Majd Abdulghani is a young woman from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who dreams of becoming a scientist — while her parents hope to arrange her marriage. Radio Diaries, a storytelling nonprofit and podcast, sent Abdulghani a recorder — and she ended up chronicling her world for over two years. Here are some scenes from her diary, which began on October 31, 2013.
Meet The Abdulghanis
Hello. This is Majd and I turned 19 today.
Ring ring ring!
That’s my alarm. It thinks I’m asleep.
It’s 6:45. I’m just here in my room and I’m about to do my morning stretches. I like to count in Japanese when I do them.
Ichi, Ni, San, Shi…
OK, I’m done.
I’m going to introduce my family to you, and you to my family. There’s my older brother’s room to the left.
“Hi Mohammed. Can I interview you? So, can you talk about your work?”
“Work is great,” he says.
I have four brothers. I’m the only girl.
Now I’m passing the family sitting room. I’m opening a door. And now I’m in the kitchen with my younger brother, Moath.
“What are you eating? Is this corn flakes?”
He nods. In Arabic, we call corn flakes “Corna Flix.”
My mom is here. Something funny just happened and she’s telling me about it. She got a call from some guy’s mother who said, “We heard that you have a beautiful daughter and we want to get our son married to her.”
My mom says her first instinct was to tell her, “No my daughter is too young.” She wanted to end the call as soon as possible. But she said, “I stopped myself because I felt like I need to acknowledge that you’re growing up.” So she told the mother that she could come over on Monday or Tuesday.
I tell my mom: “Listen mom. The chance that I will agree to this person is 0.00000001 percent.”
Ugh, I’m going to be late. I’m heading downstairs and hoping I haven’t forgotten anything. I have my purse, I have my phone, I have my book. OK.
I’m putting on my abaya, which I put on before I leave the house. It’s all black. And I’m wearing my niqab. It’s this fabric that covers my face except my eye area.
I’m a bachelor’s student of clinical lab sciences at King Saud University. The campus is really new — basically a lot of grass and a lot of palm trees. The male campus has been there since forever, and now they moved the female campus next to it.
There’s not a single man on campus — and if there are, they’re in basements. They have a special entrance so you never run into them. That’s why I can laugh as loudly as I want and not wear an abaya and look as pretty as I want. In the university, it’s just me being me.
It’s the norm for girls to study now. It’s not strange, it’s not a big deal. I want to be a scientist. I want to get a masters, and then I want to get a PhD. And then I want to do a postdoc. This is my life plan.
My Brother, The Wali
“Orange juice please. Fresh.”
The date is December 2. I’m at an Outback Steakhouse with Majid, my oldest brother.
“I just ordered grilled salmon, and Majid, what did you order?”
“Chicken fried chicken. Which is a bit redundant.”
We’re sitting in the “family section” of the restaurant. Usually restaurants in Saudi Arabia are divided [by sex] with partitions. There’s a section for men only, and then there’s a family section where women or mixed groups can sit.
“So do you mind if I do an interview with you?”
“Uh, OK,” he says.
“How do you see your role as my brother? What do you think your responsibilities are toward me?”
“The responsibilities are many,” he says. “But to sum up, if your father, my father, may God forbid, dies, then I would be the one who’s in charge — what they call in Arabic, the wali.”
“Yeah,” he says.
Male guardianship is “a thing” in Saudi Arabia. So for example, as a Saudi woman, I have to get permission to go to university or get married. It’s one of the things we have to deal with.
“So what do you want me to do in the future?”
“To be a great mom. And to have a great husband. Yup.” He says.
“So when do you think I should get married?”
“You should get married now.”
“You are capable of getting married so you should get married now.”
“I will, inshallah [if God wills it]. I will be capable in three or four years as well.”
“No, you are now capable,” he says.
“Yes, and I was capable last year too.”
“You are missing a lot of great opportunities,” he says.
“Actually I think I will miss great opportunities if I do get married. If I get married I have to be responsible toward my husband and so that would stop me from doing the things I want to do.”
“Being responsible for your husband is just [so] very marvelous that you’ll forget everything else,” he says.
“OK, wow. We’re moving on. Do you have any questions for me?”
“When you will start to cover yourself properly?” He asks.
“I already am.”
“So sometimes you’re covering your face. Sometimes not covering. Sometimes… So it’s a bit like hypocrisy?”
“No it’s not. I usually cover my face when I have makeup on. But sometimes I don’t feel like it’s needed.
“Yes. What’s the problem with that?”
“Not what I think,” he says. “What the prophet and the Quran tell you to do and cover.”
I laugh. “We both know that there are a lot of opinions on this by the scholars.”
“No. According to the majority of the scholars, you should cover your body — excluding maybe, I could say, your hands and maybe, one hole for your eye.”
“One hole for the eye. What is this? I would trip over everything. Oh please. You would never say this if I weren’t recording. You know that. You’re trying to shock people.”
“Anyway, do you have any last things to add?”
“Why do you ask a lot of questions?” he says, laughing.
We Used To Be Friends
I should explain that over here, when you’re young, you might grow up with a lot of guy friends as a little kid. But then one day, you’re supposed to start detaching yourself from them — not seeing them anymore ’cause you have to cover up from them.
I remember, even with my cousin. When I was little I would see him every day. We used to play games and stuff. Sneak food to each other. It was fun. And then one day, his voice was thicker, my chest was bigger, and all of a sudden you’re not friends anymore. You only say, “Hi, how are you?”
And that’s as far as it goes. It was like, game over.
It’s been a really long busy couple of weeks. Right now I’m in the female gym where I take my karate classes. There are so few girls in Saudi Arabia who do karate. We’re this secret club, like Fight Club.
There are seven of us in the class. When I’m practicing karate, I don’t think about anything else — just turning myself the right way and breathing the right way — and delivering efficient speed with the move. But mostly, I love how it makes me feel better about myself.
My dad seems to want me to stop taking karate classes. He’s been saying that for a long time. But last night, he was more insistent than usual. He said, “Karate, it’s just not natural.” He probably thinks it will throw my femininity out the window. My mom doesn’t like it either ’cause I’ve been doing pushups. My arms are a little more toned now.
My parents want me to sit in the kitchen and learn how to cook for a future husband that I don’t even know if I’m going to get married to. And that really, really annoys me.
I don’t want to be cooped up in the house. I want to be able to walk alone in the street and laugh loudly with my friends and not worry about how it looks, and not worry about being able to breathe [through] my niqab.
I love Saudi Arabia. It’s my — it sounds corny — it’s my country. It’s where I was born, where I was raised, all that cliché stuff. But I don’t want to be here right now.
Yesterday I turned 20. I’m glad I’m not a teenager anymore. I’m now at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), the first mixed-gender university in Saudi Arabia. I’m living away from home for the first time.
I’m working in a genetics lab. It’s crazy how much I love looking under the microscope. This is inside of us, this is what’s happening inside my body. This is what’s making me who I am.
I’m working with a man named Philip. He’s a Ph.D. in the lab.
“What’s the status of the kith proteins?” I asked.
“We need to quantify them,” he says. “We’re comparing several methodologies to isolate DNA, RNA and proteins.”
I don’t mind being in an environment where there are men, but it’s strange for me. There are lines I don’t cross. I don’t shake their hands. I make sure we don’t have physical contact. My family accepts that this is my field of work and so they trust me.
“Philip, it’s going to work! Seriously.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Inshallah.”
A 1 Percent Chance
I’m on a video call with my parents. I’m at KAUST and they are in Riyadh.
My mother is saying that there is another person who wants to get married to me. And he proposed. She says he is very well-mannered and polite. His professors see him in the mosque.
I ask her how she feels.
“There’s nothing that I would love more than for you to be with me forever and not get married at all,” she says. “But you have to. It’s how life goes. So we’ll just make sure he’s the right person.”
Then she hands me over to my dad.
“Oh!” says my dad. “His dad is a professor of bacteriology.”
Bacteriology? That’s so cool. I just might marry him just for his father.
“We’ll see how it goes,” says my mom.
I agreed to meet him in a few months. I’m probably going to say no. But I feel like there’s a 1 percent chance that I’ll change my mind.
It’s been a couple of months. I’m back home and it’s the 13th, I think, of Ramadan and it’s Friday.
So here’s what happened. I met the guy who proposed to me. I don’t want to say his name. I’ll just refer to him as “the guy.” (I really like the fact that the English language has the word “guy.” You don’t have to say “boy” and you don’t have to say “man.” You can say “guy.”)
Anyway, the guy and his dad came. They were sitting in the men’s section of the house. My mother and I were peeking through the door but it was still too far to hear much.
Finally, they said, “It’s time.”
So I walked in and I thought he was pretty cute actually. He made eye contact — proper eye contact — and he said, “How are you?” I said I was good and I said, “How are you?” and he said he was fine.
He asked me first what are my interests. I was like, “I like genetics and I like karate.”
And he didn’t seem to mind. Which is good.
My dad asked him how much of the Quran he has memorized.
The guy said, “I try to read a chapter every day, but I have [had] a problem with memorizing things even when I was in university.”
My dad was like, “Well you know, Majd has won many competitions in Quran recitation, memorization.”
And I was like, “Dad that was a long time ago.”
My dad was like, “Majd, do you have any questions for him.”
So I asked the guy, “What do you want to achieve in life?”
He was like, “I want to change the way energy is used in Saudi Arabia.”
He said, “We use a very old system and I want to invent something.”
I looked at him and I was like, “Yeah, nice. That’s a good answer.”
He was like, “What about you?”
And I told him, “I want to prove that being a Muslim Saudi woman who wears a headscarf doesn’t stop me from being a scientist.”
And his eyes shone a little bit. It was a good feeling.
Thinking About Love
Hi, it’s me again. It’s 10 minutes to 3 in the morning. I’m in my room, listening to songs and I can’t sleep. Truthfully, this is embarrassing. I’ve just been thinking about love, you know — if I’ll ever have a go at it.
My potential future fiancé: He seems like a nice guy, a good guy. But I don’t want to get married.
Marriage is so much more than that. It’s so much more. You have to listen to what your husband says. It’s a religious requirement.
And even though I know that since God said it, that it’s for the best. It’s hard for me to comply with that.
I just want to love someone and have someone love me back. But I don’t want to be 20 years old and married. I’m too young for that.
Goodnight, I guess.
I Said ‘Yes’
My cousin’s angry ’cause I don’t want to put a lot of makeup on. I want something really soft.
“Liar,” she says.
Ok, maybe I can put on some eyeliner. Maybe.
A lot has happened in the past few weeks. I said, “yes!”
“Congratulations, my love,” says my cousin.
Today I will be married. I feel good about this. I do. I wouldn’t say I’m completely sure yet ’cause I’ve still only met him face-to-face twice. And one of them was for like two seconds.
But he’s so supportive of everything I want to do. And there’s this thing he said. He asked me what I was scared of. I said, “Of failing. I really want to make a difference. To change something.” I told him, in all probability, I won’t. And he said, “We’ll push each other to the top.” That stuck with me.
My mother just came in. She told me that it’s 10 p.m. People are starting to arrive. I’m so nervous. I am so nervous.
My mother is telling me to go downstairs now.
A year ago if you had told me that I would be married, I would have thought, me? Getting married? No way.
There’s a verse in the Quran about naseeb, which according to Google Translate, means “share.” Like, these are my “shares” in life. Being a Saudi Arabian, being a Muslim — this is my naseeb. This is what’s written for me and this is God’s plan for me. This is my fate.
My dad told me that naseeb is 80 percent and your choices are 20 percent. In the end, we really don’t control a lot of what happens around us. But at the same time, God gives us the freedom of choice, and I think I made the right choice.
OK, this is Majd. Bye.
Since her wedding, Majd has been accepted into a masters program in genetics. And she earned a green belt in Karate.
Majd’s diary was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries, with help from Nellie Gilles, and edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. You can listen to an extended version of this story, along with a conversation that Majd recorded with her new husband, on the Radio Diaries Podcast.