Moudi models some of the coloured lenses that have helped her amass almost 100k followers on Instagram

Online revolution  

Since the Kingdom reluctantly opened its gates

to the virtual world at the turn of the millennium, the

transformation has been remarkable. 75% of Saudis are

now active social media users; they account for almost

half of all Twitter users in the whole Arab region.

 

The impact on women has been especially profound. In a society

that demands total conformity, modesty and discretion - laughing out loud or wearing colourful shoes in public are viewed as provocative acts - the Internet allows women to express themselves in hitherto unimaginable ways. 

 

They may be fully veiled on the street, but in private, Saudi women are queens of the selfie, “I regularly break the law for Instagram,” Moudi confesses “I’ll crank the music up in the car, take off my abaya and

take pictures, or videos for Snapchat.”

 

But it’s not just beauty trends women are exchanging. Women’s

rights activism in the country is organised entirely through social

media apps, allowing women who were once isolated to reach each other across the Kingdom, and beyond. 

 

Access to social media is even credited with reducing sexual harassment in the strictly gender-segregated state,

“Before, you always had cars chasing you,”

explains filmmaker Laama Al Madani,

“now men and women are meeting online,

you’re not harassed on the street

nearly as much!.”

What is the most rebellious thing you have ever done?

"Once I went out dressed as a man. It was about five years ago; I put on a hoodie, covered my hair and walked down a street in the centre of Riyadh, just like a boy. Nobody noticed. I just wanted the challenge, to prove to myself I could do it."

The Instagram Queen

Moudi, 26, Riyadh

Moudi is an entrepreneur who makes her living on Instagram. The huge popularity of her beauty tips and range of cosmetic lenses has made her a minor celebrity in the capital - although her true identity remains a well-guarded secret. 

On beauty

We take care of ourselves and how we look, this comes before anything else! We want to be gorgeous, we want to be confident, we want to feel like models. We feel more powerful when we’ve made an effort like this; it lifts us.

People wonder why we bother; I mean, we’re always wearing a veil, right? But we don't show off on the street, we show off amongst ourselves, just the girls. It’s like a challenge to see who can be the most beautiful. And well, even in a niqab, you can still see the eyes; so eyebrows, lids, lashes, it’s all important.

Perhaps that’s why my business has been so successful, with the coloured contact lenses. We focus a lot on the eyes. I guess whether you’re in a burqa or a miniskirt, everyone shows what they have, right?

 

On relationships

My family married me off when I was twenty-one. I was so disappointed. I felt that my family didn’t want me anymore.

They had tried a couple of times before, but I fought them and I always got away. But this time my mum came to me and told me that she didn't have the means to take care of me anymore. I had a moment of weakness and I said yes.

My family thought the guy was a catch you see. He was a famous businessman in Saudi Arabia - and very, very rich.

It all happened so quickly; I had the whole wedding prepared in a week, huge Cinderella dress and all. If you have the money anything is possible. I could have done it in two days. But I wasn't excited. It was just something that had to be done.

We were only married for four months in the end. But that’s not so unusual; I was wife number four. The fourth one you know, they always swap that one in and out. She’s always the youngest.

It’s like us girls, we don’t want just one handbag, right? We want two, three, four. Men are like this with women. And they have the option.

Some women don’t mind sharing a husband; she gets more time to herself that way. I didn’t mind, why should I? I didn’t love him.

 

But if I loved him, then no, I wouldn’t allow it. I know how to say no; I know how to fight. I know how to kill too!

On the veil

I started wearing niqab when I was twelve; I took it off when I was twenty-one. I haven’t put it on again since. I never believed in it, that you need a piece of fabric over your face to keep your honour. You can’t breathe in that thing.

The first day I went out without it I felt great; I felt normal, like anyone. My family was furious. Well my sisters didn't care, but my brothers never accepted it. They thought I was up to something. 

Of course I still wear my abaya and cover my hair. If I don’t people will shout, they'll follow me. They’ll think I’m crazy or attention-seeking or both.

But I wouldn’t wear it abroad. I think outside people would just look at me the same as anyone else. They’re not gonna see my face or my body and say, “Wow!” I’m not special, I’m just a woman like any other.

 

In Islam hijab is important, but hijab doesn’t mean niqab and abaya. There are other ways to present yourself well. I mean, I’m not gonna go out in a bikini! But whether I wear an abaya or not, whether I cover my hair or not, I think that should be up to me.

On perceptions

I know how people look at us. They think we're bad, we're fundamentalists, we're violent; all these things.

They don't know that we're having fun, and doing whatever we want.

We throw parties, we break the rules. It's not allowed, but we do it anyway. Nothing stops us.

Honestly, I think women here are treated a lot better than in the West. Over there I see how women are treated like anything - like a chair, like an object. I’m sorry, but that’s what we see; that they’re cheap for men. Not like us. Here a man knows that a woman is tough; even if he gets a phone number he knows he’s gonna have to call her for three or four months before she agrees to meet him, if she agrees to meet him.

I think women here are, we're seen as more special in that way. You know how men are. When they can’t get something, they want it even more.

This interview is an extract from the book Queens of the Kingdom, Simon & Schuster (2019)