IMPORTANT NOTE: I asked every young lady’s permission both before taking any pictures and again in regards to posting the pictures on the internet. Privacy is a very serious matter for Saudis, especially women, so it is really amazing that these ladies have not only put so much effort into creating these amazing costumes, but are willing to let me share them with you. One young lady used her props to cover her face and another asked me to simply edit her face out, which I have done. Please respect them. If one of these pictures is of you, and you need me to take it down, simply message me and I will. I only wish to share your amazing talents and not to cause any issues for you or your family.
When I first learned that there was an all female gaming convention in Saudi, I just about turned inside out. That was less than three weeks before it was set to happen. I was excited for several reasons. One, I’m a girl gamer geek and love cons. Two, any access I can get to culture behind the scenes here is to be jumped at. And three, to put it bluntly, #Gamergate.
I wanted to see how the most oppressive to women country in the world (only place women can’t drive, women can’t travel without men’s permission, can’t work or keep their own money without men’s permission, must be covered in public… I could go on, but you get the idea) treated their gamer ladies while in America (land of the free) trollz are doxing, and threatening to rape and murder anyone with two x chromosomes who dares have an opinion about the games they write or play.
*(I’m including any transgender ladies who feel trolled upon too.)
It was held Wednesday – Friday, but I was unable to get any days off work, so I flew down Thursday after class and managed to attend Thursday night.
When I arrived the con was absolutely full of young women dressed in all manner of geek clothes and cosplay. There was supposed to be a cosplay competition/show, but unfortunately some mother called the religious police and complained*, so it got cancelled and the night’s events ended early.
*UPDATE: GCON staff have told me that the Hai’a were never called (Ilhamdulilah!) and that the night ended early “due to a problem with several of the devices in the ballroom during the cosplay competition”.
Before we all got booted out, I got to take several pictures, not nearly as many as I would have liked, but I had to be very careful to ask permission and make sure that there was no one in the background. Several ladies were kind enough to grant permission to post here, too, so I hope you enjoy.
In addition to the pictures here, I saw 2 Malificents, more anime characters than I could count, I sat next to a Wednesday Adams who was super happy to be recognized, Pocahontas, a few dozen versions of the Day of the Dead full and half skull faces, witches, Hogwarts and other, zombies, not as many fairies as I’d have thought, one vampire, and many video game characters.
All of the attendees were women, so the cross dressing cosplay was especially impressive. Even though there were no men, the clothing was still fairly modest. It was really nice to see female cosplay done without T&A display being a priority. I really felt like showing off a good and accurate costume was more important than being sexy, which was neat.
The amount of English I heard was really astonishing. I did run into a couple other Americans at the very end of the night, but for the most part I was talking to Saudis, and I feel really ashamed of my school’s program right now, because many of these girls had near native fluency and barely noticeable accents. I had no trouble communicating to anyone, and didn’t even need to use my “ESL” talking style.
I found a red fez and got to have a conversation about the Doctor, she hadn’t started watching Capaldi yet, but we bonded over the universal love and humanity saving qualities of previous regenerations. That big blue box knows no borders.
I complimented so many people both on their costumes and their English, one girl even reached out to me on twitter afterward to say thanks. 😀
The main ballroom was intensely pink… I’m not sure if that was a gender choice or just that Saudi’s like bright colors, but pink*. There were big screen TVs set up with different games around the room, so that attendees could play their favorites or try new ones.
*UPDATE: GCON Staff informs me that pink “was intended to make a bold loud statement when selected for the logo about women breaking into games”. Grl Pwr.
The expo room (?) had a lot of the sponsors doing advertising and showing off games or goods. Not everything was game related. Mrs. Field’s Cookies was there doing a raffle. I didn’t get to see too much of that room because I was hurrying over to the Artists Alley (the only room where photos were allowed). I did see an interesting console version of the old “Operation” game where the goal was to perform surgery, but the girl playing it had decided that a hammer was the way to crack a ribcage…
The Artists Alley was a little combination of dealer’s room, Art room and photo shoot. The tables were full of the works of local geeks and artists. There were beautiful canvas paintings, an interesting display of very surreal needlework. There were some antiques, and several booths with pretty good fan art, often sold on t-shirts, keychains and buttons. I really wanted to be able to buy some things to support these artists, but events decreed otherwise (keep reading).
As they were trying to usher everyone out, there was a major Abaya Disaster. See, when women are secluded from men, they don’t have to wear the black tent, and many of these girls had checked theirs coat check style at the front when they came in.
Because of the rapid and early ending, this meant everyone was suddenly trying to get their abayas all at once, in a small lobby, from like two volunteers… eep. I had mine in my backpack so didn’t have to get into the line/press of bodies and decided to wander back into the main room and see more sights.
As I was staring at the crowds, soaking in the amazing girl geekness around me, a young woman doing an anime cosplay (that I am ashamed to admit I did not recognize: long orange hair in a partial ponytail, white sleeveless top and orange pants with flames at the bottom, plus katana) came up to talk to me. It actually took her a moment to get my attention because I was so dazed by everything going on around me, and had sort of stopped turning to face English by this time because I’d realized they were using it to talk to each other.
When I finally did realize she was talking to me, she invited me to come sit with her and her friends while we all waited for the Abaya Disaster to clear up. She told me she was getting her Master’s in English Literature. We talked for a little while about gamer culture in our countries. She was (as I expected) very surprised to hear about #Gamergate, and told me laughingly that boys in Saudi beg their parents to find them a wife who games. Then we moved on to other things. She shared my total love of global culture, so we bonded over academics for a while and of course I had to ask her what her favorite piece of literature was: The Great Gatsby. She admitted that she had seen the movie first, but that in the end, she liked the book a lot better. Her big take away was the way Gatsby idealized Daisy and their life together without ever recognizing the reality. Pretty sharp lady.
She also told me that the con itself was comprised of many of the smartest most educated girls in that age group (late teens/early 20s) in Riyadh. Can’t say I’m too surprised, nerdy girls are nerdy!
The Abaya disaster got worse. The poor volunteers trying to return the abayas were growing more and more frustrated and began screaming into the microphone at the girls to back up, get organized, wait their turn, etc. Apparently some girl actually passed out because the crowding got too bad.
The screaming into the microphone was making conversation more difficult, so I thought it might be time to wander back to the hotel. But the volunteer who checked me in and told me I could use her wi-fi to summon my car had disappeared (doubtless to help with the Abaya Disaster). I still had no smart phone at this time, waiting on my Iqama, so in order to summon an Uber or similar service, I relied on the tablet and wi-fi. My travel adventures will greatly improve now that I finally have a smartphone of my own.
I found some other girls who were willing to let me tether in to their mobile hot-spot, but couldn’t get strong enough signal to get the app up and running. One volunteer told me it would be really easy to get a taxi, so even though I had such horrible experiences in Jeddah, I figured I’d better try.
Wandering around outside, I hailed a taxi and handed him the Hotel’s business card. This normally works when travelling. Cards have an address and phone number in the local language. But drivers in Saudi don’t actually seem to know where anything is, and expect their passengers to direct them. I don’t live in Riyadh, so even if my Arabic was flawless, I still wouldn’t have been able to tell the driver where to go. Isn’t half the job of a taxi driver to know how to get there? Don’t you have GPS?????
Two failed taxi attempts later, both drivers refusing me (also strange, since all other taxi experiences in Saudi have started by the driver going “ok, no problem” then waiting until we’ve started driving to tell me they don’t know where to go), I went back inside to try once more to find wi-fi. This time with success. I love nice people.
While waiting for the driver, I heard a more native than other English voice and saw a very Caucasian face. I said hi, and she looked up and asked, “American?” When I confirmed, she bounced up to give me a hug. We chatted about our experiences in Saudi and other countries, and what we thougt of the con while we waited for our drivers.
I feel like I could write a whole separate blog post about the driving in Riyadh, even though I’ve done one on Jeddah… Short version, taxis are better but Uber and Careem are worse.
*UPDATE: GCON Staff informs me “The cancellation of the last day followed the Abaya situation & subsequent events, it was intended to avoid a recurrence of such incidents” and “the team and volunteers were at the venue the last day helping classify and return some personal belongings to their owners”. Good on ya!
**And further, they did generously not only refund my admission cost, but also put a dent in my travel costs, which was very gracious.
And what about #Gamergate? Well, in the lead up to this convention, some friends of mine back in Seattle were posting left, right and sideways about this thing. Felicia Day made her debut into the debate and was promptly doxed, and I was going through some serious soul searching as to whether it was even worth it to mention the word. I only have a handful of followers on this blog, but speaking out against the trolls who are perpetuating the anti-girl hate in the gamer community seems to attract a lot of negative attention on the web.
I actually had a long conversation with one of my girl-gamer friends about how ridiculous it was that I even had to think about whether or not I should be nervous or should avoid posting about a topic so incredibly important.
But the more women outside the US I talked to about it, the more I saw the look of horror and disgust, but only after I explained the situation, because those trolls aren’t actually reaching a global audience. They’re barely reaching outside the gamer community, and everyone I’ve taken the time to educate about the situation reacts exactly the same way. They cannot understand it. There is no part of threatening women and their families, or releasing their personal information for abuse that seems even remotely reasonable or sympathetic to anyone I’ve talked to from outside the US.
And what the girls here go through just for being women is so astonishingly foreign to me and all of my life experiences that I couldn’t even begin to draw a comparison between the subjugation of women in Saudi and the abuse of women in the US. They are both horrible, but its like trying to compare Ebola and VX: horrible but not the same.
The girls I met at GCON love gaming, but the men oppressing them aren’t trying to drive them away from their hobby*, threatening to rape them, or exposing their personal details to the world. They’re trying to keep them from being people, to stop them from wearing the clothes they choose even in private, from sharing the things they love or developing any sense of independent identity.
*UPDATE: GCON Staff did point out that even though #gamergate hasn’t reached Saudi, there was a large amount of blowback from some men here who considered gaming a male only community, but that there was “an overwhelming amount of support” that continues to grow.
The most important thing that the Saudi girls of #GCON2014 have in common with the victims of #Gamergate is the positive men in their lives. Lots of articles about gender inequality stress the point that it will only be through male led actions that equality will be achieved. Men who don’t respect women aren’t going to listen to us when we say we need more respect, but they might listen to other men, or at least be forced to bend to social pressure if their behavior is condemned by the men around them. In both Saudi and the US, there are men who support women in gaming, encourage us to play, design, develop, cosplay and roleplay to our hearts content. Don’t give up on us guys.