Updated: Sep 2, 2021
I was privileged to be born and raised in Saudi Arabia.
Yes, I was privileged to be born and raised in Saudi Arabia. A country that spends 8.8 % of its GDP on education, compared with the global average of 4.6%. A country that offered me a full scholarship to pursuit education at world-class university in Canada.
Privileged on one hand, and considered a second-class citizen on the other.
As I couldn’t come to Canada if it wasn’t for a piece of paper. This piece of paper is the permission from my father to go study abroad.
Because of the Male Guardian System, Saudi women were legally at the mercy of needing permission from their father, husband, brother or even son to pursue education, travel, obtaining a passport, or credit card. As a woman, I was to be treated as a minor for the entirety of my life.
Back to this piece of paper. I feel conflicted over the dichotomy of it. This piece of paper represents oppression and empowerment. I was an adult. I was 24 years old. But I needed permission. My dad signed it, in a place where not all men are willing to do the same. He empowered me. This piece of paper granted me freedom but it is also a reminder that I wasn’t free.
And even though I'm in Canada now, and this system in Saudi has lost much of its legal power, my body still carries the physiological signature of "needing permission". Here I am in Canada, and I still catch myself needing permission. A tap on the shoulder. An approval from someone to go do something I deeply desire to do. A guarantee that I'd still be loved and accepted even if I said or did "the wrong thing". A Permission be myself.
In 2013, I was amongst 49,176 female Saudis studying abroad.
A lot of people ask me why I chose Canada. I love lists, so I made pros and cons comparing Canada, Australia and the UK. Based on the weather, the quality of education, and the people. I found out that Canadians are so nice and they apologize way too often. They have great universities, and it snows a lot. So, Canada it is! I really wanted to go to Montréal, but I thought to myself... maybe going from +40° to -40° is not a great idea. So, I chose BC.
I lived in Vancouver for a year, still in my full Islamic cover, only showing my face and hands. And there I was, watching the “Lost West” waste their lives without worshiping God. I felt privileged to be knowing of God. I felt superior. And I felt sorry for the women who wore shorts and tank tops, showing so much skin. While the men wore more clothes and covered more skin. With some judgment... well... with a lot of judgment, I observed how those "poor souls" are products of their environments. On some level, I knew that they felt sorry for me, that I was fully covered up. But back then, I didn’t know that I, too, was a product of my environment. We do that all the time, we judge people and we project - it’s much easier, but we never look in.
One of the first books I read in Canada was Female Chauvinist Pigs: about the Rise of Raunch Culture. The author critiques the highly sexualized American culture in which women are objectified, objectify one another, and are encouraged to objectify themselves. (Yes, of course, I was reading what already confirmed some of my beliefs.) There was a chapter dedicated to a Playboy playmate who converted to Islam. I read her words about how the Islamic cover made her feel powerful, secure and protected. I continued to read in awe. I could feel the sincerity of every single word and emotion she was using. Yet, I found myself feeling empty, desiring to feel how she was feeling. I recognized every word she used, every feeling she described, they were all taught to me, but I didn't feel them in my body for myself. I was taught to feel that way about the hijab, but I didn't feel it for myself.
I realized that a lot of emotions and a sense of security were given to me. That even though I was covered up, I was still cat-called, even though I was "a good Muslim woman", I still suffered from injustices inflicted on my body.
I found myself in a place where I questioned the religious teachings. And a part of me felt curious to free myself from that, free myself of what's not mine, free myself from all the social conditioning. Was it really my choice when I cried in third grade asking my mom to get me the Islamic cover? Or was I just a kid, wanting to copy what all the adults were doing.
August 2014, I moved to Kelowna. And I had already decided to stop doing something I did for a long time. I decided to take off the Hijab for a year. To ease into it, I wore a hat to cover my hair instead and showed a sliver of hair. I knew that I was going to take it off, but I was waiting for it to feel right in my body.
On FROSH Night, the annual beginning-of-the-year concert on campus, where many students lose their virginity, others get “shit-faced” for the first time, I, on the other hand, stood in a circle of girlfriends away from the crowds and lights, and I slipped down the hat. I showed my hair for the first time for few minutes in the darkness of the night as if it represented "the darkness" of my action.
A couple of weeks later, on the morning of a late September day, I took it off. As I walked across campus to my lecture, I felt the brisk fall breeze blowing through my hair, as it bounced with every sinful step I was taking. At that moment, I thought everybody was watching me, everybody knew what I was doing. But nobody looked, nobody noticed, nobody cared.
I was taught that I needed to cover up not only to protect myself, but to not cause a man to go astray, to sin, to end up in "Hell" because of me, and MY lack of decency.
I felt free.
Free from the hijab.
Free from what the hijab "stands for".
Free from the burden that I'm not responsible for other people and their actions.