It’s easy to mock Saudi lifestyle from the outside. My hunt for signs of dissent in Saudi Arabia bore mixed results

Saudi Arabia was recently the butt of much ridicule on social networking sites after news spread that its government-authorised religious police (the mutaween, colloquially called hay’ah) forced shut an educational exhibit of dinosaur models. From what I gather, the reason for this is as unknown today as it was when it happened last month. Users of Reddit and Twitter wasted no time, and before you knew it, there was a deluge of wisecracks (nicely summarized in this The Economist article) at the Saudi authorities’ expense. While one suggested that perhaps the female dinosaur was caught without a male guardian, another asked people not to jump to conclusions before it is confirmed what the dinosaurs were wearing.

The state of affairs

It’s difficult to feel sorry for a bunch of men who get paid to walk around malls, pointing out to women if a lock of hair has slipped out of their headscarves , making sure the man they’re with is their husband or father, telling you to go pray if its prayer time, or depriving kids of some dino-related fun. Thankfully, during the five-and-a-half years I spent in the country, I was too young to have experienced any Hay’ah-related trauma. If I had stayed back beyond grade six, I too would have had to wear an abayah like my mother did. I doubt I would have bothered to rebel, not that rebelling is an option at all in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is one of the few remaining absolute monarchies. This means that King Abdullah has ultimate powers as the head of the state unbound by a constitution or law. The royal family, known as the House of Saud, has ruled the country for centuries. Saudi Arabia has the second-largest oil reserves in the world (after Venezuela), so to put it plainly, the country is pretty darn rich. Unfortunately, it is also famously known for being a pretty awful place for a woman to live in. Saudi women can’t drive, couldn’t vote until a recent announcement, and didn’t even have ID cards until recently.

My point is, it’s pretty easy to hate Saudi Arabia from the outside. What about the people inside? I was curious to know if there were Saudi bloggers around from whom I could get a sense of what it’s really like. How relieved should I really be that I’m not a woman in Saudi Arabia?

Searching for dissent

As you may expect, it’s not that easy to be an frank blogger in Saudi Arabia. A French NGO called Reporters Without Borders ranked Saudi Arabia 161th out of 173 countries for freedom of press. Internet traffic is highly monitored, and websites blocked on and off. Wikipedia and Google Translate were blocked in 2006 (I’m not sure if they still are), and in 2011, the government made it mandatory for bloggers to have a ‘blogging license’. Only high school graduates who are at least 20 years old can apply for the license, assuming they can arrange ‘documents testifying to their good behaviour’ of course. Despite this, about 12% of the population (amounting to 3 million users) is estimated to be on Twitter and 6 million on Facebook.

He-who-nobody-knows

Still, the internet is a wondrous thing, and it’s not that difficult to google up stray rebel blogger who has managed to worm his way through the restrictions, or one who doesn’t live in Saudi anymore. One of them calls himself ‘The Religious Policeman’ (ironically, of course). I found out that this guy, who claims to be a Saudi Arabian man, is pretty famous, though nobody still knows who he is. He started blogging in 2004, stopped a couple of times for suspected security reasons, and started blogging again after moving to London. He wrote his last blog entry in 2006, with an announcement that he was working on a book. Whether he did, whether it’s in bookshops right now, whether we’ve already read it, we’ll never know I guess, since we have no idea who he is.

TRP is pretty critical of the Saudi government, to put it mildly. But from my random scanning of his entries, all his opinions have been based in solid facts. The blog must have been, and still is, of great value as a bulletin board of the going-ons in the country. The basis of the blog’s founding itself is stated to be a despicable incident that occurred in 2002. Fifteen school girls died in a fire in a school in Mecca because the religious police did not let them escape the blazing building. Why? Because they weren’t wearing the ‘correct Islamic dress’.

The one that got away

Another popular blog, this one still being updated, is called Saudi jeans. Saudi Jeans is a blog by a Saudi national Ahmed Al Omran who went on to study journalism in Columbia University and now works at NPR. Like TRP, this blogger too doesn’t mince his words when it comes to freedom of expression and human rights issues in his native country. But in contrast to TPR, Al Omran sounds like he genuinely believes things could be slowly changing.

Women on the web

I tried my best to look for female bloggers in Saudi and that proved pretty difficult. One, called Stilettos in the Sand, is by a pissed off American woman who had to move to Saudi Arabia with her husband. Some of her blog posts like this one give a pretty interesting insight into what day-to-day life is like there. I know she’s not kidding because its happened to me too. My mother once bought a Madonna cassette – it was her Ray of Light album. Seven-year-old me was fascinated by the black marker pen scribblings on Madonna’s chest. She was wearing a translucent black top, and the Saudis were nice enough to cover her up with a marker pen.

I’m not holding my breath till I find a Saudi national woman’s blog. A Friendly Arab's YouTube channel was the closest I could get. Jana boosted my spirits and I decided to leave my search at that, for now.

Meanwhile, if you’re curious about why some feel Saudi may be changing for the better, this BBC documentary (starring one of Saudi’s princes) may help.

(Nandita Jayaraj writes about her encounters with the strange and interesting. You can write to her with feedback, or requests for limericks at nandita.j@thehindu.co.in. You can also tweet her @nandita_j )