Maha Noor Elahi – Saudi Women and the Emerging Culture of Entertainment

L to R : Children during an improvisation activity holding a sign “I am an Arab! I read in Arabic!”, Hatoon Kadi with her two children Ahmed & Awab, Founder of the Reading Forum, Thuraya.A Batterjee, artist Safiya Bin Zagr and former Executive Director of the United Nations Populations Fund, Dr. Thurayya Obaid.


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Saudi Women and the Emerging Culture of Entertainment

Saudi Arabia…oppression, rigorousness, and a great deal of limitations; perhaps that’s all what you’ve heard or read about my country, and when it comes to women, the case is even worse. I am not trying to change what you think about Saudi Arabia here, rather I will just take you on a quick fresh journey from the heart of Jeddah…fresh as in 2013!

With all the negative international media coverage about Saudi Arabia, you might find it almost impossible to believe that you are going to read about entertainment and fun in Saudi Arabia!

In the last few years, a lot of Saudi young men have amazingly overrun YouTube channels through a variety of short comedy programs criticizing common social, economic, and political issues, and later on, they went on different theatres in Riyadh and Jeddah, performing what is internationally known as stand-up comedy, doing a great job ever since they started. Amongst them are Omar Hussein, Fahad Al-Butairi, Hisha Faqeeh, Badr Saleh, and many others, but it may seem just normal for those young men to bloom in a male-dominated society.

What you might have never heard about is that there are a few notable female entertainers in Saudi Arabia, specifically in Jeddah, for “life” finds its way in those who want to enjoy it regardless of their condition or the restrictions around them.

A few years ago, a young Saudi academic and IT specialist, who happens to be a friend of mine confided in me that she wanted to do something really big…something that would create a buzz in our society! And since she had always had this sharp and thought-provoking sense of humor, her dream came true, and she has become the first YouTube Saudi female entertainer! Hatoon Kadi is not a full-time comedy program presenter; she is a wife and a mother of two adorable boys.

Her YouTube program “Noon Al-Niswa” represents the voice of every-day Saudi women, who are not from the high or velvet class, and who have balanced, wise attitudes and insights about life, family, and work. The program, in addition; criticizes many female behaviors in the Saudi society, especially acts that are associated with the nouveau riche and the so-called “cool” generation of females. In a cynical light-hearted way, Hatoon mocks the “cool wannabes”, who are usually appearance-centered, show-offs, and completely dependent on maids to serve them and raise their kids. Hatoon tackles these social issues from a woman’s perspective, without making judgments or offering solutions; she just displays reality in her own way, and if that makes her audience enjoy a good laugh, she feels satisfied.

Nevertheless, “Noon Al-Niswa” is only a small part of Hatoon’s life. Most of her time, she is a caring mother, who works half of the day and runs after her kids the other half.

“I have started my career when I was pregnant with my first son Ahmed and I never stayed home. Maybe I was lucky because the place I worked at provided a very good nursery service, which was a relief, so we had always been a package, leaving home at 7:30 and coming back around 5 pm. In Saudi Arabia, I used to have a maid, but she was never a cook or a nanny as I usually take off my Abayah and put on my apron once I return home to prepare dinner for my family. I have always believed that it is the mother’s responsibility

to ensure good nutrition for her family. Now as I am doing my PhD in the UK, things are different as there is no full-time maid, so in the morning I just urge everyone to do their beds, I clean bathrooms, load the dishwasher, and then come back after a full day to do the rest.Well, I know it’s not a very pinky and bright picture, but it is manageable and rewarding.”

Along with her daily chores as a wife and mother, Hatoon is preparing for her PhD degree at the University of Sheffield Information School. Her research is about the impacts of the deployment of virtual learning environment systems on teaching in Saudi higher education institutions.

Needless to say, Hatoon’s experience is a perfect example of the will-power and tenacity that Saudi women have. She is a real-life example of how Saudi women can be whenever they have the desire, knowledge, determination, and of course, family support.

And definitely, Hatoon Kadi is not the only positive archetype. There are many other women in Saudi Arabia who understand the value and importance of entertainment; not just for the sake of fun or social criticism, but for educational purposes as well.

At the beginning of 2013, Mrs. Thuraya A Batterjee, children’s books writer and owner of publishing house Kadi and Ramadi, decided to take the initiative of designing a public reading forum to spread the love of reading among children and to educate both children and parents through entertainment, particularly through amusing interactive reading workshops and stage performances.

Planning for such a forum, which included more than 50 workshops, meetings with a number of well-known published authors, and performing
two plays for children, was undoubtedly not an easy task. It needed thorough planning, keeping in mind all those tiny details.

Of course, such events like the reading forum happen all the time around the world, but what is unique about Jeddah’s Reading Forum for Children is that it was initiated, planned, and executed by women! A team of 12 women were involved in the planning and coordination procedures and more than 20 young Saudi girls volunteered to help and organize during the five-day event.

The forum included a variety of engaging activities such as story-telling, an art exhibition showcasing children’s work, book signing, and workshops that encourage reading and discuss diverse ways to help parents and children live enjoyable experiences with books. All these activities were presented by famous male and female figures in the Saudi society; prominent authors, educators, artists, businessmen, journalists, TV presenters, company owners, and many more participated in the event, believing in the great cause behind it; the development of the new generation through non-traditional and attention-grabbing ways.

In addition, two major performances took place during the forum days; a performance of a play titled The Secret Lives of Princesses by Philippe Lechermeier and Rébecca Dautremer, performed in English and directed by a promising Saudi female director, Ms. Lana Qumosani, and another play called Dakoon the Frog by Haidar Solaiman, performed in Arabic and directed by me. Selecting children (the actors) between ages 5 to 16 was done after a number of auditions, and the training and rehearsals of both plays continued for about 3 months, two or three times a week including weekends, sometimes.

To prepare for the plays the whole forum, each member of the organizing team worked day and night, dedicating their time and effort to achieve the goal of the event; spreading awareness and love of reading through entertainment.

The plays were received with great excitement by the audience, children and parents, and both plays were performed more than once upon the demand of the audience. All in all, the forum received full media coverage and positive, encouraging feedback from those in attendance.

In Saudi Arabia, people are thirsty for amusement that supports their values and principles, and this emerging culture is a translation of changing and developing needs and interests. It is a way to adapt to the rapidly changing world; it is a rather new culture full of life and energy led by women, along with men.


Maha Noor Elahi, ESL Lecturer in a private college in Jeddah, KSA. Wife and mother of three children. Passionate about theatre performances, reading, art, and music. I have an MA in English Literature, majoring in Drama. I began my career in 2000, teaching in a private school in Jeddah, and then I moved to work as an ESL lecturer in a private college for girls. Because of passion for the theatre and for different types of art, I established a Drama Club, where I work, wrote several comedy sketches, and directed a number of performances. The Drama Club’s latest performance was in December 2012, and it was titled Kaleidoscope. It included a variety of theatre arts such as mimicking, stand-up comedy, flash drama, monologues, dancing, playing the piano, and singing.

Another very important aspect of my career and life is empowering women whether in their studies, professional or social lives. I also love to write poems in English although I don’t consider myself a professional poet.

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