Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, remains one of the most conservative and rigid countries, particularly for women, and for anyone who goes against Islam. Rana Ahmad knows all too well those constraints as she fled her home country after declaring herself an atheist and after having endured the hardships of a woman under the strict control of her family and government.
Although the country appears to be going through reforms at the behest of the Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, such as allowing women to drive, these reforms have seen female activists imprisoned, often threatened with the death penalty, and none have tackled the root problem of the country: the Guardianship system. This is the system that forces every woman to seek permission from a husband, brother, father or other close male family member to do simple tasks such as travel, go to school or go to work.
Ahmad says such efforts by the Crown Prince are simply “propaganda”, and only give the appearance of change.
After fleeing Saudi Arabia, Ahmad claimed asylum in Europe and now lives in Germany, where she is studying physics; a topic that she laughs has become her new religion as it offers pure data on cause and effect, unlike most religions including Islam.
Growing up in the Kingdom, Ahmad says she had a happy childhood. She rode her bike freely, felt the wind in her hair, bickered with her siblings and thought nothing more of the future. That was until the day her grandfather came and took her bike away. She was then told to start covering her hair with a scarf and to act like a woman, not a child. “Even if I am 14 years I looked around me but I felt my body was still young, why do I have to cover it?” she says as she remembers the moment.
From that point on, her life began to change.
While she struggled with the changes imposed upon her, Ahmad says she wanted to be “a good Muslim girl and accept what my family said to me” and didn’t resist. Finally she was married off at age 19.
Ahmad says during this time, she went through the motions of being a married woman, but questioned her role. She eventually fell into a depression that led her down a path of more self-reflection and questions about her religion and her need for freedom. In an effort to answer these questions, she began to spend more and more time on the internet where she discovered philosophy and atheism. It was also during this time that her husband turned abusive and she eventually sought a divorce; a move that often taints the reputation of a woman in such a conservative society.
Following her divorce, Ahmad says it became even harder for her to do much as she was under the strict surveillance of her family. Eventually they allowed her to start working. On the side, she continued her research into atheism, often with a heavy heart as she began to realise that the religion of her childhood was not for her.
A photo taken by Ahmad at Mecca, in front the Ka’bah during the annual pilgrimage shows a sign stating ‘Atheist Republic'. At that point Ahmad says while she was supposed to be enjoying herself at the event with her mother, she realised she could no longer play the role of a good Muslim girl and a girl who knew she was now atheist.
She had put into motion a plan to leave the country without telling anyone. And after two to three years, she managed to flee, leaving behind her family, her friends, and the only life she had ever known.
Her escape to Europe and her story are told in her first book entitled ‘Ici les femmes ne rêvent pas’, which translates into ‘Here, women do not dream’. Arriving to Paris for her first book event, Ahmad smiles, while sipping a glass of wine, dressed in western clothing. She explains how in addition to writing her book, she has started an organization with other activists in Germany to help refugees arriving who have left their country of origin because they are atheist or formerly Muslim. “When I arrived to Germany I didn’t get any help...I [thought] if you are atheist you will find a lot of organizations but it’s not [really] there. I find if you are Christian, it’s easy to get help, if you are Muslim, it’s easy to get help. But if you are ex-Muslim or atheist, who cares? Who will say hello or welcome or something like [that] to you? From this moment I promised myself to help other people when they come to Germany.”
Since her arrival to Germany, she has had to change her name. “Rana Ahmad is not my real name”, she explains adding she changed her real name to protect her family and to protect herself from death threats from certain members of her family and possibly the Saudi government.
Despite the hardships of leaving her country and her family, Ahmad says she looks to the future now since she can live freely. “I only miss my dad. I cry a lot when I remember that I had to leave my dad because I want to live my life. I miss my mom but she [doesn’t] want to talk to me because I am atheist, because I left Islam…I can’t do anything now but I can enjoy my freedom”.
Peeling back the layers of Yemen's civil war
For nearly four years now, the civil war in Yemen has raged with no end in sight. Civilians have fallen victim to the fighting with some 15,000 killed or injured, while a humanitarian crisis spreads and threatens to claim more lives.
Yemen, is located on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. It has often sat in the shadow of its eccentric and rich neighbour Saudi Arabia.
Unlike its other regional neighbours, Yemen does not have a monarchy , says Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and International Security Programme fellow at the journal New America.
“Yemen stands out on the Arabian Peninsula for a lot of reasons. [It’s the] only country that's not a member of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). [It’s the] only one widely underdeveloped. [It’s the] only one that is a republic rather than some form of a monarchy.”
He adds that southern Yemen was once the “only Marxist country in the entire Arabian peninsula” which highlights the different route Yemen took from its neighbours. But does that difference help explain the fighting in today’s Yemen?
Shi’a Vs.Sunni Muslims?
Many refer to today’s conflict as sectarian fighting between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. That simple division, however, does not cut across all the different layers that are at play, says Nadwa Al-Dawsari, the Yemen country director with the Center for Civilians and Conflict.
“The yemen conflict has two aspects: the first aspect is the power-struggle among the traditional northern political elites and their patronage” says al-Dawsari.
“The other layer of the conflict-- which is deeper-- is the historic grievances that Yemenis hold against these political elite. Unfortunately most of the analysis focus only on the power-struggle aspect among the political elite that's the conflict between Hadi's government and the Houthis, or Salah and the Houthis, or Salah and his former allies...and so this conflict is very, very complex.”
She adds that one must not forget the “southern dimension” to this conflict which has been “ignored in almost all the interventions that the international community make to try and resolve the conflict, not just now but since the 2011.”
In addition to the north/south divide, the sectarian division and the power struggle amongst the political elite, the other element that needs to be considered is its neighbor, Saudi Arabia.
Baron points out that Riyadh “has always wielded outsize[d] influence over Yemen, Saudi Arabia has always done what it can to make sure that it [Yemen] has a government in Yemen that is not combattive towards the Saudis whether that's through financial carrots or sticks, political influence and etc.”
Escape from Aleppo: one man's journey
From Aleppo to Paris. A freelance journalist who posted a video of the evacuation of the Syrian city as Bashar al-Assad's forces took control of it recounts his journey from a war zone to the French capital.
In December 2016 the government of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad agreed to a mass evacuation of Aleppo city, which had been under siege for months. The Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups were effectively squeezed out and the United Nations requested that remaining civilians and opposition fighters be allowed to leave.
Before the official evacuation, freelance journalist Salah Alashkar posted from his Twitter feed a video of him with Aleppo in ruins behind him. In it he appealed for help for the city's residents, subjected to daily air raids at the hands of Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran.
“You have to act now, please” he urged viewers.
But nothing changed.
A few days later he posted a video of the evacuation. In it he says:
"We asked to live in a free and democratic country," the young, blond-haired journalist says, while watching people getting ready to leave. "In a country that is free for everyone. We asked for a free Syria. We asked to remove al-Assad. We don’t want Syria in Assad’s way. We want free Syria. No one supported us or even helped us. And as you can see we are being kicked out of our city. Out of Syria. I will go out of Aleppo …. I will go out of Syria, I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave.
Then the camera turns sideways and one assumes Alashkar has left with the others.
Salah Alashkar is not his real name. He was born Karim Serjia, the name he used when he went to study banking at the University in Aleppo.
But in 2011, when the first protests in Dar’aa were violently put down, he adopted the new name and joined the opposition fighting to rid Syria of Bashar al-Assad.
“They are one family, Assad's family,” he explains in a café in Paris, the city he eventually came to after leaving Syria for Turkey. “They take everything we have …. in Syria you can't speak against all subjects. If you want to talk or [write] about wrong things Assad's family [has done]…you will die or you will [spend] all your life in a prison.”
The protests in Dar’aa were violently put down by Assad's forces.
Schoolchildren who wrote graffiti calling for freedom and criticising Assad’s family, were reported by a security worker to officials, then arrested and tortured.
The photo of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, who was tortured to death while in custody, eventually became the poster of the revolution. Wanting to take part in the revolt, Alashkar ("the blond one" in Arabic) left the world of banking and, along with his friends, started a production group “to show the people the revolution”. He hit the streets as a reporter.
Ten days in jail
In mid-2011 his life took a major turn, one he still hasn’t recovered from. While he was filming a protest on 17 August, “one security [worker] with Assad regime catch me”. Alashkar remained in prison for 10 days.
When speaking about those days in prison, Alashkar says he doesn’t want to go into the details. "Horrible things” went on, he says.
His family eventually paid a huge sum of money to have him released.
“After that I can’t go back to my family house … every day I sleep in a new place. I go to my neighbours, my friends, sometimes I got to another city to sleep.”
Because his name was now known to Assad’s forces, he would have been watched and probably rearrested if he went home, so Alashkar began his journey of working and living anywhere and everywhere to report on what was happening and to stay alive.
Eventually Aleppo city was split into two: the east under the Free Syrian Army opposition militias and the west under Assad’s forces. Alashkar’s family remained in the west and he continued to live in the east.
“I don’t have [the] choice to come back to my family,” he explains, adding that he chose to continue fighting “to support the revolution”.
There he began to work for media outlets such as Agence-France Presse, Qatar's Al-Jazeera, French TV company Arte and others, enabling him to buy necessities.
But in 2016 food and other essentials started to become scarce. “Assad regime made a siege east of Aleppo, so at this time it’s not easy to have food and electricity.” During this time he reported on the “many families with many characters, some of [whom] die after”, he explains, struggling to control his emotions.
His Twitter feed of this time shows video after video of him begging for help, asking the embassies of Russia and Iran to stop the bombing of east Aleppo. He shows the ghostly looking city in ruins and the people struggling to maintain their daily routine.
Finally, in December 2016, the United Nations reached an evacuation deal with the Assad regime for all residents and fighters to leave east Aleppo.
This was not the outcome people like Alashkar were hoping for. But he had no choice, he had to leave. Unlike the others, however, he couldn’t go to Idlib in northern Syria. “The situation is not good for me because I wrote many articles about radical people, so two kind[s] of people don’t like”, those being Assad’s forces and the Islamists.
The only place he could go was outside of Syria. So he crossed into Turkey and, through the help of contacts and Reporters without Borders, was able to claim asylum here in France.
“When I left Aleppo, I feeling…I am loser”, explains Alashkar, adding “I am sorry to say that, but the revolution lost.”
Without the help of Russia or other allies, he feels, the Assad regime would have been toppled many years ago. But that was then and this is now. Today he finds himself alone in Paris, with his family spread across the Middle East, some still in Syria.
Adapting to new culture
Life in Paris is not easy for him. Adapting to a new culture and language is always a challenge, let alone when one arrives with no family or friends.
“In Aleppo I have more friends, I know every neighbourhood," he points out. "I have my memories still in Aleppo ... I can't speak about all things; it's not all my subjects I can share with my new friends.”
Nightmares echoing what he has seen and what he has experienced haunt him; but, with certainty in his voice, he insists that, although it will take time, he will be good again, one day.
Having missed out on victory doesn’t mean he has hung up his boxing gloves. “If I have any chance to come back to make a new revolution, I will do [it],” he says.
In the meantime he is working on a documentary, Four Lives, which tells his story and those of other characters he encountered during his time in the revolution.
It recounts the numerous ways one loses oneself in such a situation. At the start of the revolution there was Karim, and now “the revolution name is Salah. So now I don't care about Karim. I believe Salah, because Salah shared the revolution.”
Iranian women go online to protest forced wearing of hijab
In Iran, it has been obligatory for women to wear a head scarf, or hijab, since 1983, in the wake of the 1979 revolution. Since then, women have been forced to wear the long, loose-fitting chador, and the hijab. To make sure the law is respected, morality police patrol the streets. But two major online movements are showing people -- inside and outside the country -- that Iranian women want to choose.
The movements are known as #MyStealthyFreedom and #White Wednesdays. The women in the videos are not necessarily opposed to wearing the hijab, but they are opposed to being forced – by law – to wear it. And they are willing to risk everything for the right to choose.
Birth of the movements
Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist now living in exile in the United States, is the woman behind these two movements. In 2014, she had posted a photo of herself running down a street in London with her hair flying in the wind. Beneath the photo she wrote “every time when I run in a free country and I feel the wind in my hair, it reminds me of the time when my hair was like a hostage in the hands of the Iranian government”.
That message connected with many Iranian women across the country. Soon Alinejad posted another photo of herself driving unveiled in Iran. This time she added the caption "I am a woman and I know there are many other women in Iran who do not believe in hijab [and] they have such pictures“. Soon enough “I was bombarded by pictures and videos from women inside Iran unveiling themselves, walking in the streets taking pictures of themselves in the streets, in front of police cars or in [the] seaside, or nature” explains Alinejad. And so the movement my Stealthy Freedom was born.
To keep the momentum and the pressure on the Iranian government to end compulsory hijab, Alinejad says she decided to launch White Wednesdays last year on 24 May. White, because it’s the colour of peace.
In this movement she asked the women to identify each other in public while taking off their white headscarves. Again, she got “many videos of women…..sometimes walking shoulder to shoulder with their husbands, their fathers, their boyfriends and saying no to compulsory hijab in public”.
Punishable crime in Iran
Not wearing a hijab in Iran is a punishable crime. Women risk ten months to two years in prison for being caught without being properly covered. Alinejad explains that from the young age of seven, girls are forced to wear the hijab.
Without it, a girl will not be able to access school, to get a job, or just generally to live in the country, because at all times you are being monitored by the morality police. In short, she says “being a woman means that you live in a dangerous situation in Iran”.
Obligation of the hijab
In 1979, Iran deposed its Shah and established a theocracy. Since then, the laws of the country have been tied directly to Islamic law, or Sharia. It's the job of the top religious cleric, the Supreme Leader, to ensure the government’s interpretation of Islam is respected – particularly by women.
But where did this obligation for women to cover their hair come from?
In Islam the main beliefs come directly from the Koran, the holy book. For Muslims, the word of god was dictated directly to the prophet Mohamed. Religious leaders point to its verses to explain why Muslims have to behave in a particular way.
Merryl Wyn Davies is an Islamic scholar and former director of the Muslim Institute in London. She says that although there are eight references to the hijab in the Koran, none of them have anything to do with clothing or refer to terms that one would understand to be a hijab, a chador, or an abaya.
The verse that many point to as a reference for the hijab is in chapter 24, verse 31 which calls upon women “to lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity and to draw their head coverings over their bosoms”.
But, stresses Davies, the passage actually begins in chapter 24 verse 30 where it calls upon men “to lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity”.
The conclusion taken from this, she explains, is that the Koran is speaking about modesty within a person, and less about “uniforms and pieces of cloth” which reduce both men and women to objects based on appearances.
Another major source for Muslims is the Hadith, a record of the sayings and life of the Prophet Mohammed. “The hadith is debatable territory” adds Davies, as it opens up room for interpretation, rather than it dictating specifics.
It’s for that reason she believes if you were to sit down a group of Muslim and Islamic scholars and ask them if it is obligatory for women to cover their hair “they will tell you ‘well actually not’.”
In the case of Iran, the religious clerics have interpreted the Koran to include this obligation on women. It has also been extended to women not being allowed “to be a judge, to ride a bicycle…to sing solo…to travel abroad” or get a passport without permission from their husbands or fathers explains Alinejad.
And to the Iranian government, says Alinejad, these rules come from Sharia and must be respected. In response to such rules, which are only enforced mainly in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the creator of the movement says if there is an overriding interpretation of such laws “then this is their responsibility to condemn anything that is happening in the name of Sharia laws and Islamic laws inside Iran and other Islamic countries”.
Davies stresses that the Koran is about helping a person make the world a better place and not about “how you lead narrow, prescriptive lives and think you’re going to get to heaven”.
Momentum of online movement
Until such overriding authority is removed, women have started to speak up. A similar online media movement has pushed certain boundaries already in Saudi Arabia, such as the right to drive. And this current movement in Iran continues to gain momentum, despite the risks. Already one activist in March was sentenced to two years in prison for protesting without her hijab.
But as Alinejad highlights, the surge in women risking everything for change has forced the Iranian government to take notice.
“For 40 years they were just the people of Iran, especially the women that had the fear inside their hearts. But now it is the government that fears its own people; especially the women of Iran."
You can follow these movements on instagram and twitter at #mystealthyfreedom, #whitewedensdays, #mycameraismyweapon and #girlsofrevolutionstreet.
How a group of artists based in Egypt tried to change society
Can art change society? It's not clear whether it can or not, but a group of artists in Egypt believed it could and set off to create such a vision hidden in the oasis governorate of Fayoum, just south of Cairo. Rfi's Anne-Marie Bissada has this report from the village of Tunis in the Fayoum.
Just a two hour’s drive south of Cairo, away from the Nile, one comes across the governorate of Fayoum, an oasis in the middle of the desert.
As Egypt modernized, Fayoum lagged behind and remained one of the poorer agricultural regions in the country. Even today, farmers tend to their fields using traditional, outdated, means and the pace of life remains slow.
It’s also here where you’ll find the small village of Tunis –of a population of under 1000 -- nestled among the green landscape at a slight incline looking out to the lake.
The village itself began to grow after a group of like-minded artists came to establish a kind of utopia away from the chaos of Cairo.