Rozan Ahmed’s career path took her from the music industry to the United Nations — and that was just in her 20s.
Though she was born in London, Ahmed was raised with a great appreciation for her parents’ native Sudan, as well as a fascination for how people both create and perceive stories and other content across the world. She was particularly interested in the way that the historical influences of the pharaohs, the Nubians, the Arabs, and so many others had contributed to the rich and multifaceted culture of the northern African nation.
Despite that robust history, she realized the entire African continent had still been lumped into a kind of "single story." Even the people she knew in Sudan bought into that same negative image. "How is this allowed to happen?" she wondered. "Is this purposeful? Surely there are more people than just me who are visiting the continent."
She began to question her career path and the ways her identity as a black British Muslim woman fit within a local and global context. Then she met a prince.
Prince Fahad Al Saud, that is, the grandson of the brother of the king of Saudi Arabia.
A graduate of Stanford University, Al Saud was part of the original team behind Facebook in Arabic — and he was largely socialized around forward-thinking, independent women, according to Ahmed, and is a stark contrast to what some people might expect from a wealthy Arab prince. "Fahad is certainly aware that he's a man," she says, "but he leans on women because he believes in them more, and was raised around strong women."
A mutual friend introduced Ahmed and Al Saud. Like her, he was frustrated by the way his culture was portrayed in media. This inspired him to create a new media company called Na3am, a play on the Arabic word for "yes."
Given Ahmed’s background in stories and culture, they were a perfect creative match.
In 2015, Na3am announced the launch of "Saudi Girls Revolution," a series of interconnected video games and comic books set in a post-apocalyptic world full of awesome Arab heroines.
"It is the story of the girls breaking out and liberating the Arab empire by replacing its leaders," Al Saud said when the series was announced. "We're focusing on trying to represent different stories and demographics of Saudi women in the protagonists we have."
The seven protagonists — all Saudi women — travel the desert wastes with motorcycles and jetpacks, facing off against mutant enemies and an evil regime of oppressive men who control the last remaining resources in the land. In its earliest hype, "Saudi Girls Revolution" was already receiving favorable comparisons to American movies like "Mad Max: Fury Road."
"'Saudi Girls Revolution' is an attempt to show the rest of the world that there’s a lot more to us as Arab women," adds Ahmed, who serves as editor for the comics. "We’re strong. We’re powerful. We know we overcome. We’re badass. We’re so many other things."
Of course, some detractors have been eager to point out the ironies of the SGR universe, considering the real-life treatment of some Saudi women.
It is still illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, and the country's workforce is still overwhelmingly male. But video games and comics featuring motorcycle-riding badasses aren't restricted by the same expectations.
"It's a fictional universe, and we're showing the world as we want it to be, not things as they are," Ahmed says.
While things are far from perfect for women in Saudi Arabia, Arab women in other countries have made great gains in recent years. "The Arab world is so varied when it comes to female achievement. Of course there’s setbacks, but there’s setbacks everywhere you go," Ahmed adds.
"It comes down to choosing which problems you prefer. I prefer to celebrate the beauty that comes forth from the world, particularly Africa and Arabia, and I use that beauty to address the problems as well."
"I believe that we are living in the future right now, and it is inclusive," Ahmed says. "'Saudi Girls Revolution' is a part of that future. So get on the ride and enjoy it with us, because it’s a beautiful ride."
The first chapter of the comic was released in November 2016 and focuses on a character named Latifa, whose name means "compassionate" in Arabic despite the fact that her story is one of vengeance. "For me, it represents the ability to be both. It raises the question of: When is it right to fight?" Ahmed says.
That's exactly why something like "Saudi Girls Revolution" is so exciting and so important for the world right now: It helps us to embrace the duality of our selves while inspiring greater change on a personal and global scale.