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Road to Purdah-tion

A news dramatisation by Alex Searle

Although you are a fully qualified doctor, sharia law dictates that a woman’s place is at home. Your children are waiting to be picked up from school but you are not allowed to drive. The rancid sweat beneath your abaya (women’s covering) offends your husband’s friends. They don’t care about the sweltering heat; a man’s woman should always smell good. At night, thoughts arrest your sleep. Your fat husband snores comfortably beside you while you dream about all the things you’re not allowed to do.

Nothing prepares you for the next morning. During your breakfast, the radio sheepishly reports King Abdullah II’s big announcement. He has proposed giving all Saudi women full voting rights by 2015. This also includes women running for office in the Shura Council. You do nothing. Everybody goes on eating their breakfast; no one can see the smile underneath your burka.

Within the hour, the kids have been taken to school and your husband has left for work. You have not moved from the breakfast table. You are lost in a mist of questions. If the King has granted suffrage to all Saudi women, why not grant other rights? Suddenly, the phone rings. It’s your sister, Wahda. Her baby boy did not wake this morning. She is petrified with shock. Like you, she’s home alone and immobile. She can’t call the police or ambulance because she had the child out of wedlock with an Englishman. Lately she’s relied on you for her son’s wellbeing. But today, tears stream down your face. There is nothing you can do; you can’t drive, you can’t tell your husband or he’ll tell the mutawa (religious police). Wahda is hysterical and helpless.

In a moment of lunacy, you leap from the chair and grab the keys to the old Mercedes-Benz in the garage. All you can hear is your sister’s shrieking on the phone. You tell her to calm down, and that you’ll be there shortly. Before she can ask how you intend to do so, you reverse out of the driveway and stomp on the accelerator.

As you drive, you think about all the laws you’re breaking. You haven’t reached the main road yet and already people have noticed you, a woman, in the driver’s seat. You keep peering into the mirrors. Imagine what your husband will think, or the unending shame your family will endure. You’ll be given lashes, maybe even stoned to death. But there’s more at risk here; your nephew might not be alive. If resuscitating him comes at the price of the life of another faceless Saudi woman, so be it.

You are five minutes away from Wahda’s house when the first siren makes your heart jump. Within seconds, a cabal of police cars are chasing you, spitting insults and threats from their loudhailers. The whole nation closes in on you. In a cry of desperation you scream out the window, telling them about the emergency. One of the police cars rams you from behind, forcing you to hit the boundary on the side of the road. Before the airbag explodes, three police officers haul you out of the car. They interrogate you beneath the blazing sun. You become deaf to their talk. All you can hear is your sister’s cry. Even when the court sentences you to 10 lashes, you are still numb. King Abdullah will rescind the ruling, but, insha’Allah, the fight for your equality and freedom has just begun.

Alex Searle is a second-year journalism student at the University of Cape Town.

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