The 'Rosa Parks' of Saudi Arabia

  • 11 January 2016
Nawal al-Hawsawi Image copyright Nawal al-Hawsawi

Nawal al-Hawsawi is outspoken, black, a qualified pilot and married to a white man - everything her critics say a Saudi woman shouldn't be.

But despite receiving waves of abuse on social media, she refuses to bow to convention and hits back at her detractors "with love".

Al-Hawsawi has become something of a star on social media. She has amassed almost 50,000 followers on Twitter, where she posts about the importance of racial diversity and marriage equality. But not everyone reading her feed is a fan.

The deluge of racist abuse that came at the end of December was just the latest flurry in a long campaign. The trolls have had al-Hawsawi in their sights for years. They send her pictures of gorillas, grotesquely photoshopped African tribespeople, and they call her the A word - a derogatory Arabic term for black people which means "slave", not dissimilar in meaning to the N word.

Growing up in Mecca, a fairly cosmopolitan part of Saudi Arabia, al-Hawsawi says until she travelled to the US she hadn't consciously thought of herself as "black".

While she was there she learnt to fly and is now a certified pilot - though one who has yet to be allowed to take to the skies in her homeland. She also studied to become a marriage therapist, which is what she does now. She married a white man - an American - and returned to Saudi Arabia around a few years ago, which is when the trouble began.

Confronting abuse

At an event celebrating Saudi's National Day in 2013, she was verbally attacked by another woman who called her the A word. Racism is a criminal offence in the country and she took the woman to court. But after talking to her abuser, she received an apology and dropped the case, and says that the pair are now good friends.

The story made national headlines in the country, and al-Hawsawi appeared on television to talk about what had happened. The media dubbed her the "Rosa Parks" of Saudi Arabia - a reference to the iconic US Civil Rights protester. She used her newfound platform to launch an anti-racist campaign on Twitter, using the A word to raise awareness of the issue.

But the story doesn't end there. Because of the attention she received, her Twitter account - which al-Hawsawi uses to post messages about combating racism and domestic violence - became the focus of attention for trolls, who used it to mount a campaign of hate against her. Now her skin colour, gender, outspoken nature and interracial marriage are all sources of anger for the trolls, who she believes are mostly far-right conservatives based in Saudi Arabia.

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"They didn't like my tweets about marriage, equality and unity," she tells BBC Trending. "They started a campaign publishing a picture of my husband and children, and asked others to retweet it. It was very shocking."

Al-Hawsawi is clear about why she she has become a target: "I represent everything that they hate, everything that they stand against. I'm a Saudi woman who married a foreigner. They're anti-American. My husband is white, I'm black. They condemn interracial marriages. They say women shouldn't have jobs, so to see a woman who can't just drive a car but has a pilots licence is unacceptable. And they don't like that my message resonates with a lot of followers."

Her plight doesn't seem to be going unheard. Al-Hawsawi sent a collection of the abusive messages to the ministry of the interior and says the issue is being taken very seriously, but attempts to track down the abusers - most of whom post anonymously - is taking time.

And in the meantime? "I learned a lot from Mandela, MLK and Gandhi," she says. "You don't fight hate with hate. You can light a candle and stay positive. It just makes you stronger."

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