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Online Therapy: An Unexpected Space of Freedom by Anastasia Piatakhina Giré (Part 1)

Taking Risks

The dramatic story of the Saudi teenager Rahaf al-Qunun¹, who fled her family and country in order to request asylum elsewhere, resonated with many people in different ways. The oppressive background in which women like her evolve is generally far from our eyes, but I have, through my online therapy work, experienced several very touching stories from women in the Middle East.

Engaging in therapy is something that even Westerners do not enter into lightly. It requires taking a risk in opening themselves to a stranger to exercise the power of vulnerability. For women from countries such as Saudi Arabia, this entails a completely different level of personal risk and exposure. The fear of being misunderstood, judged, medicated, or reported to their family and consequently punished harshly, makes it nearly impossible for them to reach out for face-to-face psychotherapy.

As I grew up in Soviet and then post-Soviet Russia, I have firsthand experience of feeling trapped in a place where state-imposed values and rules did not align with my own. The exercise of one’s intellectual freedom turns into a road to salvation when other freedoms are unattainable.

For women in hardline Middle-Eastern countries, online therapy offers a safe space in which to exercise intellectual and spiritual freedom—they can explore their religious doubts, talk openly about their sexuality, voice their frustrations and anger, and eventually find meaning in their experience.

In an interview in The Guardian, Rahaf al-Qunun points out that in her country, no matter their age and life experience, women are treated like children. In a society governed and controlled by men, they are stripped of all power and infantilized.

These women continually strike me with their courage and resilience. One such brave woman was Laila (an amalgam of Middle Eastern women with whom I have worked in online therapy).

Laila’s Story

Laila was 36 and unmarried. She had a stable and reasonably well-paying job at a bank. When she received a promotion, she was allowed to move out of the family home to a nearby town in order to take the position. She was allowed to do this because her youngest brother lived in the same town and worked at the same bank. He was also unmarried and they lived in the same block of flats. He drove her to work every morning, as she was not allowed to drive herself.

Her brother was much younger but had more rights. Laila “needed” him for assistance with the most routine tasks—for example driving her to work or for travelling out of the country for a professional conference. This is how things work: women are made to need men.

Laila was different. At a deeper level, she did not believe or feel that she needed men. She did enjoy the company of some of her male colleagues and rare friends, but she did not desire them. Leila realized this about herself as a teenager, when back at school she felt compelled to kiss the beautiful face of her female best friend.

One of the duties Laila was not able to escape was mandatory attendance at family gatherings. She would sit there, her face uncovered, surrounded by women talking about their children and their little sons running around—already enjoying their privileged status in front of their sisters—and painfully feeling how little she belonged there.

All this fuss around men felt ludicrous to her. It was an ironic situation after all—she had to uncover her face with women to whom she felt attracted and was expected to be separated from men who represented no risk to her emotional balance.

Laila knew that she would never be able to live the life that she dreamt of. She loved her brothers, despite often feeling angry with them. She also loved her father, even if he would not listen to her or take her achievements seriously. She knew that, for her family, she was “damaged goods” and she would remain so, as she would never marry and give them children.

Laila eagerly waited to get old enough to stop receiving proposals from men that she did not know, who, as she grew older, wanted her as a second or third wife. In the meantime, she had occasional moments of joy with her few female friends and secretly experienced excitement and lightness in the body-less company of her virtual friends from the online community of women just like her.

Autocratic states use mental health stigma to control their citizens.Laila was very scared of being accused of being mentally ill. This is exactly what happened to Rahaf al-Qunun who, in the statement released by her family after her escape, was labelled “mentally unstable.”

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