Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Maisah Sobaihi: The Saudi Arabian woman revealing all on stage

By Sheena McKenzie, for CNN
September 27, 2013 -- Updated 1017 GMT (1817 HKT)
Meet playwright and academic Maisah Sobaihi. Last month she became the first Saudi Arabian to perform at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Meet playwright and academic Maisah Sobaihi. Last month she became the first Saudi Arabian to perform at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.
HIDE CAPTION
Powerful playwright
Head over heels
International appeal
Show and tell
<<
<
1
2
3
4
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • First Saudi Arabian woman performs at Edinburgh Fringe Festival
  • Play "Head Over Heels" gives insight into personal lives of Saudi Arabian women
  • The academic and divorced mother-of-two hails from deeply conservative country
  • Aims to lift the lid on "mysterious world" and foster understanding between cultures

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

(CNN) -- Maisah Sobaihi isn't just lifting the veil on the complicated love lives of Saudi Arabian women. She's smashing down the door to their homes and inviting you in for a cup of tea.

When the playwright took her one-woman show to the Edinburgh Fringe last month, she became not just the first Saudi Arabian to perform at the prestigious British arts festival, but the first to reveal a mysterious world that isn't as different from the West as you might think.

Against the painted backdrop of rambling Middle Eastern streets, Sobaihi takes her audience deep inside the hidden rooms of Saudi Arabian women, playing characters grappling with questions of love, marriage and divorce.

It's a rare glimpse into an intensely private world. But since she first started performing "Head over Heels in Saudi Arabia" seven years ago, Sobaihi has been touched by the huge number of women telling her how much they associated with her characters -- regardless of whether they were from New York or Jeddah.

CARE CEO fights global poverty
Warren Buffett's advice to Melinda Gates
Space archaeologist reveals lost worlds

"In the beginning I was really surprised to hear that, because I was writing it in Saudi Arabia about myself and other women I knew," said Sobaihi.

"But I was also happy because I think at the end of the day the experiences of women are always connected somehow. And one of the objectives of the play is to create that strong dialogue for understanding."

Saudi stereotypes

When I meet Sobaihi in the dimly lit dining room of a stately London hotel, she is as serene as the paintings on the wall, yet with the same huge, mischievous eyes which bring so much life to her characters on stage.

Later when I ask her age, she politely laughs off the question -- despite appearing strikingly youthful for a woman with two sons in their 20s.

Swathed in ornate fabrics and wearing a simple headscarf, the elegant academic with American accent is anything but the stereotypical image of the hidden Arab woman.

"Saudi Arabia is mysterious to the West because we are very private culture," she said. "And I think it's our responsibility to tell other women outside our world about our experiences, to break this mystery."

A laughing matter?

For Sobaihi, the best way to crack open this unknown world is with laughter, using a wry playfulness on stage to explore the most intimate of relationships.

In a nation where men can have more than one wife, one character deals with the prospect of her husband taking a second partner, by attempting to dig up dirt on her.

Meanwhile, another character turns her back on the traditional notion of love, and a "Saudi prince galloping in on his horse."

"I prefer to take serious things and deal with them in a light-hearted way," said Sobaihi. "I've had feedback from people who say it's enlightening. They don't know so much about Arab women in general -- and less so Saudi Arabian women. So it is an eye-opener."

"But we cannot deny that we are a conservative culture and we are very sensitive to issues that could be viewed as...unconventional, so we tread carefully."

Conservative Culture

I'm lucky to be the first. But I don't think I'll be the last.
Maisah Sobaihi

Born in Saudi Arabia, Sobaihi spent much of her childhood in California, before studying for a doctorate in English literature at the University of London. Today she is an assistant professor at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah.

But the deeply conservative kingdom isn't always an easy place for a divorced mother-of-two such as Sobaihi.

This is a nation where women are banned from driving, and where male guardians grant permission for everything from traveling to opening a bank account. In the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, Saudi Arabia was ranked fifth worst for equality of the 135 countries rated.

However some reforms are on the way, with women allowed to enter parliament earlier this year, and set to get the vote in 2015. Female director Haifaa Al Mansour -- whose film "Wadjda" is the country's first nomination at the 2014 Oscars -- is one of an increasing number of "firsts" for women in recent years.

Read: Saudis seek Oscar glory for female director

"When I was living as a divorcee there it was still hard," said Sobaihi. "You have to deal with what society might think and because men are allowed more than one wife, women might fear you too.

"There is that perception that it is better to be married. But that is less and less now for younger women. There are many who chose to go on scholarships provided by the government -- I think in the U.S. we have 80,000 students studying."

When asked about the significance of her appearance at Edinburgh, Sobaihi remains modest, smiling broadly as she turns the question on me. "On a personal level I'm lucky to be the first," she says. "But I don't think I'll be the last."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
In 2007, Arianna Huffington collapsed at her desk. Suffering from a broken cheekbone, the editor-in-chief decided to change her workaholic ways.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
March 8, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
The Facebook COO's latest headline-making action is a new "Ban Bossy" campaign, which aims at getting rid of the word "bossy."
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Meet Gail Kelly, the woman who started as a bank teller -- and now runs the banks.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 0546 GMT (1346 HKT)
What kind of politician is slashed in the face with a knife, and upon waking up in hospital the first thing they ask about is the election campaign?
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
Cast your eye across a line-up of world leaders and it might look a little something like this: Man in dark suit, man in dark suit, man in dark suit, Angela Merkel in fire engine red two-piece.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Meet Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, the chairperson of French commodities giant Louis Dreyfus Holdings, with a net worth estimated at an eye-watering $6 billion.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
YouTube has a new boss and she has a "healthy disregard for the impossible" -- according to Google CEO Larry Page. Here are five things you didn't know about her.
ADVERTISEMENT