As children, we learned of the One Thousand and One Nights stories that Scheherazade would tell the King in an attempt to save her life. By captivating him with her delightful narratives of Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin, he would allow her to live. If she failed to enchant him, she would die.
The tale of One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of stories compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. In English, they are known as The Arabian Nights. The stories are as various as the lands they came from. They were essentially from India, Persia and Arabia and some, such as Aladdin, even from China. They contained spiritual and down to earth values. They were mostly about life in a world of tyranny complete with rulers, magicians, witches, good and bad demons, sex, violence and mystical spiritual quests.
The roles of women in these stories are particularly interesting. Many females are slaves and concubines and must obey the men they belong to. But they are full of courage. A character like Scheherazade heals the King’s distrust of women and saves the remaining virgins of her city from a certain death. Women are portrayed as faithful, faithless, magical and silly. A far cry from the western world, but strangely mesmerizing. They are much more than victims even if it is at times, their destiny.
The kings and other rulers have all the power in the narrative of the Nights and it can be truly frightening. Sovereign Shahryar is able to marry and kill a new virgin each night for as long as he pleases. He makes the rules, and no one can oppose him and survive to talk about it. This is a universe where the sovereign owns the land and the people he rules. The king can save or kill them, give away lands and their inhabitants, claim young women as his wives and concubines, in short, do whatever he pleases, while his subjects can either agree or keep silent.
For westerners, these tales were a faraway reality in a strange land full of mysticism, fear and delight. But they never came close to their own lives . They were stories from another era. Nothing to do with the modern world, right?
If we focus our attention on 2014, we find four Saudi Arabian princesses living in a gilded cage and barred from leaving their country or the compound where they live, unless they get special permission. They are the daughters of 89-year old King Abdullah and his wife Alanoud Alfayez, who became his second wife when she was a teenager. She eventually divorced him and moved to London.
According to their mother, “They have been imprisoned against their will for speaking out against their country’s treatment of women and the poor.’’
They are in their late 30s or early 40s and their names are Princesses Sahar and Jawaher, who have lived together in a crumbled villa since 2001, and Hala and Maha who reside together at another location. The two groups of sisters do not have access to each other.
Sahar and Jawaher have been allowed to tweet and this is how they have been able to share their stories with the media. Sahar has told the Daily Dot that her sisters don’t have access to Twitter.
Their mother Alanoud, who has not seen her daughters in a decade, tweets heartbreaking messages about being separated from her children. Her daughters reciprocate with feelings of resentment at being deprived of their freedom and not being able to see their mother.
To my daughters I am sorry I failed you for the second time when I speak about this tragedy I get very emotional and words vanish. Luv u
Jawaher جواهر @Jawaher1776
@AlanoudDAlfayez The only people that failed us is our father & so-called human rights orgs you my strong amazing mother have always lifted us
A glimpse of our so-called ‘gilded cage’, a stereotypical word, portraying fantasy world. We live amidst ruins.
@Navsteva The King’s complex is indeed gilded. Our house has bursting pipes, plaster chipping off, trees dying. More photos will be released
Alanoud also told Britain’s Channel 4 News that of all her daughters, she is most preoccupied with Hala who suffers from anorexia and psychological problems and is not receiving any treatment.
The Princesses did not reveal how they got access to Internet but declared that they have no passports or ID, are under house arrest with little food left for themselves and their pets. ‘’They have been literally starving us since last Wednesday. We are now living on one meal a day, leaving the little remaining meat for our pets and sipping (a) little water in this heat, to save up. Our energy is quite low and we are trying our best to survive.’’
King Abdhullah has not commented on the status of his daughters and his former wife has pleaded with President Obama to help free her four daughters from being held against their will for over a decade.
“Mr. Obama during his visit to Saudi Arabia, should take this opportunity to address the grave violations committed against my daughters,’’ said Alanoud AlFayez.
Despite small reforms, it seems that Saudi women are not treated as legal adults and when the story first came out about the four Saudi princesses allegedly imprisoned by members of their own family, the kingdom went into full damage control.
At this news, British newspapers were calling for Human Rights Watch and claiming that Saudi authorities were about to make a ‘’huge announcement’’ on women’s rights.
The Saudis were due to appear at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to address its rights record. On March 19, when they made a presentation to the UN, some reporters watched with great anticipation for the ‘big announcement’ that never came.
The president of the Saudi government’s Human Rights Commission, Dr. Bandar al-Aiban, told the Human Rights Council that his government had adopted some small positive measures in the sector of women’s rights: women will be able to vote and run in the 2015 elections and he alluded to a new law issued in 2013 to protect women from domestic violence which would be the first time in the kingdom’s history that domestic abuse would become criminalized. He declared that the kingdom is “taking steady strides to improve all walks of life’’ for women.
This speech was seemingly meant to make the reporters focus on these small improvements in women’s rights and to lead them in another direction so they would not mention the king’s daughters.
The Saudi government has been using these tactics during the last two years in many ways to appease the call for women’s rights. They have released many statements and articles about new initiatives for women: first woman lawyer, newspaper editor, deputy minister, Shura Council member, etc.
All this to show a positive gradual reform, but they seem to use these small sacrifices to distract from the huge flaws in the conditions the women have to face in the kingdom. It is one thing to implement a measure to counter domestic violence but it has no clear enforcement mechanism so is not useful in reality. Who would enter a private home to intervene if women are abused or threatened?
King Abdullah’s daughters attracted the attention of the world because he is the most powerful man in Saudi Arabia. But, in fact, all men in Saudi Arabia are allowed to exercise complete control over the movement of their adult female relatives. If they choose to restrict women’s movement, it’s not clear whether authorities would even consider this abuse.
The male guardianship system requires women to seek permission from their male guardians, either their father, brother or even their son to travel abroad, access higher education, and undergo certain medical treatments or procedures. Sex segregation and the ban on women driving relegate them to second-class citizen status.
It was said by the Saudi authorities that “women in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and with direct support of King Abdullah are encouraged and supported in order for women to participate in all areas of life.” If this is to be true, King Abdullah needs to do more to reform the system and stop systemic discrimination against women. And this should start with his own daughters.
I cannot help but see a repeat of the Arabian Nights where women, while being submissive to their ruler were also very resourceful, whimsical and not simple victims. Nowadays, the princesses tell their stories to the world on twitter to survive and be heard. Not unlike dear Scheherazade whose spirit never faltered as she recounted countless wonders to the King to insure her survival.
Even in a cage, women’s spirit can soar and their voice can be heard!