Saudi women defy disability with arts and culture
In recent months, Saudi women have broken all sorts of barriers and records through sheer spirit and willpower; nowhere more evidently than in the success stories of women overcoming physical disability with creative and cultural prowess.
Many Saudi women with special needs have made a name for themselves in the field of arts and literature. Not merely through their works, they were at the forefront of reforms aimed at improving the lives of people with disabilities in the Kingdom, and more importantly, their rights to employment, marriage, and integration and rehabilitation programs. Their efforts are supported by HRH Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Saudi Vision 2030, which has prioritized the integration of people with special needs at the top of its national agenda.
Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics estimates that 33 out of 1,000 of Saudis are challenged by some form of physical disability – this proportion is close to 2.8% of women with special needs among the total female population.
The Kingdom, which signed on to the UN’s convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008, has since taken big reformative steps in this area. It currently counts 38 rehabilitation centers for people with special needs – most notable among which are the King Salman Disability Center, the Sultan bin Abdulaziz Foundation, and the Disabled Children’s Association. More significantly, a Saudi union dedicated to sports for the disabled has set up 15 training centers across the country.
To this backdrop, many Saudi women have defied both sociocultural and physical challenges to excel in arts and culture. And they have outstanding stories to tell.
Blind painter Amjad Al-Mutairi overcame her disability and went on to create dozens of outstanding works.
Currently studying at the Taif University’s English division of the Arts Faculty, Al Mutairi practices her art with passion and patience, taking a week to a year to complete each of her paintings.
Al-Mutairi’s works largely depend on tablets, brushes and charcoal, but more importantly, on all her other heightened senses. She was born with a genetic disease that gradually eroded her eyesight. It started with nyctalopia, a condition characterized by an abnormal inability to see in dim light or at night, which then turned into the sharper tunnel vision condition.
Al-Mutairi’s vision can be likened to seeing the world through a needle – enough to see her paintings from a quarter-inch distance.
She comes from a long lineage of artists that have encouraged her to hone and develop her artistic talents since childhood. Her aunt, Maha Al Kafi, and her uncle, Mansour Al-Mutairi are both renowned artists.
Throughout her career, Al-Mutairi has also received a great deal of support from Princess AlJawhara bint Faisal, who helped her launch her first exhibition at Taif University. Al Mutairi would go on to take part in several other exhibitions both in and outside of the Kingdom, and receive recognition from both Mecca governor Prince Khalid Al Faisal and Princess AlJawhara bint Faisal Al Saud.
Al Mutairi’s personal journey was behind her fight for the rights of people with special needs – particularly, for the employment of people who have lost their eyesight. She uses her Twitter account as a platform to voice her activism, with hashtags like #blind_people_can_work. In one of her tweets, Al Mutairi says: “We are creative and talented. We urge you to support our talent and provide us with job opportunities”.
In the future, Al Mutairi hopes to become an arts teacher and trainer. As for her success, she sums it up in her Twitter bio: “my loss of eyesight has not stopped me from living my life the way I want to live it”.
Writer Alia Al-Shaman also beat her disability and found her calling in arts. On her Twitter account, she says: “I challenged my muteness with my creative drive”.
And she did, producing a number of outstanding literary works, children’s books and cartoons; so much so that Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage decided to personally fund her first work.
Al-Shaman suffers from acute brain palsy resulting from oxygen deficiency; a condition that has led to her losing control over her limbs and using a wheelchair. She uses only one finger to write and draw on her computer with her left hand, and suffers from slow motion in her right hand.
Al-Shaman was born in Texas, US. She attended primary school at a special needs institution for children in Riyadh, then moved to Tabuk at the age of 12, where she worked hard at honing her writing and drawing skills.
She aspires to publish a collection of stories in the future, and be the first Saudi woman to reach the global stage in scriptwriting for cartoon movies. In tandem, she has taken on the establishment of a body to sponsor and support talents of people with special needs.
Al-Shaman also actively defends the rights of people – and particularly women – with special needs to marry; a cause that she highlighted in her own cartoon film, An Optimistic View, which she published on her YouTube channel, and mobilized through the hashtag #Our_right_to_marry_despite_our_disability on Twitter.
In an op-ed, Al-Shaman says: “neither logic nor advice can stop people with special needs to hope to marry someone. The need for love and procreation are inherent in all human beings”.
Sarah Al-Hazemi overcame her eyesight loss with technology, sharpening her technical skills to eventually become a trainer for devices and computers designed for blind people, and then, the program president at the Blind Roya organization. The latter was established to improve the lives of people who have lost their eyesight by offering them training and education opportunities, and enabling them to integrate into the wider community.
Her drive to overcome her sight problems led her to learn and contribute to the development of tech devices for blind people using audio aids. She would then train others to use them after receiving her training certification.
Al-Hazemi is currently a university student, and a contributor to a number of newspapers. She proudly identifies with her disability on her Twitter account, saying: “I am a blind girl whose creativity and achievements were not set back by her disability”.
Aziza Sefiani lost her husband, her children and her mobility in one tragic accident. She surpassed all these shocks to start a new chapter in life.
After the accident, she decided to pursue her high school studies in Al Taif, and then her graduate studies at the Taif University College of Al-Shari’a and Regulations.
She currently works in the field of Islamic preaching, and, in tandem, holds a number of awareness conferences for people with special needs on overcoming obstacles to integrate into their communities.
She has been recognized by the Princess Alanoud Charity Organization, and landed the sixth spot in a nationwide literary competition for her short story A Date with Destiny. The story told her journey of perseverance against odds.
There seems to be nothing holding back Saudi’s special women from spreading their wings – and literally, at that.
Young Wafaa Al-Obaidi, who suffers from impaired mobility, was able to make her skydiving dream come true in a tour over Riyadh skies.
She joined the (We are all willpower) movement, which gathers a group of young Saudis with special needs as they conquer one obstacle after the other.