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Saudi poet Ashjan Al Hendi.
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Saudi men protested a female poet at a book fair, and were kicked out themselves

By Amy X. Wang

Sexist jeers interrupted a quiet poetry reading in Saudi Arabia this weekend, but the event ended with a show of support for gender equality.

Over the weekend, the Jeddah International Book Fair hosted Ashjan Al Hindi, a female Saudi poet who has spoken at literary events worldwide and currently serves as assistant professor in the Arabic department of King Abdulaziz University. Hindi’s reading was broken up by two men who insisted she should not be allowed to address the men in the hall, according to Saudi site Al Marsad.

In a YouTube video uploaded Dec. 12, one heckler gestures at the woman onstage and demands from bystanders in Arabic, ”Are you satisfied with what is happening?” To his disbelief, the audience responds with a resounding “yes.”

The two protesters faced overwhelming criticism from the crowd. Many audience-members cheered as they were led away.

Though small, it’s a significant moment on Saudi Arabia’s slow turn toward gender equality. Most Saudi women still cannot leave the house without a male chaperone, try on clothes in stores, read fashion magazines, and more.

But this weekend, Saudi women were finally allowed to vote and run in the country’s elections for the first time. And at least 17 Saudi women won seats on local municipal councils. In Jeddah, the audience’s support of Hindi’s poetry reading may represent one more step in the right direction.