Many Saudi families bitterly remember burning photos of their loved ones after a Fatwa prohibiting photographs started circulating. But the world moves on, nonchalant. The medium was prohibited, and, now, necessity knows no law. The same is true for other media technologies: landlines, TVs, the internet, and cell phones with cameras and Bluetooth. Interestingly, Bluetooth was one of the few media infrastructures that authorities weren’t able to monitor, as content-sharing was not connected to the internet. Bluetooth was like other forms that allowed more information from the outside to reach Saudis, but, more importantly, it allowed them insight into the overt and covert realities within their society. And, it became an object of guardianship control, systemic prohibition, and ultimately, societal stigma.
Although my memories are hazy, in this article, I try to remember how my sexuality and sensuality looked in my teenage years, the isolation that drove me to search for people like me, and my journey of searching for my identity using the internet or similar technologies like Bluetooth. Additionally, I try to remember how I did this as someone who is working-class, tribal, transgender, and Saudi, before I could even form a language to describe my body and communicate with it and the world surrounding it.
The Bluetooth Invasion
Art critic, novelist, and painter John Berger discusses photography in his 1972 “Ways of Seeing” docuseries which he co-directed with Mike Dibb1:
The process of seeing paintings, or seeing anything else, is less spontaneous and natural than we tend to believe – perspective makes the eye the centre of the visible world, but the human eye can only be in one place at a time. It takes its visible world with it as it walks. With the invention of the camera, everything changed. We could see things which were not there in front of us. Appearances could travel across the world. It was no longer so easy to think of appearances traveling regularly to a single centre.
GIF by Jawad H.
Inside the Saudi society, any and all forms of media outside the censorship of the official Saudi authorities are prohibited and demonized, including any audio, visual, and even written media that may allow creation of knowledge, documentation, or entertainment. Official censorship and societal demonization has increased with the rise and spread of these mediums, not just because of Islamic Revival in the 80’s, as some might think, but because of the decades of the prohibition and intimidation that were fundamental and constant tools to manage the public opinion. These dynamics ensure that society remains in the dark, unable to form an image of itself. In other words, it ensures that one is unable to see the other and therefore, see themselves in a wider context. But self-awareness is a collective experience rather than individualistic one; it challenges the local patriarchal vision that aims to stereotype the public and mold them into pre-made, canned, institutional roles.
Prohibition, which is justified by the lie of a conservative society, is caused by the fear that media consumers might develop a sense of individuality, criticism, or even an artistic sense that may threaten the opacity of the Saudi community, a community that schooled people to deny and reject as an initial reaction. This “education” was not necessarily adopted by choice, but through an organized task force that allowed politicized fatwas weaponizing people’s faith to control their lives, identities, and their documentation of them. For example, this control came in the form of religious ads showing the throes of death, which I used to see in every street and market while watching TV, listening to music, or flirting through text messages, songs, or videos through Bluetooth. This means that the Saudi society is not a conservative society, per se, but it is a silenced one. It was like fear is always the master and the shepherd.
The relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and the camera lens in Saudi Arabia is quite complex: A picture documenting an intimate or perhaps a happy moment, can turn us into convicts simply for existing inside its frame. For example, the Saudi social media star, Suhail Al-Jameel, was convicted for three years for posting a picture of themselves wearing swimming shorts. They spent a part of this sentence in prison but were then released for memorizing the Quran. Although a picture can now be used as forensic evidence against gender nonconforming people in Saudi Arabia, this wasn’t always the case.
Image by Jawad H.
Discovery Of Digital Pleasure:
From 2004 to 2010, when I would sit in front of my PC screen and worn-out keyboard, I only had scarce and mostly offensive words to describe my identity, my body, and any other identities or bodies that were like mine: “sissy,” “effeminate,” “third gender,” “transgender,” “sodomite.” These were words were always delivered with an indicting tone. I didn’t know, yet, that language could be a pen in my fingers – or, in this case, a keyboard – rather than a belt to my back.
During puberty, I felt like a dirty alien. Everyone insisted and expected me to behave like a man, which immediately made me feel isolated and like I’d failed. Even when I was able to follow the toxic stereotypical patriarchal rules around me, I wasn’t happy. I knew I was playing a role or hiding a secret that everyone knew but hid. The version of masculinity they forced on me was like a muzzle that was meant to silence me; my gender nonconformity was a ticking time bomb.
That’s when I first knew how panic attacks felt. Of course, I didn’t know how to describe the feeling of my heart aching. At each panic attack, I would repeat to my parents: “I feel like I’m dying.” They used to think that I’ve been bewitched or envied, and their answers never gave me closure. I knew it was something else; all that smoke inside me couldn’t have been without a fire. It was just a matter of time until I found the missing puzzle piece. I didn’t know I was growing up to be a transgender woman, but I was growing up very painfully, with all the rules and barriers they imposed on my teenage body.
With the curiosity of a child, and a stomach filled with Holy water, I would visit my aunt’s house to use their PC, in hopes of seeing someone like me on the screen. Perhaps it was a far-fetched wish, or perhaps it was the start of a journey to search for a sense of belonging.
The feelings inside me were new, spur-of-the-moment, and lacking any meaning or label… yet. Each time my aunt discovered what I used to secretly watch and she look at the “sissies,” as she called them, swaying on screen, she would fist my shirt and drag me, yelling in my face “What are those? Is that a man? These aren’t men. These are sissies. What are these?” Then, she would call my uncle and repeat her question, “Tell me, does that look like a man to you?” I would stutter and release myself out of her suffocating grip, running to the street. I’m lucky she never told my father.
Image by Jawad H.
The digital memory of porn sites, YouTube searches, and the Bluetooth era has piles of videos that document the gender nonconformity of several queer Saudi personalities of varying ages, who were locally and digitally famous in the past. This prompts an ethical question: are these videos posted with these personalities’ consent?
Despite being cursed, rejected by society, intimidated by the authorities, and being affiliated with “the third gender phenomena,” these erotic videos displaying the sexuality of gender nonconforming people became very popular. Dare I say, people living in a forced-binary environment even became obsessed with them. An example of these videos are dances in “shakshaka” parties, where Khaleeji dances are performed. Audiences are normally gender-segregated and filled with dancers, with all their different identities and gender and sexual expressions. These parties are a place where sexualities of these nonconforming bodies are publicly celebrated.
On the dance floor, some members of the audience wear the Saudi Thobe in a non-traditional way so it looks more like a dress: it’s made tight on the waist and hips, designed especially for dancing and showing cleavage. When I watch these videos, they seem straight out of a fantasy to me, even though they were from not long ago. But it is the fact that the Saudi community today considers homosexuality and gender nonconformity to be foreign ideologies is a way to erase its queer history and deny that homosexual love and erotica are a part of the Saudi people’s culture, including their cultural songs and neighborhood life. At these parties, it is easy to notice the men’s lust when they dance with the more feminine dancers. Between the swaying hips and the tambourine smacks, a moment of lust outside of societal shame is born. Authority guardianship cannot stifle it, no matter how much fear it instilled in the souls of the viewers.
We used to exchange sim cards in secret and text messages via Bluetooth containing gay sex films. Some were professional and others were leaked personal videos of Saudis of various ages. This was the only way I watched any form of porn in my teenage years. It’s worth noting that many of these videos are still circulating in the pornographic cyberspace without the consent of its owners. Today, cyberlaw in Saudi Arabia penalizes blackmailers and also the victims for owning naked photos/videos of themselves. Other media that circulated were a montage of transgender women dancing, putting on makeup, or simply strolling in the street or universities. In this case, the video would be taken of them without their consent and a song or a Nabati poetry2 audio would be inserted on it.
They would get shared through conversations on Messenger or incognito Bluetooth drives in public places. This way, the receiver allows their discovery and the sender shares content, whichever it may be. This could also happen face-to-face if the person was trusted. Sharing content randomly in public places was laced with danger, as it was a way for flirting, but also harassment. Before, some would fall into the hands of “The Committee of the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,” which groups everyone together. As an oppressive institution, the committee sees any sexual content – or content that may indirectly hint at sex or lust – it is considered an unnatural act that threatens society and the Saudi family. They believe this act should be punishable by law – varying from confiscation of the person’s cell phone and signing an undertaking, arrest, and imprisonment if the videos shared were personal.
I used to try and test the waters with the reaction of the boys around me: I used to slander when they slander, and flirt when they flirt. But essentially, the transgender Bluetooth queens in Saudi Arabia made me see my reflection through pixelated videos and societal stigma. I saw beauty from them and the gender euphoria that was taken outside of the violent context of the misogynist Saudi society. They helped me stay alive and feel strong and capable in an ocean of unlimited possibilities.