On the night of August 14, 2019, I performed at a fundraiser for Loujain Al-Hathloul. It was the biggest audience I’ve performed in front to date. There were about 100 people in a space that showed up to support Loujain’s campaign.

Loujain al-Hathloul is a detained Saudi women’s rights activist. Her peaceful work is focused on dismantling male guardianship, domestic abuse, and women’s rights to drive in Saudi Arabia. I never had the privilege of meeting Loujain as she was several years my junior at the University of British Columbia. To find out more about her, you can read this CNN article on her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

I performed alongside eight other artists – singers, musicians, and poets. As a writer of fiction, it was an honor for me to read a passage from my debut novel, Saltwater Spirits. After all, the story centers around a courageous young woman, Norma, who breaks social conventions and stands up for what is sacred. 

The event raised over $2,000 to contribute towards Loujain’s campaign, and I also donated a portion of my proceeds from book sales to the campaign. 

As an activist, it was a privilege to be reminded of the power of community and the changes a group of committed people can affect in the face of injustice. As a performer, I felt electrified from the large, engaged audience. As an artist, it was beautiful to make connections with other femme creatives who are equally passionate about their work. It was a powerful and magical evening. 

(Pictures below are from the event website.)

A transcript of my speech from the night

Hello everyone. My name is Syahidah Ismail. I’m a newly published author and long-time writer. Before I start, I’d like to thank the organizers for extending the invitation for me to perform tonight. I arrived a little later than I would have liked to because I wanted to put my toddler to bed. However, I’ve been blown away by the support that everyone in the audience has shown the performers. I’m honored to share the stage with these fantastic artists. To the organizers, I see and recognize all the work you’ve put into this event. Thank you. 

Let me start by saying that I never had the privilege of meeting Loujain al-Hathloul. She was several years my junior at UBC, and I only came to know about her when I read Urooba Jamal’s CNN article on Loujain’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. What I learned stayed with me while I worked to launch my novel back in June. It stayed with me through the times I spent at the park with my child. So when Urooba invited me to perform tonight, I said yes.

What strikes me most about Loujain is her peaceful work focused around dismantling male guardianship, domestic abuse, and women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia. 

In my work as a fiction author, I write about people in all our complexities — our joys, our sorrows, our struggles. Our accomplishments, our strengths, and our weaknesses. One of the best parts about writing women characters is that I get to figure out what they eat, what they wear, what music they listen to, who their friends are and who they fall in love with.

Something that always strikes me as I write women on the page is what and how much women endureThere are very real and very oppressive systems and institutions — and people invested in them — who not only deny women our fundamental human rights but also deny us the complexity and multi-dimensionality that I give my fictional characters. These same systems and people keep us from becoming all we can truly be – women, men, and gender non-binary folks alike. 

Tonight, I will read an excerpt from my debut novel, Saltwater Spirits. Saltwater Spirits is genre-crossing fiction set in a world inspired by midcentury, postcolonial Singapore.

In honor of Loujain’s courage, I have chosen to read a section where the protagonist, a young Malay-Muslim woman named Norma, has decided to take matters into her own hands. Her village has been subject to mysterious disturbances, and Norma decides to investigate the cause. In this scene, she decides that the best way to follow a lead is to borrow her neighbor’s clothes, crossdress, and steal his electric bicycle.

Cycling, like driving, is transformative in women’s lives. Access to transportation transforms how we get places. It changes how we relate to the people around us. Women are free to live, work, and play when we can get where we have to go with ease and freedom. As Loujain’s work highlights, transport for women is and will always be political.

With that in mind, let’s follow Norma as she transforms herself not only physically but psychologically as she confronts her role in the mystery surrounding her village. 

~ read from pages 169 -175 ~ 

If you want to find out what happens, you can purchase a copy tonight. I am donating 10% of all book profits tonight to Loujain’s campaign. Thank you.