Fawziah Al-Thobaiti of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in the art department.
Al-Thobaiti created a thesis exhibition called “Perception Is Not Reality: The Saudi Arabian Woman’s Identity,” which deals with struggles Saudi women face at home and misconceptions Muslim women confront living in the U.S. The exhibition closed recently.
Before moving to Kansas City, Al-Thobaiti worked in Jeddah as a graphic designer after earning a bachelor’s in advertising and brand design at Umm Al-Qura University in Mecca. This conversation, edited for length and clarity, took place at Starbucks on Main Street; the photo was taken inside the UMKC Gallery of Art.
Q: What does the title of your thesis project, “Perception Is Not Reality,” refer to?
A: In the art department I am the only Saudi student, so I get a lot of questions from my professors, my friends and other American people outside campus when they see me wearing hijab (Arabic for “cover,” or headscarf). The questions they asked showed me they misunderstood many things.
Q: What question do you get asked the most?
A: The first question is always about why women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia. For me, it’s not a big deal. We have a lot of issues that are more important than this. We (Saudi women) need more civil rights, we need more fields to be open to us in education and in the labor force, and more political participation.
Islam gives us freedom, but governments and social pressures work to restrict our freedom.
Q: Did it surprise you that Americans were most interested in the right to drive a car?
A: Yeah! (laughing) Wherever I go, whoever I’m with, they ask me that stupid question: Why can’t you drive?
Q: How did you get here today?
A: I drove.
Q: How did you learn how to drive?
A: My brother (who also attends UMKC) helped me buy a car and taught me how to drive.
Q: Would you like to be able to drive in Saudi Arabia?
A: Sure, one day, I hope so. But it is not the most important issue, and that is part of the misunderstanding I wanted to address in my thesis project.
Q: What are some other misunderstandings?
A: People also ask why men pay (a dowry) for women before marriage. They ask, “Are you a commodity?” and this question is the most hurtful. One American woman talked to me for about one hour on this subject, but she misunderstood the idea of dowry.
The truth is that the dowry is a right of a wife in Islamic law and must be given to the bride before marriage by the husband to reflect his love and to show his seriousness for the responsibility of taking care of his family.
Q: What restrictions on freedom bother you more than not being allowed to drive?
A: Not being allowed to work in a mixed (men and women) environment. Some Saudi girls want to work in a mixed environment and Islam doesn’t prevent that, but in some communities, conservative Saudi culture doesn’t permit it and girls have to stay at home.
I also address the issue of guardian permission. The Saudi government doesn’t issue any official document for a woman, like a passport or identification card, unless she has permission from a male relative over 18. In the past, women over 50 could get documents themselves, but last year they changed the law so now my sister, who is 47 and does not have a husband, will always have to get permission from her son, who is 19. That is a crazy thing.
Q: Your project also deals with how language is used to define roles. Can you give us examples of that?
A: Saudi men describe women in ways they hope will stop them from seeking controversial rights. They say, “You are delicate and docile.” They say, “You are a queen. You don’t need to drive, we will bring drivers for you.” “You are like a diamond. You don’t need to work. We will work and bring money for you.” “You are like candy. You need to cover yourself completely, so no one can see you except your relatives.”
Q: You also present images of positive change in the kingdom. In what areas have women there made progress?
A: Saudi women have enjoyed good education since 1945, when King Abdulaziz started opening new schools for women. Through 2014, Saudi women have graduated from universities in 57 countries around the world. A higher percentage of women than men in Saudi Arabia have completed higher education.
It was important to me to show Americans the successes Saudi women have achieved. I also took pictures of Saudi women to show the reality that women there are not dressed all in black. Today there are a lot of options. Women can uncover their faces and wear more colors. The culture is changing.
Q: You are wearing a pink blazer. When you go back to Saudi Arabia for visits, do you wear Western clothing?
A: Not outside the house. Outside the house I wear a black abaya (a full-length robe) and a colored headscarf. Here I would also wear an abaya when I leave the house, if it weren’t for the discrimination against Muslims. I’m scared to wear an abaya here.
Q: Why would you prefer to wear an abaya here when you leave the house?
A: Because it reflects my personality, my nationality, my identity. I hope one day I can wear it here.