Old Saudi 'Educational' Flyer Warns Women of 'Dangers'

This old Saudi Arabian flyer, likely distributed to girls' schools by religious groups, warns of "dangers that threaten the Muslim woman." The relic -- clearly an old one, probably from the 1980s judging by the print quality and the cassette tape in one of the panels -- is telling both for how much things have changed in Saudi Arabia since its printing and for how much things have not changed. It lists several "dangers" to Saudi women, most of which fall into one of two categories: benign encounters with men or benign encounters with the outside world. The bottom-left of the flyer shows a Saudi woman, covered head-to-toe, being stabbed with a kitchen knife and covered in cartoonish blood. Here's the original:

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The flyer was posted to Twitter by Saudi-born Egyptian journalist Ethar El-Katatney*. Here's the flyer, photoshopped a bit to account for the aging paper, and translated into English. For the translation help, thanks to reader Arwa Abu-kashef, Egyptian journalist Jahd Khalil, Saudi journalist Iman al-Qhatani, and prominent Bahraini activist Zainab al-Khawaji. (The Khawaji family, at the forefront of Bahrain's pro-democracy movement, was recently profiled at TheAtlantic.com by Karen Leigh.)

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"This is likely a product of religious propaganda from late 80s or early 90s. They were common in girls' schools," Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran told me. "They are produced by religious groups or individuals (most of them gov-supported) then get distributed to schools." When I asked why produce such a document, Omran responded, "Because religious conservatives have always been, and still are, obsessed with controlling women."

The Democracy ReportOmran also pointed me to what he called a "more recent" version of the flyer. Posted by Jordanian blogger Roba al-Assi, this 2005 flyer from Riyadh's King Saud University shows two women along a heaven-to-hell axis. The woman on the right, an indistinguishable mass of black cloth, is marked with a green check mark, the phrase "The hijab of the Muslim woman," and a paradise-like green field dotted with hijabed women. The woman on the left, a slightly less indistinguishable mass of black cloth with an eye slit and a purse, is marked with the phrase, "The dolled up woman," and a panel of hellfire-like flame. The text at the top reads, "Choose your destiny."

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Saudi women have not won much in the way of rights or social standing since their country more fully embraced Wahhabist-style extreme conservatism after the 1979 siege of Mecca, which convinced the monarchy it had to preempt extremists rather than fight them. Though it's no longer socially acceptable for state-funded religious groups to post flyers of women being stabbed with kitchen knives for daring to use the phone, there remains an underlying message that Saudi women will suffer if they do not act ashamed of their own gender, if they do not hide themselves from the world, and if they do not obey.

But what little progress Saudi women have managed has been largely of their own making and through informal, grassroots efforts. As with the recent mass defiance of the country's driving ban on women, and a similar (if less successful) driving campaign in 1990, Saudi women have made their own progress despite a system that is engineered not just to deny them rights, but to train them to fear even the most basic of rights. They are told form a young age that even autonomy of movement or the ability to choose one's own clothing are dangerous and immoral.

Saudi men will sometimes tell you that Saudi women are content with their place in society, even appreciative of the gentle treatment. But, growing up in an environment that teaches women to fear their own faces, that trains them to be afraid and ashamed and dependent, standing up to demand greater rights is no small thing. And yet, last month, many Saudi women not only stood up, they got behind the wheel, and then they used Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to make sure the whole world saw them do it.


*Update, July 18 -- The flyer was originally found by Saudi teacher Lobna al-Ribdi, who says she found it still hanging on the wall of a school in Buraydah, a town in central Saudi Arabia. She writes, "I was shocked!" Al-Ribdi, who teaches English, estimated it was around 20 years old.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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