The female activists who were detained in Saudi Arabia after fighting for equal rights made international headlines more than a year ago. But when 29-year-old British fashion stylist Basma Khalifa was overheard during a visit to the country discussing an article about an activist who had campaigned for women to be given the right to drive, Khalifa's visa was swiftly cancelled and the next day she was on a flight back to the UK.
"Not talking about women's activists is a social rule," Khalifa tells Refinery29. "It's not a legal rule. Had we known that we couldn't talk about women's rights we just wouldn't have done it, or we would've done it in private, we wouldn't have done it so openly."
On overhearing Khalifa's discussion while on a drive through one of Saudi's affluent districts (with Khalifa in the driving seat), the male handlers who were escorting her explained that she and her documentary director, Jess, had to go home. Khalifa says that they were told the footage they had been filming at the time of their conversation needed to be checked. "A matter of 24 hours later, we got a phone call from our boss in London saying that they've cancelled [our] visa. We didn't have a chance to discuss what had happened and our filming permit was attached to the visa. So we had to leave or we were technically there illegally."
It's here that her new documentary, Inside The Real Saudi Arabia: Why I Had To Leave, cuts out. It had been 25 years since Khalifa had last been to Saudi Arabia, but a growing desire to know more about her country of birth – a country that has been recognized as one of the most dangerous places to be a woman – prompted her to pay it a visit and find out if she could ever build a life there. Khalifa says that the response to the documentary has been overwhelmingly positive so far. "The masses of DMs I got, so many people who are just like, 'Thank you for not making it seem like every woman is depressed'," she explains. "My whole thing for this documentary is that I intended to go out there and it be a positive experience. I never wanted it to be some sort of 'Uncovering Saudi Arabia'. I wanted to see what my life could be like, so I'm glad people have taken that away [from it]."
The original plan was to spend two weeks out there, living with her aunts and immersing herself in the local culture. A visit to the shopping mall is only briefly interrupted when one of the handlers – Khalifa says that a government minder, three people from the production company and a camera assistant would follow them around – suggested she buy an abaya (a long, loose over-garment), even though she was already modestly dressed. She was told off for dancing to music outside her car on a separate occasion and ultimately, of course, forced to return home a week earlier than planned. But for the most part, the London-based stylist assimilated to the Saudi way of life far easier than perhaps society's preconceptions about the country would have us believe.
Granted, many of Khalifa's experiences are likely to be a condensed view of a particular tier of Saudi society, but the people she meets on the way speak volumes about a lifestyle that seems to be growing. At a friend's magazine launch party, Khalifa notes that there are some women "in crop tops smoking up a storm". She visits someone who tells her about a mixed-sex running club that had only recently been set up. Scrolling through social media she sees local young women behaving far more openly than those she meets while out shopping. She also says the generation coming up probably has a lot to do with the current pace of change but will perhaps also come to affect the contrasting perceptions of what it's really like to be a young woman over there. "I kind of feel like the world is so much more open with social media and everything but I feel that we don’t take time to understand each other," Khalifa notes.
"Honestly, they’re chilling," Khalifa explains."They were like, 'Sometimes we feel like it's unfair because from three months ago to now a lot has changed. It's maybe not moved at the pace the West feels like it should but for us, we see change.'" Khalifa goes on to mention that only days before we speak, Mariah Carey did a huge concert in Saudi, which she says definitely wouldn’t have happened this time last year. "So I think part of me is just like, give them credit where credit is due – at least there is some change. I mean they have a long way to go but you have to start somewhere."
Since the documentary, Khalifa has been asked frequently whether or not she'd move to Saudi Arabia and it's a question she's given a lot of thought. "Right now, I'm at peace with what I know. Of course I'd want to go back to Mecca and I'll see my aunts in Sudan hopefully this year. I would like to go back but maybe not for a little while, not until there's been enough change to be able to say, 'Look when I was there and now I'm there, look at the difference'. But if I went back tomorrow I don’t think it’d be different. I don’t think they move at lightning speed, I think these changes are going to come in the next 10, 20 years."
Inside The Real Saudi Arabia: Why I Had To Leave is on BBC One on Tuesday 12th February at 10.45pm, and available on BBC iPlayer now.