Perhaps Rahaf Mohammed’s name lives on the periphery of our consciousness because we are vaguely aware of her harrowing and heart-stopping escape from Saudi Arabia via Kuwait and Thailand, to asylum in Canada. Hearing about this story motivated me to pick up the book. This courageous memoir about a rebel with a cause will leave a lasting impact and Mohammed’s name and story will be entrenched for eternity in the annals of those who survived to tell their truths.
Living in a gender apartheid, totalitarian regime takes its toll. The young Mohammed questions the blatant inequities between boys and girls. By age seven, she is unable to play on the streets, and at nine, she has to wear the shapeless black abaya, which absorbs the sun and is uncomfortable in the desert climate. Why do men wear white, which reflects the sun? Questions like this subject her to physical abuse and torrents of verbal invectives from her brothers, whose government-sanctioned male guardianship provides them with a safe bastion from which to terrorize their female relatives. At 12, she is forced to wear the niqab, which leaves only her eyes visible to the world, but she is keenly observant of the cultural impositions that deny her the right to even feel the natural breeze on her skin.
“I was an outsider in my country, an infidel to my customs and an undesirable to my family,” writes Mohammed. Her poignant musings reveal the depths of her despair. She opens a window into the everyday life of girls and women in Saudi Arabia, providing a riveting treatise about growing up in a hostile, misogynistic environment. The country’s claustrophobic and oppressive laws thwart her every desire, dream, and reason to live. Choosing to risk her life for the pursuit of happiness, to express her sexuality, to explore her career choices, and to feel the breeze on her face and skin, she sets into motion an elaborate escape plan. The daring bolt for freedom segues into a gripping thriller.
The heart-wrenching story is a compelling but disturbing read. By chronicling her story, Mohammed gives voice to the countless others who remain behind in their gilded cages—many living in quiet desperation—trying, but unable, to shed and shred the shrouds that prevent their liberty.