In Ways Big And Small, Saudi Arabian Women Are 'Pushing Normal' | KUOW News and Information

In Ways Big And Small, Saudi Arabian Women Are 'Pushing Normal'

Dec 30, 2015
Originally published on January 3, 2016 11:12 pm

I first saw Saudi Arabian women "pushing normal" before I knew this concept had a name. I was walking down Tahlia Street in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. It's a trendy weekend hangout spot, a strip of fast food burger and brand name coffee shops popular with young Saudi men.

It was striking to see three young women stride down this all-male domain defying the kingdom's conservative social codes enforced by the religious police and the judgments of family and neighbors.

"But if we listen to them, stay home, and not enjoy our lives, it's going to be like this forever," says Sadeem, age 17. Her friends, Amira, 18, and Yasmin, 16, nod in agreement, though none reveal their last names.

It's risky, they acknowledge, in a country that prohibits men and women mixing in public. Still, these high school students insist that Saudi Arabia is changing fast.

"For example, we are out here right now," says Sadeem. "A few years ago that would be impossible. There is no way that a girl our age could walk around and have a normal life. "

They are making a point in this nighttime walk.

"Yes, basically," says Yasmin. It is "pushing normal" for this trio of rebellious teenage girls. When I ask if their parents know they are out there, they give a nervous laugh.

"They would say, 'You are ruining your reputation,'" says Amira. "But it's so not important. We are just walking on the street."

Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive places to be female. Yet, there are successful female executives, engineers and even a female executive editor of a major Saudi newspaper.

Still, because of an official ban, none of them can drive to work. These are just some of the contradictions in a notoriously conservative society, where women are pushing the boundaries, especially among the young.

"It's a cultural clash that our generation is experiencing," says Raneen Farid Bukhari, 28, who organizes a yearly art show in Jeddah, on the coast of the Red Sea. She points to the boom in social media in the kingdom that has opened the door to the wider world and spurred a social revolution among a wired generation.

"With social media, and with TV and with movies, the more and more you watch, the more you're like, 'Why isn't my life that way, it's freer, you know.'"

Bukhari is the co-founder of "LoudArt," an annual cultural event that encourages young Saudi artists. They visualize controversial themes such as gender issues, freedom and an identity crisis, says Bukhari, "between what is labeled as Western and trying to be traditional and Islamic."

For Bukhari, "pushing normal" is an art show where Saudis, men and women, mix to look at art and discuss ideas.

The art is quirky and sometimes funny. In one print, a fully veiled woman embraces a package of McDonald's fries. As the mixed crowd walks through the gallery, one young man plays live music. He is sitting next to a toy model of Darth Vader. The artistic themes are serious, too, about the anxiety of change and the pace. Too slow for some, says Bukhari.

"Small things, like walking on the streets, or having art shows, these are things we can do," she says. "We want to make things normal. It's something that's normal in other places."

It's a challenge to Saudi Arabia's traditional culture, she says, a challenge coming from international culture that arrives on social media as well as the thousands of Saudis who are now educated abroad, many in the West, who want to bring some of that lifestyle home.

A walk on the street is progress, so is an art show now in its fourth years. It's all "pushing normal," says Bukhari, and there are more challenges ahead.

"My friend rides a bike, but she does it at 4 or 5 in the morning and she dresses like a boy," says Bukhari, "and she does it because she wants to ride a bike. So, we just want it to be normal. That's it."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to learn about a phrase some women in Saudi Arabia have embraced - pushing normal. Those two words have strong meaning in a country where women face far-reaching restrictions, including a ban on driving. NPR's Deborah Amos begins this story from the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I first saw pushing normal before I knew it had a name. I was walking down Tahlia Street. It's a strip of fast food, burger and brand-name coffee shops, a trendy hangout in Riyadh popular with young men on weekends. It was striking to see three young Saudi women stride along this all-male domain.

Can I find out your name?

SADEEM: Sadeem.

AMOS: Sadeem.

SADEEM: Yeah.

AMOS: What's your last name?

SADEEM: (Laughter). I don't have to - right? - 'cause I'd rather not.

AMOS: No names because these teenage girls are defying the strict social codes of Saudi Arabia that forbids men and women from mixing in public, enforced by officers from the religious police. Still, they insist things are changing fast.

SADEEM: Well, for example, like, we're out here right now. We're walking. That - like, a few years ago, that would just be impossible. Like, there's no way a girl our age could, like, walk around and have a normal life.

AMOS: That's what they say they want - to freely take a walk down a popular street. It's pushing normal in spite warnings from their parents and religious conservatives.

So it is a little risky, what you're doing.

SADEEM: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, it is.

SADEEM: But if we, like, listen to them, stay home, not enjoy our lives, then it's going to be like this forever.

AMOS: You're making a point by being out here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, basically.

SADEEM: Yeah.

AMOS: Making a point in the coastal city of Jeddah takes the form of an annual art show. It's called LOUD - a showcase for young artists who visualize Saudi social tensions between an older, more conservative generation and young Saudi's with soaring ambitions who are wired to the world.

RANEEN BUKHARI: With social media and with TV and with movies, the more and more you watch, the more - and you're like, why isn't my life that way? It's freer, you know?

AMOS: That's 28-year-old Raneen Bukhari. She curates the show, and for her, pushing normal is an art gallery where Saudi's - men and women - mix to look at art and discuss ideas. And there's live music, too.

All that is a challenge to traditional culture, she says. Thousands of young Saudis are now educated abroad, many in the West. They want to bring the best of international culture home.

BUKHARI: It is the clash - a cultural clash that our generation is experiencing, and we're trying to overcome. And we do visualize that in art.

AMOS: The art here is quirky, sometimes funny. A fully veiled woman embraces a pack of McDonald's fries. The themes are serious, too, about the anxiety of change and the pace, says Bukhari, too slow for some.

BUKHARI: But small things like walking on the street - these are things that we can do - or having art shows. We want to make things normal. We don't want it to become a big media craze. Look what Saudi women are doing - because it's something that's normal in other places, but for us, it's so strange because we don't do it. We don't go outside.

AMOS: A walk on the street is progress. So is an art show that's now in its fourth year. It's pushing normal. But there are always other challenges, however small.

BUKHARI: My friend rides a bike, you know? But she does at 4 in the morning, at 5 in the morning. She dresses like a boy. And she does it because she wants to ride a bike. So we just want it to be normal. That's it.

AMOS: A bike-riding movement in Saudi Arabia - it's hard to imagine that these women will be deterred. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.