Visitors Programme “I want to sit at the steering wheel of my own life”

The Saudi Arabian artists together with Claudia Roth and Johannes Ebert, Secretary General of the Goethe-Institut
The Saudi Arabian artists together with Claudia Roth and Johannes Ebert, Secretary General of the Goethe-Institut. | Photo: Goethe-Institut/Jörg Schumacher

An entrepreneur, lawyer and women’s rights activist, Sofana Dahlan is a prominent figure in Saudi Arabia and one of the country’s best-known women. She was invited by the Goethe-Institut to come to Germany and visit Frankfurt, Berlin and Leipzig. Christopher Resch met with her.

Ms Dahlan, you were one of the first women in Saudi Arabia to be granted permission to work as a lawyer. How did you manage that?

It was a long journey that took 13 years in all. It started when I was still at school and felt that I wanted to leave the country and never come back.

But why?

I wanted to explore the world and see everything, but Saudi Arabia did not give me the opportunity to ask questions. So I studied law in Cairo. After four years, all of the Saudi men in my year had their certificate – I was the only one who didn’t. I was told that my qualification could not be recognised because there was no university in the whole of Saudi Arabia that offered a law degree for girls. That was a great disappointment.

At the time I went to Beirut where I took a master’s degree in business administration, got married and then began to work as a legal adviser in Kuwait. Ultimately, however, all of that was just an escape from Saudi Arabia, which after all was my own country! So I returned there in 2011 and started Tashkeil, my own business, in Jeddah.

So Tashkeil is an incubator, a kind of business centre for creative start-up ideas. What is the idea behind it?

Tashkeil is based on a socioeconomic model. Its main goal is capacity building. Everyone of course must have a certain knowledge base, but we also have highly individual capabilities. These need to be identified and then built upon and expanded. The other main element of the business is social crowdfunding, which allows us to help young creative people get their first projects off the ground.

We have got 60 designers up and running and have supported over 200, everything from pop-ups to proper exhibitions and coaching programmes. Over 10,000 people – both women and men – have taken part in workshops since 2011. Just imagine what a difference it can make if a female participant takes just one thing she has heard back home with her and tells her mother or her husband about it!

But you hadn’t given up on the idea of becoming a lawyer one day, had you?

Not at all. At the end of 2012, the King issued a decree that allowed women to practise as lawyers. I flew to Riyadh the very next morning. When I arrived at the Ministry of Justice, I was incredibly excited. I went in, said a friendly “Hello” and asked which documents I would need to submit in order to be recognised as a lawyer. Four bearded men sat in front of me and one of them said: “Not in a thousand years.”

Yet another disappointment.

I wasn’t simply upset, I was absolutely furious. For the next eight weeks, I would board a plane at 6 am every Tuesday and turn up at the ministry at 8.30 am on the dot. They would ignore me the first four times I came, but you could see how they were becoming more and more frustrated.  Finally, one of them disturbed me rather rudely while I was praying and I burst into tears, which gradually led to some feeling of empathy – on both sides. When they asked me whether I wouldn’t get tired of all of it sooner or later, I of course replied “no” – and one day I was actually given my certificate.

In February, the Goethe-Institut organised Germany’s cultural guest contribution to the Janadriyah Festival in Riyadh. You have already worked with the cultural manager based in Jeddah on a number of occasions. What can be accomplished through intercultural cooperation?

Any kind of cultural interaction brings us closer together. Amid all the politics, borders and visas, we have forgotten how similar we ultimately are. Language can be a barrier, true, but art or music are wonderful ways in which to communicate. What we need from countries like Germany are cultural programmes that give young people an opportunity to learn and experience new things. Unfortunately, however, Saudi Arabia lets only few people visit the country.

So the other direction would be more promising – Saudis could come to Germany for a while, for instance on the sort of trip that you are taking part in?

Yes, we need cultural programmes of this kind, and I do not mean only high-ranking business partners or visitors programmes like this one. Obviously it is wonderful to meet a politician like Claudia Roth or to see the Schirn gallery in Frankfurt. On a much simpler level, it is also about young Saudis coming to Germany, taking some very personal memories home with them, and passing them on to family and friends.

Some people here think that your country is nothing but deserts and women in burkas. What would you respond to them?

I hear all the time about how we Saudi women are not allowed to drive. And yes, we should be allowed to sit at the steering wheel – but for me it is more important to sit at the steering wheel of my own life. My country should grow organically at a pace that it can cope with. That takes time. I don’t believe in revolution, I believe in evolution. 

The interview was conducted by Christopher Resch. He is a freelance journalist in Leipzig who writes mainly about the (political) culture of the Arab/Islamic world.