Looking back at my life’s journey, it was never in my plan to write a book. It was always understood that after attending college, I would work in the family business. And that I did.
I worked, flourished in my business career, and moved the family business’s trading division to the top five in Bahrain. This is simultaneous to raising three children. And of course, working harder than most of the men around me and in my family, because women, especially in Arab countries, must often overachieve to gain the professional respect of those around us.
I’m not sure where this intense dedication and goal-driven desire stemmed from, but it worked.
Even with success, I’ve always had a lot of empathy. Being successful and tough in business doesn’t mean that I don’t listen to other women’s issues . I am always listening - and what I hear are these issues continuing to multiply. So many women feel a sense of injustice just for being a woman. I have always felt it too.
In my own experience, small issues would rise, and because of my gender, I was asked by elders to let things go. Silence will be rewarded later, they say. But is it?
One day, my sentiments found an alternative to silence on paper. I wrote a song about Arab women experiences called “Awaken”. And unbelievably, this song was picked up by the singer Maher Zain, and became very popular in Asia with more than 8 million views.
This song started my new path of interviewing Arab women and learning what their plight was. I wasn’t sure if they would actually want to speak to me since we come from a conservative culture that still prefers women to be voiceless . Alas, I was pleasantly surprised.
Whenever I landed in a country with one or two interviews scheduled, many more women would come and speak. Most preferred to be anonymous, which is understandable given the taboos and barriers they were breaking in speaking openly. They wanted to be heard! They wanted others to hear their voices and suffering; and they wanted the next generation to do better and be more wary.
I spoke to a GCC mother about how she could not grant her children citizenship after divorcing her abusive husband. Arab laws state that only the father can grant children citizenship; not the mother. Meaning, if a mother is abused and wants to leave the marriage with her children, the father can spite the mother and take away their children’s citizenship, in which their children no longer have passports or IDs; they can’t even go to college. This was the case of the GCC mother.
Even if a GCC mother married a nice man outside of the GCC, the mother is still not able to grant their children citizenship.
At times, tears would roll down my cheeks, but I wouldn’t stop writing. These women were precious, how could I miss a word, a nuance? How could I not tell the world how wonderful they are?
I heard the experiences of a successful Bahraini journalist who was abused and raped by her husband day after day. And even though she tried endlessly to divorce him; only the husband is able to grant a divorce in Arab laws. It does not matter if the wife or mother is being beaten and raped. By Arab law, the future of the marriage, by law, is up to the husband, whether an abuser or not.
I still remember the journalist putting her hand on my wrist and saying, “Look at me Suzy! Don’t cry for me. I’m happy. I’m blessed. Look at me now, I’ve decided to forgive and move forward. God gives you many keys in life - it is up to you to decide which doors to open.”
Near the end of the book, I had a special place for the voices of Generation Z - such an empowered generation! I was in awe of their voices - including the words of my own daughter - with views about women’s rights and marriage that are much more open and brave than the generations before. Generation Z does feel they have more of a voice - mainly because of social media.
I admired all the beautiful women I met on this journey. From the mothers and refugees who couldn’t give their children citizenship, but would sacrifice their lives for their children. To the abused wives who escaped their husbands, some of whom were disowned by their family because of it, but remained strong to their self worth and value. To the sisters who were coerced into signing off their inheritance rights to their brothers, and receiving less than they thought they deserved.
At a broader level, I became all the more convinced that we in Arab countries must do everything possible to improve legislation that protects and empowers women. Yes, legislative improvements have been made such as those in Saudi Arabia granting women the right to drive and travel abroad without the permission of a male guardian. But legislation still does painfully little to protect Arab women overall as mothers, wives and citizens. In some cases, women’s rights abuses are woven into the law. For example, most Arab nations have declined to accept a number of Articles in the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that allow women to pass their nationality on to their children, freely choose a residence or have equal rights in marriage and its dissolution. This leaves countless women vulnerable to being trapped in abusive marriages or seeing their children abducted by their husbands.
Isn’t the fact that these women would do anything for their children enough for us to start a discussion about the injustice we see? I bow my head in appreciation and gratitude to all these women and to women around the world. The struggle continues, but with Generation Z, change is coming! We will not be voiceless anymore! Hear us Speak.
WRITTEN BYSuzan Kanoo