jeddah Bliss Library in Al Balad, which was recently opened by Mr. Mansour Al Zamil, I was fortunate to be able to attend a book signing by a female Saudi author and to hear the beautiful singing of a young Saudi man.  Pictured above is Saudi author Maha Oboud Baeshen, signing copies of her book, Our Days of Bliss.  Her novel relays the stories about students who study abroad and return to Jeddah, attending the festival with a different perspective and appreciation for their heritage. It is only available in Arabic at this time.

I also received a copy of the book, The Syrian Jewelry Box by Carina Sue Burns, a world traveler who spent her formative years living in Saudi Arabia. 

The historical re-enactments were amusing, varying from a strict male teacher who demonstrated how boys used to be punished back in the day for misbehaving in school to a slave trader to how mail and ice used to be delivered. 

To see more photos from this year's event, below is my SlideShow about the JEDDAH HISTORICAL FESTIVAL 2016.


Thursday, January 7, 2016

New Yorker Magazine Article: "Sisters-in-Law "

The following is an article which appears in the latest issue (Jan. 11, 2016) of New Yorker Magazine, written by Katherine Zoepf. 

"Sisters in Law"

Saudi women are beginning to know their rights.

The guardianship system gives a woman a legal status resembling that of a minor. Credit Illustration by Eiko Ojala

In September, 2014, Mohra Ferak, twenty-two years old and in her final year at Dar Al-Hekma University, in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, was asked for advice by a woman who had heard that she was studying law. The woman was the principal of a primary school for girls, and she told Ferak that she had grown frustrated by her inability to help children in her charge who had been raped; over the years, there had been many such cases among her students. Regardless of whether the perpetrator was a relative or the family driver, the victim’s parents invariably declined to press charges. A Saudi family’s honor rests, to a considerable degree, on its ability to protect the virginity of its daughters. Parents, fearing ruined marriage prospects, chose silence, which meant that men who had raped girls as young as eight went unpunished, and might act again. And for some of the girls, the principal added, the secrecy only amplified the trauma. She asked Ferak if there was anything that she, as principal, could do to help them.

“I told her, ‘You can go to court and ask the judge to make the proceedings private and save the girl’s reputation,’ ” Ferak recalled one recent afternoon. We were sitting in a modish Lebanese restaurant near the Jeddah corniche, sharing plates of tricornered spinach pastries and stuffed grape leaves across a black butcher-block table. The call to afternoon prayer had sounded several minutes earlier, and the restaurant, in accordance with law, had locked its doors and dimmed the lights. The “family section”—the secluded area for women that restaurants serving both genders must provide, where female diners who cover their faces can eat comfortably—was quiet. Except for a waiter, we had the place to ourselves. Ferak is slight, with a lilting voice and a round, bespectacled face framed by a tightly wound black shayla. Head scarves, which Saudi women typically wear unfastened, have a way of slipping off, and Ferak fidgeted with hers as she described her conversation with the principal, repeatedly tugging it back down into its proper position.

The principal was amazed to learn that Saudi plaintiffs can request closed court proceedings. She began peppering Ferak with legal questions, many of them about how to advise teachers who were in abusive marriages, or whose ex-husbands wouldn’t allow their children to visit. The principal was in her early fifties, which meant that, as a school administrator, she was among the best-educated Saudi women of her generation. Well into the nineteen-eighties, according to UNESCO, fewer than half of Saudi girls between the ages of six and eleven had received any education outside the home. But, Ferak said, it quickly became clear that the woman knew little about the fundamental principles of Saudi law.