A new BBC3 documentary aims to show the realities of life in Saudi Arabia for young women.
The show’s female reporter, who aimed to investigate whether the country was becoming increasingly liberal actually found herself forced to stay indoors after she flouted local laws.
Fashion stylist Basma Khalifa, 29, was born in Saudi Arabia but raised in Northern Ireland and now lives and works in London.
The film, Inside the Real Saudi Arabia, Why I had to Leave, sees Basma, who was born to Sudanese parents, travelling to Jeddah, dubbed Saudi Arabia’s most ‘liberal’ city to stay with three of her aunts as she’s determined to experience life in the country she left as a young child.
The country has undergone increasing social change in recent years under reforms brought in by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman which includes a new right for women to drive cars, better divorce rights for females and a more relaxed approach to entertainment including an increasing number of music and film venues.
Other recent reforms in the kingdom include women being allowed to attend football matches and work in jobs traditionally reserved for men.
Fashion stylist Basma Khalifa, 29, was born in Saudi Arabia but raised in Northern Ireland and now lives and works in London. For BBC3 documentary Inside the Real Saudi Arabia, Why I had to Leave, Basma returns to Jeddah to stay with her three aunts…but quickly finds herself flauting the strict laws
A photo of Basima with her mother during her brief time in Saudi as a child; she wonders whether she might one day return to the country for good but after her time in Jeddah, she says ‘I just want to go home’ to England
However, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has put Saudi’s dubious record on human rights back in the spotlight. Turkish officials suspect Saudi security agents killed Khashoggi, 59, inside the consulate and dismembered his body on October 2nd last year.
Basma’s visit to the country coincides with Khashoggi’s murder making headlines across the globe but she arrives in Jeddah to find no mention of the story and her family unaware of it.
Upon touching down in the city, Basma has an emotional reunion with her family members and admits that she had worried that she would feel unsafe but says ‘so far I feel nothing but safe here’.
Her time in the country sees her partying til the early hours at a secret bash, praying to Mecca and even looking for potential boyfriends on ‘Jeddah Tinder’.
The tension for Basima begins when she visits a shopping centre without an abaya headscarf. Her aunt tells her the city is increasingly liberal she finds herself chastised by the fixer who is helping her make the programme
He tells them that while their are other women in the shopping cente with their heads bare, they should have been more respectful of the country’s cultural traditions
Who knew? Basima finds herself invited to a party where she stays until the early hours
However, despite immersing herself in local culture, living in her birth place proves difficult as she struggles to conform with the country’s strict laws – and eventually inflames authorities so much she’s asked to stay indoors for the remainder of her trip.
The problems begin when she takes off her abaya headscarf in a shopping mall after seeing other women walking around with their heads bare.
However, her decision makes her aunt uncomfortable and her fears are confounded when the documentary’s ‘fixers’ tell Basma and her director, Jess, to cover up, forcing Basma to spend £50 on an abaya.
After purchasing an abaya for £50, her aunt ties it around her head. During filming she notices that any women they see try and protect themselves from being filmed, although many admit to frequently showing their faces on social media, because their families won’t see it
Basmia even considers sampling Jeddah Tinder after scrolling through profiles of local men on her Google Pixel 3 she could arrange to meet in the city
Joining her aunt to pray to Mecca, Basima admits that she wouldn’t take time away from her job at home in the UK to pray
There are surprises though, Basima finds herself invited to a party where she stays until the early hours although she admits that most of the women stay covered up with some wearing skimpy clothing over their floor length garments.
Her stay becomes less fun when she decides to hire a car – women have been allowed to drive in Saudi since June 2018.
Fear: After mentioning the name of a prominent female activist who fought for the right of women to drive, Basima’s experience turns sour and she’s asked not to go out of her aunt’s house for the rest of her trip
The 29-year-old is told in no uncertain terms that she’s offended authorities by mentioning sensitive issues including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey
After mentioning one of the key activists who fought for a women’s right to get behind the wheel, Loujain Al-Hathloul, she is told off by her government fixer, who demands that she should stay indoors at her aunt’s house for the rest of her trip.
Basma is overheard talking about Loujain Al-Hathloul, one of nine women held after a brutal crackdown on activism in the country last May – a month before the driving ban for women was lifted.
At the time of her arrest, Al-Hathloul and her fellow campaigners were bidding to use the lifting of the driving ban as a springboard for further reforms such as ending Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male guardianship system and allowing more freedom of speech.
After a tense conversation with a government fixer, Basma is told that she shouldn’t be mentioning such ‘sensitive’ issues while in Jeddah and her trip ends with her effectively incarcerated in her aunts’ house.
The quest for women’s rights in the country has garnered increasing global attention in recent years. Last week, Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, found herself in the media spotlight after she refused to return home from Thailand to Saudi Arabia after fleeing her family.
Granted asylum in Canada, the teenager has been posting regular updates of her new life there on social media.