My Voice Is My Right, Not "Your Gift"

The caramel dunes and rocky hills melt up into the sky. It is night, almost morning; it is dark, but not quite black-almost the last sparkling shade of heavy purple that bleeds from the spectrum between blue to black. A thick palm tree pops into the mix every few hundred feet, and we speed through the speckles of small towns built off the highway. Arabic on lit signs in flickering colors sometimes stand above or besides their English translations or transliterations or some weird estimated meaning that doesn't exactly match up-but you go with it.

A sheikh leading our trip stands at the head of the aisle, hollering into the mic at 2:44 AM. The warm bus seats 50 family, friends and family friends dozing off to sleep at the phenomenal but fatiguing eight days through Medina and Mecca. Some fashion a smile at the perceived efforts of the sheikh, but everyone not-so-secretly wishes to sleep this short car trip to Jeddah.

"One last thing," the sheikh begins, building up hopes that the driver will soon shut off the cabin lights so we too may melt into the purple night. "I think the girls on this trip could have done a better job speaking up. Like when I asked around just a few minutes ago about one dua everyone has for the Muslim Ummah, the girls didn't talk, even when I offered them a chance."

But, false. I spoke, both of my sisters spoke, my best friend spoke-automatically accounting for half the "girls" in the group, as well as immediately outnumbering the number of "boys" who spoke.

This wasn't supposed to be a head-to-head comparison, but when the sheikh made the comment, my mind couldn't help but cut to the quantitative crunch.

He kept going. "You know, I hear a lot of girls complaining and whining about how they don't have a voice, but how about you just step up and stop being shy or cowering away when we give you the opportunity?"

complaining and whining.

just step up.

give you the opportunity.

we give.

when we.

I begin burning. All my exhaustion has precipitated into disgust. I am no longer poised and purple, now wanting to be one with the blistering Arabic stars. My brain frantically scours for the line between the patience we have grown and groomed over these days on Umrah and the right to defend one's dignity against defamation -- not to mention an additional stand against an entire gender's general reduction into one, incapable stereotype -- but my mind quickly realizes we are way past this point.

As my hand shoots up into the air, I am flooded by over a week's worth of reflection, induced by my American born-and-bred self visiting the Holiest of sites in the most conservative of lands. All the frustrations I dissolved into my stomach now bubbling like hot soda in the summer.

Am I supposed to apologize on behalf of of my friend's 12-year-old sister who fell asleep because it is the middle of the night, no one has slept, and we are all verging on the brink of flu, colds and who knows what else? Am I supposed to bow and thank you when you GRANT me the opportunity to speak, which is apparently at your discretion and worth your blessing?

Zoha, stop. This was Umrah. Clean thoughts, clean heart.

My tired arm pummeled two inches higher into the air, betraying anyone who was counting on some shut-eye after this "one last thing."

He continues. He tells us that we needed to stop blaming men if we didn't speak up for ourselves. He pauses, smirks, points.

"Actually, I'd just like to say that I have been there -- as in personally, and as a witness-in this country on this trip, in America back home. Many times when women speak up, we are immediately hushed and silenced, or at best, our voices are reduced. You don't just 'get to speak' when or because you want to. It doesn't work like that that. We are told to be silent." I paused, shuffling for some positive twist on my 3 AM rant. "I ask of everyone male in this bus, that if you ever see a woman being told to be quiet or stop talking, that you stand up for her. Because no woman's opinion hold's gravity to someone who is trying to silence another women in the first place. Your voice holds validity, and you must use that because we will never have it."

He reclaimed the mic from me. "Aw snap!"

Excuse me?

"'Good... point," he emphasizes to me like I am a kindergartner who doesn't waste my animal crackers or apple juice box at recess today. The infantilization goes on with reminders that men mean well and certain restrictions about speaking up have reasons. Like Qur'an recitation. There are reasons for segregation. Separation.

"Separate but equal."

Another hand springs up to my left on this 3 AM sleep-deprived drive, this time my father's. I am comforted by his efforts to back me up. Our discussions over years have brought us to more mutual understanding, and I am proud to have his voice back me up-though his final example leaves room for me to finalize one crucial point.

"Something important to note," he started, "is where we are just coming from. The Grand Mosque, the Kabah-the only at least major Haram in the world to allow men and women to pray side by side in sections. If this is at least the theory behind one of the Most Holy Mosques on Earth, well, I mean, it makes you think."

His quick trail off offers my perfect chance to swoop in and recount one of our recent memories of Tawaf. "True," I started, "but Papa, even we saw the religious police fighting and pushing women out of the main Tawaf area circle around the Kabah during the star of Salaat - because they only wanted men to be there. The women fought hard, or at least my dad tells me," I explain to the bus, "because I couldn't be around to witness their strength. We had to exit the premises, of course." I paused. "Even well after Fatiha began, the scoff heightened until the women were finally shoved away by the police."

The sheikh recovered the mic from me, "RAWR," we have a feisty one up in here. He flicks his wrist into a clawing motion.

"RAWR."

I am one who accepts my differences in thought, approach, and attitude with others-but this left me at a loss. I do not hold ungrounded grudges, but I have never been more offended.

I expected, entered, and lived my days in Saudi Arabia with mental caution. I knew my regular filters, thoughts, ideas could not be automatically spewed or readily applied as I would in my usual day-to-day reality. But it was completely crushing and dehumanizing to be told by someone who is allegedly a facilitating community leader in my usual ecosystem when I should be angry or not, or why or why not.

Patience is paramount, and it must be exercised profoundly is many scenarios. But there is a line at which a clear limit exists.

I am not an animal. I am not a pawn. I am not a puppet or doll, or a creature at all.

Respect for women is not drawn out at the sporadic discretion of men with reductive attitudes. It is cultivated through thought and corrected through conversation-when flaws are determined, they need not be morphed into a fabricated excuse, at best, or an offensive remark, at worst.

I refuse to sit here, watching and waiting for your gift of "my turn."

I will not fade faintly into the heavy purple night. No, I will burn.