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Zipping through the tiled halls, I glance back and grin. I grab her hand, and we soar through an arch of fluorescent-lit stores, gliding past stands selling cheap accessories in our clunky rollerblades. We stop, resting our feet, and scope out our audience. A sea of cloaked figures shuffles around us, giving us the occasional glare or smirk. A few of them jeer at us, but we’re used to it, and they’re easy enough to ignore. All of the women including us wear black from head to toe, some of them even covering their faces. The only visible skin belongs to men—and the occasional child—who shuffle in white traditional robes while their hooded wives trail behind. “Zaira,” I call, “let’s go again!” She nods, and we speed up, skating our way through the black and white maze.
After watching children skate through the Dhahran Mall in Saudi Arabia the previous week, we decided to do the same, so we boarded the bus to the mall that afternoon after prayer ended, carrying rollerblades. We slow down at a toy store, staring at the bright display. I hear a grunt and spin around, finding a curious Saudi ten feet away. He appears to be in his twenties, and his most distinguishable feature is a large single eyebrow. “You have Instagram?” he asks in a thick accent, grinning and ogling my covered body. “Uh… yes?” I stutter, puzzled. Then he charges towards us, arms extended, as if to grope me. His eyes are crazed.
My heart jumps, and my legs are Jell-O. I know I’ve made a big mistake and that I have to get away quickly. Zaira’s definitely also afraid, because we both start dashing away. We swerve around the shrouded figures, almost tripping, until the beast of a man stops sprinting after us. We make eye contact and burst out laughing but secretly hide panic in our pounding hearts.
Recalling this incident doesn’t cause fear; in fact, I’ve had many like it. Living in a community like this—a place so lenient about things like rollerblading in a mall yet so strict about female dress—has become second nature to me. I first moved to Saudi Arabia in seventh grade, when I was starting the transition from girl to woman. I didn’t yet understand the sexualization of women, but I quickly had to accept it. After being ogled by local workers even while being almost completely covered up, I learned to think of my female body as a desired object. I realized the extent of restrictions on females when I found I couldn’t go to my Muslim male friends’ houses because of gender segregation. I matured and watched my female Muslim peers start wearing the hijab to cover their “tempting” hair, one at a time, until every one of their heads and bodies was covered. Although respected as an exceptionally Islamic nation, Saudi Arabia has harsh rules that only intensify rebellion in men and women.
Not long after I returned to America for school, I was introduced to feminist ideals. I slowly changed the mindset that I was an object and began to realize that the root of the problem came from the men that desperately tried to reign over women. I had the amazing opportunity to listen to Malala Yousafzai, and listening to her struggles against female oppression inspires me to do my best with my education and apply to incredible colleges. I’ve been a witness to obedient women whose only purpose in life is to take care of their families without pursuing their own dreams. Many female friends that still live in Saudi believe they don’t need education because they’ll be dependent on husbands later in life, and seeing these mindsets makes my concern much stronger. I wouldn’t change my background, even after experiencing so many uncomfortable events, because it only helped me shape my view of the world.
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