Beyond the label — the power of Saudi women: Sofana Dahlan at TEDxBarcelonaWomen


Translator: Bassel Almehman
Reviewer: Hélène Vernet When you look at women in Saudi Arabia, this is what you see: black covers, just like the black cover
of a little black book. But don’t they say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” My name is Sofana Dahlan. I’m all for cat-eye glasses,
ice-cream and the color purple, but mostly, I’m proud to be a Saudi. In March 2010, hours after my second daughter was born, while holding her in my arms, my three-years-old daughter
looked at me and said, “Mommy.” She asked me a question, and this question
made me think about my life, my experiences,
and my identity as a Saudi. She said, “Mommy, what will Huda be
when she grows up?” At that moment, my new-born opened
her eyes for the first time in her life. She’s looking at me
as if she’s anticipating my answer. Naturally, my answer would be:
“Whatever she sets her mind to be.” But, a more realistic answer would be,
“Whatever she’s permitted to be.” Tears were filling my eyes. I was feeling breathless,
thinking of what would my answer be. What are her perspectives?
What obstacles will she encounter? In her case, she’ll be a Saudi woman. Will I tell her if she wants to travel, or take a job, or study, she needs a male guardian consent first? Will I tell her that her choices
of education and career are limited? And will I tell her that she will grow up
having limitation on her mobility? And will I tell her that no matter
how successful she is, the world will still view her
as oppressed and marginalized and look at her with pity rather than recognizing her achievement? Well, we cannot pretend
that being a Saudi girl does not come with limitations
and expectations. But, wouldn’t it be tempting that she encounters
no problems, no obstacles, no injustice and no frustration? If we had the power in our hands,
wouldn’t we grant this wish to our child? But it’s also unwise to disregard that most of our character
is formed by the obstacles, problems and injustice
that we face and overcome. If anything, the obstacles faced
by my mother and my grandmother are perhaps the reason why I’m here today. And if anything, I hope
that what I’ve gone through would actually help
my daughters reach further. The path to achievement
has not been an easy one for me. Throughout the course of my life,
I’ve encountered many problems, many obstacles and many social barriers. But, it was precisely this
that made me adapt, made me learn how to be flexible, and made me reshape my path. I grew up in Saudi. I went to a local school.
Arabic was the main language. But my parents invested
in enrichment programs after school. I was a very, very curious child, asking questions all the time. The more they were answered,
the more questions I generated. “But why?” was a phrase
I continuously used. By the age of twelve, I was a rebel, my mother’s worst nightmare. I sat her down one day and said, “Mom, listen, this needs to stop. All my friends don’t have
classes after school.” Her response was: “The school you go to in the morning
is for you to belong and then understand your society, and the education you get
at home is mandatory for you to build and develop a personality. We will negotiate this no further
when you’re seventeen.” And of course I argued, and got punished. And it was long past seventeen
that I realized that she was right. When I was in high school,
I wanted to study architecture, because it was not allowed in Saudi
and was not provided there. It was a ticket for me out of there. Until one day, I heard the story of a woman who grew up as an orphan, married off to a wealthy man. When he passed away,
his children from a previous marriage forced her out of her house
and deprived her from her inheritance. When she sought help
from a male lawyer, it was used against her. She was accused that she was
having an affair with him, a sinful act in my country. At that moment, I realized that having a female legal representation
is a necessity in my country. Hence, my reason to study law, something I really wanted and believed in. And so, of course, law was not permitted in Saudi. I was taking a big risk. But my father had a vision that things will eventually
evolve in Saudi, and that women will eventually have
the right to be taken in judicial realm. And so, I applied for a request
to the Ministry of Higher Education, requesting to study law. And I was granted. So, I set off to Egypt. I enrolled in Cairo University, one of the first legal schools
in the Arab world. And after that, I completed
a master in Islamic studies. This was such a pivotal point in my life. I was introduced to many schools
of thoughts, philosophical and religious. And I was exploring women’s rights
in different religions and sects. It helped me understand the framework of where social justice
and value operate in my society. (Sighing) And of course, after graduation, the devastation happened. After graduation, I applied to credit
my Egyptian certificate in Saudi. All my Saudi legal
schoolmates received it. I didn’t, because I didn’t have a proof
of a male guardian companionship throughout university. And I worked as a legal
consultant in the back offices. The frustration started building because all the people around me
got ahead in their careers and I was still there, useless. I started feeling
more and more devastated, because I realized that these
limitations stopped me from defending a very
dear person to my heart who was convicted falsely
for a crime he had never committed and sentenced to jail. And so, I moved on with my life. I moved on with my life,
and I decided to get married, and on the age of 25, I moved to Kuwait. And I also started thinking
of opportunities. I wanted to go back to legal practice. All the legal firms I applied to
needed a legal license. And, I didn’t have one, except for one legal firm. I was granted, you know, an opportunity
to work in corporate law, only to learn that I was
pregnant with a child that had health complications
and needed special care and attention. So, I decided to put my dream on hold
and focus on my child. The more I tried to make my marriage
work, the worse it became. And, you know, the hardest moment in life is not when people don’t understand you. It’s when you don’t understand yourself. Who are you? Who am I? What am I doing?
What do I want? And how will I make a difference? But the answers to these questions
help me identify doors of opportunity. The trick was in building the steps
to reaching these doors. For me, they consist of having faith, knowing my strength and ability, identifying my weaknesses
and finding motivation and inspiration, and mastering creativity. What is creativity? Creativity involves breaking out
of established patterns in order to look at things
in a different way. Creativity is redesigning your dream
and redefining your mission. Today, I’m on a mission
of innovation, of newness, of multi-faceted dimension. I’m engaged in building bridges and facilitating the path
to achievement and fulfillment. In promoting creativity and innovation and preserving
our artistically rich heritage, my goal is to contribute
to the social development of my region. In 2010, the same year
my second daughter was born, I decided to be a single mom and pursue my dream. I opened a legal and business
consulting company to promote creative entrepreneurs: Tashkeil, the first platform
in the Middle East that promotes creatives by incubating,
facilitating and promoting them. Tashkeil aims towards reintroducing
designers in the Middle East as an active stakeholder
in the global arena. With that said, I never stopped seeking
my right to be recognized as a lawyer. In 2012, I applied and on November 24, 2013, I’m proud to say that I am one
of the ten female lawyers that have ever been granted
the right to practice law in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. (Cheers and applause) Because… Because I believed in my dream, because I believed in my choices, and because I never gave up on my rights. I believe that this is what my parents saw
when they looked at my eyes. It was reflected on the name
they chose for me, Sofana, which means “the rare pearl.” It’s also an attribute to a daughter
of a famous fable character in Arabia, Hatim al-Ta’i, who is known for his generosity. Long after his death, she was among
the first captives in Islam. She was held a hostage. But because of her keen
sense of negotiation, she managed with dialogue
to free herself and her people and submit to Islam willingly. You see, my culture is embodied
in every aspect of me. And so is resilience,
perseverance and challenge. This is my story, the story of many other Saudi women
who are not recognized because of the general wrong perception
and judgment people have about them. Today, women in Saudia are leading change. They’re making choices. There, you see breakthrough
in medicine, in science, in art, in finance and in entrepreneurship. And today, looking at my daughters’ eyes, those curious big eyes
looking straight back at me, asking me to make
the right choices for them, until, one day, they can
make their choices. I can say that it was all worth it. Do you think I grew out of my habit
of asking questions? Of course not. (Laughter) What about you? Do you have the strength? Do you have the perseverance,
the challenge? And do you have the resilience
of the spirit of a Saudi woman? What do you do to fight injustice? How do you change laws in your country? What obstacles are on your path today? If we can outsmart the tight rules of a country
like Saudia Arabia, if we can function
in a male-dominant system, work with it and challenge it, I think you can do it here. Thank you. (Cheers) (Applause)

12 thoughts on “Beyond the label — the power of Saudi women: Sofana Dahlan at TEDxBarcelonaWomen

  1. I'm not a saudi, but seeing as how some women are being treated in the kingdom and how some saudi women become so dependent on a male companion just to get around the city or even just to get healthcare. I hope that Miss Sofana would be their inspiration to know that they have ability to do it all. You are an inspiration to me Miss Sofana may you continue your journey towards empowering the women of saudi arabia.

  2. Inspirational story and words by Ms. SOFANA, a great display of sheer motivation and never say die attitude, in the worst conditions. All I can say is #respect for Sofana and proud of you.

    And may Allah (swt) bless you with his choicest blessing and open all your paths.

  3. And we were honored to be that firm in Kuwait to recognize your acheivements, willingness and creativity. Well done Sofana. This is inspiration beyond limits.

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