She's 19, She's Saudi, She's Keeping A Diary: Corna Flix, Karate, Lab Science And Love : Goats and Soda For two years, Majd Abdulghani kept a journal during a crossroads in her life: Should she get married or keep studying? Or can she do both?
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Diary Of A Saudi Girl: Karate Lover, Science Nerd ... Bride?

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Diary Of A Saudi Girl: Karate Lover, Science Nerd ... Bride?

Diary Of A Saudi Girl: Karate Lover, Science Nerd ... Bride?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/479591225/481134467" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're about to get a glimpse of a life that is rarely revealed to outsiders - what it's like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Hello, listener. This is Majd. I live in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and I turn 19 today.

SIEGEL: That was October 2013. Our partner Radio Diaries gave Majd Abdulghani an audio recorder to document her life. She made recordings for two years.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Her country is one of the most restrictive in the world for women. The government doesn't allow them to legally drive. At the same time, there are now more women on university campuses in Saudi Arabia than there are men. Majd is one of them.

Today, we bring you her audio diary. It was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: OK, that's my alarm. It thinks I'm asleep. It's 6:45. I'm just here in my room, and I'm about to do my morning stretches. I like to count in Japanese when I do them. (Speaking Japanese). OK, I'm done. I'm going to introduce my family to the mic and you to the family. There is my immediately older brother's room to the left.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Hi, Mohammed. Can I interview you? Can you talk about your work?

MOHAMMED ABDULGHANI: Work is great. Go.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Hey.

MOHAMMED ABDULGHANI: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: I have four brothers. I'm the only girl. (Speaking Arabic). So now I'm in the kitchen with my brother - my younger brother.

Moath, what are you eating? Is this corn flakes? In Arabic, it's Corna Flix - Corna Flix.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: My mom is here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Something funny just happened, and my mom just told me about it. She got a call from some guy's mother, and she said that, you know, we heard you have a beautiful daughter. And we want to get our son married to her. My mom, she says her first instinct was to tell her, no, my daughter is too young and just try to end the call soon as possible.

But she said, I stopped myself because I felt like I need to acknowledge that you're growing up. And she told the mother that she can come over on Monday or Tuesday. So I told her, you know, listen; Mom, the chance that I will agree to this person is 0.00000001 percent.

I'm going to be late. I have my purse. I have my phone. I have my book - OK. I'm putting on my abaya. It's all black. I put it on before I leave the house. And I'm wearing my niqab. It's this fabric that covers my face except my eye area, so I'm hoping it's not masking my voice or anything. It sounds counterintuitive, but for me at least, it's kind of liberating. It gives me such anonymity. Nobody knows who the hell I am. So bye for now.

(LAUGHTER)

MAJD ABDULGHANI: OK, I'm recording in the college at King Saud University. I'm a bachelors students of clinical lab sciences. The campus is really new, basically a lot of grass and a lot of palm trees. The male campus has been there since forever, and now they move the female campus next to it.

In the University, I could laugh as loudly as I want, and I could not wear an abaya. And I can look as pretty as I want. It's just just me being me.

(CROSSTALK)

MAJD ABDULGHANI: I'm here with my friends.

(Speaking Arabic).

They're just stressful, somewhat, of the microphone.

(CROSSTALK)

MAJD ABDULGHANI: It's professional, Dude.

(LAUGHTER)

MAJD ABDULGHANI: All right, bye.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Bye.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: You know, it's the norm for girls to study now. It's not strange. It's not a big deal. What I want to do in life is, I want to be a scientist. I want to get a Masters, and then I want to get a Ph.D. And then I want to do a postdoc. This is my life plan.

Orange juice, please - fresh, also.

Hi, it's me again. The date is December 2, and we're at a steakhouse. It's a steakhouse called Outback.

MAJID ABDULGHANI: No, no, it's Australian chain. It's called Outback Steakhouse.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: (Laughter) OK (speaking Arabic). I'm with Majid, my oldest brother. I just ordered grilled salmon, and Majid, what did you order?

MAJID ABDULGHANI: Chicken fried chicken, which is a bit redundant.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: So do you mind if I do an interview with you?

MAJID ABDULGHANI: OK.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: So how do you see your role as my brother? Like, what do you think your responsibilities are toward me?

MAJID ABDULGHANI: The responsibilities are many, but to sum up, if your father, my father, God forbid, dies, then I would be the one who's in charge - what they call in Arabic the wali, the...

MAJD ABDULGHANI: The guardian.

MAJID ABDULGHANI: Yeah.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Just intervention from me - male guardianship is, like, a thing in Saudi Arabia. So for example, as a Saudi woman, you have to get permission to go to university or get married. It's one of the things we have to deal with. Anyway, back to the interview.

So yeah, what do you want me to do in the future?

MAJID ABDULGHANI: You?

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Yes, me.

MAJID ABDULGHANI: To be a great mom and to have great husband, yeah, yeah.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: So when do you think I should get married?

MAJID ABDULGHANI: You should get married now.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Now (laughter) - what?

MAJID ABDULGHANI: You are capable of getting married, so you should get married now, yeah.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: I will, inshallah - I will be able in three or four years as well.

MAJID ABDULGHANI: No, you are now capable.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Yes, and I was capable last year, too.

MAJID ABDULGHANI: Yes, so you are missing a lot of great opportunities.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Actually, I think I will miss great opportunities if I do get married. I feel like if I get married, I have to be responsible towards my husband, and so that would stop me from doing the things that I want to do.

MAJID ABDULGHANI: Being responsible for a husband is just very marvelous that you cannot...

MAJD ABDULGHANI: (Laughter).

MAJID ABDULGHANI: You will forget everything else.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: (Laughter) OK, wow. We're moving on. Do you have any questions for me?

MAJID ABDULGHANI: Yeah.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Go ahead.

MAJID ABDULGHANI: When you will start to cover yourself properly?

MAJD ABDULGHANI: I already am.

MAJID ABDULGHANI: So sometime you're covering your face, sometime not covering, sometime - so it's a bit like hypocrisy or...

MAJD ABDULGHANI: No, it's not. I usually cover my face, like, when I have makeup on. But sometimes I don't feel like it's needed.

MAJID ABDULGHANI: So subjective.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Yes. What's the problem with that?

MAJID ABDULGHANI: Not what I think - what the Prophet and what the Quran tell you to do and to cover.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: (Laughter) We both know there are a lot of opinions on this by the scholars, so you can't just...

MAJID ABDULGHANI: No. According according to the majority of the scholars, you should cover your body, excluding maybe I can say your hands and maybe one hole for the eye - yeah.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: One hole for the eye (laughter)? What is this? I would trip over everything. Oh, please. You would never say this if I weren't recording. You know that. You're trying to shock people. Anyway, do you have any last things to add?

MAJID ABDULGHANI: Why you ask a lot of questions?

MAJD ABDULGHANI: (Laughter). I feel like since I'm recording this to an American radio show, I should explain that over here, when you were young, like, you might grow up with a lot of guy friends as a little kid, but then one day, you're supposed to start detaching yourselves from them, not seeing them anymore because now you have to cover up from them.

I mean, I remember even with my cousin, when I was little, I would see him every day, and we used to kind of play our own games and stuff, sneak food to each other. It was fun (laughter). And then one day, his voice was thick. My chest was bigger, and all of a sudden you're not friends anymore. You only say, hi, how are you? And that's as far as it goes. It was, like, game over.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Shouting in Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: It's been a really busy couple of weeks. And right now I am in the gym, in the female gym where I take my karate classes. There are so few girls in Saudi Arabia who do karate. We're like the secret club.

(LAUGHTER)

MAJD ABDULGHANI: We're like "Fight Club."

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Shouting in Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: When I'm practicing karate, I don't even think about anything else, just turning myself the right way and breathing the right way and delivering efficient speed with the move. But mostly, I love how it makes me feel better about myself.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Shouting in Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Anyway, the reason I was recording is because I want to rant a little bit. My dad seems to want me to stop taking karate classes. He's been saying that for a long time, but last night, he was, like, more insistent than usual. And he said, karate - it's just not natural.

My parents - what they want me to do is sit in the kitchen and learn how to cook for a future husband that I don't even know if I'm going to get married to. And that really, really annoys me. I don't want to be cooped up in the house. I want to be able to walk alone in the street and laugh loudly with my friends and not worry about how it looks or being able to breath because I have to wear my niqab.

I love Saudi. It's my - it sounds corny, but it's my country. It's where I was born and where I was raised, you know - all that cliche stuff. But I just - I don't want to be here right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. And today we're bringing you inside a young woman's world in Saudi Arabia. Our partner Radio Diaries gave an audio recorder to Majd Abdulghani. As we return to her audio diary, almost a year has gone by, and Majd is now at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, the first coeducational university in Saudi Arabia. She's living away from home for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Hi, this is Majd, and yesterday I turned 20. I'm really glad I'm not a teenager anymore. I'm just going to put on my gloves. Right now I'm working in the lab, a genetics lab. It's crazy how much I love looking under the microscope. You know, this is inside of us. This is what is happening inside my body, and this is what's making me who I am. What's the status of the kith proteins?

PHILIP: We need to quantify them.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: I am working with Philip, a man who is a Ph.D. at the lab. Can you explain briefly what we're doing?

PHILIP: We're comparing several methodologies to isolate DNA, RNA and proteins. So you're recording our experiments.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Yes. Will it work? Will it not?

PHILIP: Yep. Stay with us.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Tune in, and...

PHILIP: After the break...

MAJD ABDULGHANI: (Laughter). I don't mind being in an environment where there are men, but it's strange for me. There are lines, obviously, that I don't cross. I didn't shake hands with them. I made sure we didn't have any physical contact (laughter). In terms of my family, they've accepted the fact that, like, this is my field of work, and so they trust me.

There we go. Philip...

PHILIP: Yeah.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: It's going to work.

PHILIP: Yeah, inshallah.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: It will. Seriously, it's going to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGTONE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: I'm on a video call with my parents.

OK, (speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: My mother is saying that there's another person who wants to get married to me. In the past year, I got two proposals, I think.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: My mom says he's very well-mannered and polite. His professor sees him in the mosque. And then she handed me over to my dad.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Oh.

My dad said, you know, his dad is a professor of bacteriology.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: bacteriology - that's so cool. Well, I just might marry him just for his father.

(Speaking Arabic).

So I asked my mom how she feels.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: She says there's nothing that I would love more than for you to be with me forever and not get married at all, but you have to, you know? It's how life goes. So we'll just make sure that he's the right person.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: (Speaking Arabic, laughter) - OK.

I'm probably going to say no, but I agreed to meet him in a few months.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Praying in Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: This is Majd. It's been a couple of months since I last recorded. I'm back home, and it's the 13th, I think, of Ramadan, and it's Friday. So here's what happened. I met the guy who proposed to me. I don't want to say his name. I'll just refer to him as the guy. Anyway, the guy and his dad came.

They were sitting in the men's section of the house. My mother and I - we were peeking through the door, but it was still too hard far to hear much. So we called my brother, and we told him to keep his phone on speaker. And we muted the phone from our end so that we can hear them and they can't hear us (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Inaudible).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Trust me. All families do that, OK? It's not just us.

And then finally they said it's time. So I walked in, and I thought he was pretty cute, actually. He made eye contact, proper eye contact, and he said, how are you? And I said I was good, and I said, how are you? And he said he was fine. My dad asked him how much of the Quran he has memorized, and the guy said, I try to read a chapter every day, but I have a problem with memorizing things, even when I was in university. My dad was like, well, you know, Majd has won many competitions in Quran recitation and memorization. And I was like, Dad, that was a long time ago.

And then my dad was like, Majd, do you have any questions for him? So I asked the guy, what do you want to achieve in life? He was like, I want to change the way energy is used in Saudi Arabia. He said, we use a very old system, and I want to invent something. I looked at him, and I was like, yeah, nice. That's a good answer. And he was like, what about you? And I told him I want to prove that being a Muslim Saudi woman who wears a headscarf - it doesn't stop me from being a scientist. And his eyes shone a little bit, you know? It was a good feeling.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Hi. It's me again. It's 10 minutes to 3 in the morning. I'm in my room listening to songs, and I can't sleep. Truthfully, this is embarrassing. I've just been thinking about love, you know - if I'll ever have a go at it. My potential future fiance - he seems like a nice guy (laughter), a good guy. But I don't want to get married.

Marriage is so much more than that. It's so much more. Like, you have to listen to what your husband says. It's a religious requirement, and even though I know that since God said it, that it's for the best, it's hard for me to comply with that. I just - I want to love someone and to have someone love me back, but I don't want to be 20 years old and married. I'm too young for that.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Good night, I guess.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Screaming, unintelligible).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Speaking Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: My cousin's angry because I don't want to put a lot of makeup on, that I want something really soft.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Liar.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: A lot has happened in the past few weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: I said yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Congratulations, my love.

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Thank you. Today I will be married. I feel good about this. I do. I wouldn't say I'm completely sure yet because I still have only met him face-to-face twice, and one of them was, like, for two seconds. But he's so supportive of everything I want to do, and there's this thing he said.

He asked me what I was scared of, and I said of failing. I really want to make a difference, to change something. And I told him that in all probability, I won't. And he said, we'll push each other to the top. And that stuck with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

MAJD ABDULGHANI: Oh, Mama.

My mother just came in. People are starting to arrive, and I'm so nervous. I am so nervous. I'm going to go downstairs now. Oh, God.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in Arabic).

MAJD ABDULGHANI: A year ago, if you had told me I would have thought, me getting married - no way. There's a verse in the Quran about the idea of naseeb, which, according to Google Translate, means share - like, these are my shares in life - being a Saudi Arabian, being a Muslim. This is my naseeb. This is what's written for me, and this is God's plan for me. This is my fate.

My dad told me that naseeb is 80 percent, and your choices are 20 percent. In the end, we really don't control a lot of what happens around us, but at the same time, God gives us the freedom of choice. And I think I made the right choice. OK, I think that's it. This is Majd. Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Our story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries with help from Nellie Gilles. It was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. You can hear an extended version of this diary along with a conversation Majd recorded with her new husband on the Radio Diaries podcast.

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