Tag Archive | "Saudi Arabia"

Saudi Hibernation


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From Saudi Arabia Correspondent Eman Al Nafjan…

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 9.37.28 AMThe first time I came across Waleed Abulkhair’s name was about five years ago, when I was following Samar Badawi’s case. Badawi was being abused by her father, and despite medical and psychological reports from Saudi hospitals and shelters proving this, a court ruled in her father’s favor and sent Badawi to prison on charges of disobeying her father.

Saudi Arabia has cracked down on prominent rights activists in recent weeks, forcing many to go underground.

For seven months, Abulkhair desperately tried to get her released, but to no avail. He then proposed that they go public, with an online campaign about Badawi’s situation. She agreed, and the ensuing publicity shamed the courts into releasing her within six days from the start of the campaign, which immediately went viral. Abulkhair proposed marriage to Badawi, and it took six months of court procedures to release her from her father’s guardianship to Abulkhair’s. One of my favorite interviews is a 2011 BBC radio program featuring the couple, during which they talk about their love. Badawi is currently eight months pregnant with their first child.

The literal translation of Waleed’s surname is “father of all good,” and I cannot think of a more appropriate name for him. Until his arrest on April 15, he had been tirelessly advocating for the rights of all citizens, regardless of gender, sect or tribe. He volunteered to defend the blogger Raif Badawi when most Saudi lawyers would not want Badawi’s case and their name mentioned in the same sentence, let alone the same paragraph.

Badawi had created a liberal forum encouraging religious discussions. Unsurprisingly, in space devoid of religious dialogue, Badawi’s liberal forum attracted people from across the kingdom. Badawi was subsequently charged with insulting Islam and breaching Saudi Arabia’s cybercrime laws in setting up the forum. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million riyals ($270,000). Badawi can appeal, but he will have to do so without his lawyer.

Abulkhair had organized a weekly open house featuring talks by influential thinkers. These gatherings, in Jiddah, would get so crowded that most visitors could not find a place to sit. Abulkhair called these meetings “smoud,” which translates as “steadfastness” or “resistance.” His only condition was that attendees take to heart each other’s right to freedom of expression. Now the word “smoud” has become synonymous with Abulkhair and a motto for his activism.

Abulkhair is currently being held and prosecuted as a terrorist on 11 charges, including breaking allegiance with the king, doubting officials’ good intentions, insulting the judicial system, making international organizations hostile to the kingdom, establishing the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia and potentially compromising public order.

Abdulaziz Alhussan, a Saudi human rights lawyer who fled to the United States, called 2013 “one of the worst years we are facing in Saudi Arabia,” and so far 2014 has not been much better. The sentences handed to other activists who started local independent human rights organizations do not bode well for Abulkhair. On March 9, 2013, Mohammad al-Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a subsequent 10-year travel ban, and Abdullah al-Hamid was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Both Qahtani and Hamid were tried for the same basic activities for which Abulkhair is being charged. The name of the organization they co-founded is the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.

Fadhil al-Manasif is another activist who participated in a local, nongovernmental human rights organization, the Adala Center for Human Rights. The charges against him are similar to those against Abulkhair. On April 17, Manasif received a 15-year prison sentence, a 15-year travel ban after completing his sentence and a fine of 100,000 riyals ($26,700). The list of names goes on. Some activists went to prison, while others fled the country before trial or signed pledges to cease all forms of activism.

Many activists with whom I spoke regard this as a time for hibernation. The new terror laws — under which the definition of terror includes “harming the reputation or status of Saudi Arabia” and makes “disturbing the social fabric or national cohesion” a punishable offense — are so broad that they severely restrict freedom of expression. This has driven the majority of activists concerned about the country’s future underground.

Many Saudis have stopped expressing their opinions in such public forums as Twitter and Facebook and have chosen instead more guarded options, such as Whatsapp, Telegram and Path. The stranglehold on expression of dissent makes the future of Saudi Arabia more difficult to read. Diminishing freedoms and security to publicly discuss issues facing the country has made the reality on the ground more volatile.

 

 originally posted Al-Monitor 

 

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Saudi Immorality


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From Saudi Arabia Corespondent Eman Al Nafjan…

Late April, Abullah Al Alami and Samar Fatany announced that they would be starting a local White Ribbon campaign. Since then, bringing them down has become the personal mission of many ultra-conservative sheikhs. The White Ribbon campaign originally was started in Canada as a reaction to a massacre committed by Marc Lepine (born Gamil Gharbi). Lepine had gone into an engineering college that had rejected his application and shot dead fourteen women and wounded ten women and four men. Two years later, Canadian activists started a campaign to raise awareness about violence against women. This is the campaign’s actual statement from their website:

White Ribbon is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls, promote gender equity, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity.Starting in 1991, we asked men to wear white ribbons as a pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and girls. Since then the White Ribbon has spread to over 60 countries around the world.We work to examine the root causes of gender-based violence and create a cultural shift that helps bring us to a future without violence.Our vision is for a masculinity that embodies the best qualities of being human. We believe that men are part of the solution and part of a future that is safe and equitable for all people.Through education, awareness-raising, outreach, technical assistance, capacity building, partnerships and creative campaigns, White Ribbon is helping create tools, strategies and models that challenge negative, outdated concepts of manhood and inspire men to understand and embrace the incredible potential they have to be a part of positive change.

As you can see, it is not affiliated with any particular religion or political body but rather it’s a humane movement for something positive. International campaigns and wearing ribbons to signify awareness-raising are not new to Saudis. We have government approved international campaigns for breast cancer, Alzheimer’s and even hand washing. Somehow those and others do not get the “it’s unIslamic to follow the infidels” argument but raising awareness about violence against women does.

The most influential sheikh to lash out against the White Ribbon campaign is Sheikh Nasser Al Omar. In a video-taped sermon he instructs all Muslims to reject Abdullah Al Alami and Samar Fatani’s campaign. He refers to them collectively as advocates of immorality. He says that the White Ribbon campaign compromises the very foundation of the pact between the Saudi Royal family and Mohammad bin Abdul Wahab’s followers. He also mentions national security three times in the 24 minute long video. He objects to the “advocates of immorality” campaign’s mission statement mentioning of ending child marriages. Another issue he takes up with the mission statement is that it calls for laws against harassment at work. He says that that is a call for not segregating the genders. Since women will feel safe to work in a non-segregated environment if there are laws to protect them. Sheikh Al Omar actually says “they want to extract women from their subordination” and “they want women to be presidents” as if it were satanic to want that. And then he goes on about how CEDAW is evil and a westernizing plot to demoralize Muslim societies. The sheikh denies that violence against women even exists in Saudi except for a few exceptions. He ends the sermon with a call to action particularly to Muslim women to reject the White Ribbon campaign on social media. But he does note that these women have to reject it by only written means because their voices should not be heard in public.

In Saudi the male guardianship system and absence of family law ensure that, just like what the poster produced by the King Khalid Foundation states, “what is not visible is much worse.” Let’s take for example a hypothetical situation where I know that a friend of mine is being abused by her father. There are no means in Saudi through which I could help her. If I report the situation to the police and they take it seriously enough to go to my friend’s house, her father as her legal guardian could simply dismiss them at the door. Even if like Samar Badawi, my friend gathers the courage to go to the police station herself, she is more likely to be sent to prison than her father is. Her charge would be disobeying her father.

In a system like this, you would think that religious clerics would welcome an anti-violence campaign. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Just last Sunday dozens of clerics went to the ministry of labour yet again to oppose women being allowed to work openly in the malls. The White Ribbon campaign is about men and boys going public with a declaration of rejecting violence against women. Saudi ultra-conservatives do go public about women issues but it’s more about confining women than protecting them.

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City Of Women


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5667462218_211da561df_bFrom Saudi Arabian Corespondent Eman Al Naafjan…

This past decade unemployment in Saudi has kept increasing despite the several plans and projects made by the education ministry, civil services and the ministry of labor. Numbers vary from one source to another with government research usually being the smaller of the bunch. But even the government’s numbers are considerably high. The latest official number for male unemployment is 10.5%. The annual flooding in of a million migrant workers into the country who are willing to work longer for less exacerbates this state of affairs. A recent report by the ministry of labor states that for every Saudi employed this past year in the private sector, there were thirteen expatriates hired.

Saudi women fare much worse with an official unemployment rate of 29.6%. Other official estimates are that over 78% of those graduating from college are unemployed. Four years ago the press got ahold on the number of applicants to 218 positions at the Princess Noura University and it was over 40,000! That’s about 200 applicants per vacancy. I analyzed some of the reasons why back then.

Last year when the Arab Spring sparks were flying within Saudi, the government started an unemployment program called Hafiz (meaning encouragement or boost). The minister of labor, Adel Fakieh gave a PowerPoint presentation at his office in Riyadh which David Ottaway wrote about in an enlightening report on his 2012 visit to Saudi:

Fakieh began by taking issue with the Central Department of Statistics estimate that the number of unemployed Saudis was only 448,000. He reported that more than two million Saudis had applied for the $533 monthly unemployment allowance under the government’s new social security Hafiz Program launched last year. Those who would finally meet the necessary criteria would probably total slightly more than one million, he said, disclosing that his ministry had discovered that 85 percent of those applying were women. “Hundreds of thousands” of housewives had applied, but he claimed they were not “real job seekers.” Many were well off financially, did not really want to work, or would only accept certain kinds of jobs, according to their applications. This explained why the government intended to accept only about half of the two million applicants. Those accepted would have to prove they were really looking for employment and be ready to accept training and take offered jobs. If not, they would be dropped from the program after one year.

I don’t know about Fakeih’s “many were well off financially” part, considering that the average two-income Saudi family earns only 8,000 riyals (2,133USD) and has to pay 30% to 35% of that for rent. Add that statistic to another presented by the head of the real estate commission in the Eastern Region that 70% of Saudis do not own their houses and you’ve got a pretty humble picture that does not quite mesh with Fakeih’s “many were well off” but still applied for unemployment benefits.

Hafiz remains a great program although I’ve seen many upset on social media that the benefits expire in a year’s time and that a person on these benefits has to make weekly updates to show that they are actively seeking a job.

Hafiz was not the only project introduced in last year’s decrees. Another much more groundbreaking development was that women were finally allowed to work openly in retail at malls. Before then, the only public spaces women were allowed to sell products at were on mats on the sides of the curb at souks. For a few months now it has been legal for women to work as cashiers at supermarkets and sales-persons at lingerie and make-up counters but many sheikhs still can’t get used to the sight.

Last June two Saudi lawyers and a businessman won a case at the Board of Grievances to abort the royal decree allowing women to work openly in malls and return Saudi to a time when women could only work in retail if the shop front was completely covered and only women clients allowed in. Fortunately and unusually our wacky system worked for women this time and the ministry of labor seems so far to have ignored the Board of Grievances decision. That’s why over the past couple of weeks, envoys of ultra conservative sheikhs, fifty at a time, have been going to the ministry demanding to see the minister to remind him about the Board of Grievances decision and to demand a return to extreme gender segregation policies.

Some of the alternatives that ultra-conservatives have proposed as a means of income for women are that all Saudi women be granted a governmental stipend to stay home, initiation of programs where women can work from home and the opening of women-only malls, factories, hospitals…etc.

At first look it seems that one of those alternatives is seeing the light of day some time in the near future. Last week it came out that the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon) is planning a half million square meters industrial city near Hofuf. The industrial city is inaccurately being touted as women-only by some news media. The announcement was actually made by the general director of Modon, Salah Al-Rasheed. In an interview with Al-Eqtasadiyah newspaper, Al-Rasheed explained that the industrial city would provide Saudis with 10,000 jobs, of which half will be targeted towards women. Another way that this project will be helping women is through making women investments easier. Al-Rasheed goes on to say that it will be located close to Hofuf so that transportation will be accessible to women. Nowhere within the interview or available firsthand information does it state that the industrial city is planned to be a full-blown women only metropolitan. So I wonder why international journalists are making it out to be that?

From Modon’s website and Al-Rasheed’s interview, it’s apparent that the “women” part comes from the novelty of having women allowed on a manufacturing site and not that it will be completely operated from A to Z by women. In a country where the Highest Islamic Council has on it’s website a fatwadiscouraging people from allowing women to specialize in scientific fields and where the number of women who have experience in industry is somewhere around zero, it wouldn’t be business-savvy to open a whole industrial city for women. It would be basically opening a ghost town and burning millions of dollars.

These women industrial cities (I say cities because the one in Hofuf is the first of several that are being planned for across the kingdom) are going to be industrial areas just outside major cities where Saudi women can apply for jobs in designated buildings to do what Al-Rasheed called “light and clean parts of manufacturing in an appropriate environment.”

The reaction so far within Saudi has been quiet. This is because these types of projects take several years to be built and started up. The ultra-conservatives are currently too busy chasing female cashiers and sales-women to question or even advocate for the industrial city. The only reaction so far was from Ms. Olfat Kabbani, deputy director of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Kabbanni expressed her reservations about the project. She told Okaz newspaperthat the real need is to right now provide training, remove legal obstacles and encourage investors to integrate women into their workforce.

According to Modon’s website, there are already “more than 3,000 factories in the existing industrial cities with investments exceeding 250 billion riyals, and more than 300,000 employees.” I wonder how many of those 300,000 employees are Saudis? And why can’t women apply today to work in these 3,000 factories? Aren’t there any “light and clean parts of manufacturing in an appropriate environment” at any of them?

You can listen to me repeat much of what I wrote above HERE.

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Saudi Role Model


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From Saudi Arabia Corespondent Eman Al Nafjan…

The first school I went to in Riyadh was, of course, an all-girls school. I was very happy to see it had a swimming pool. It was drained and fenced up and, because it was autumn, I thought nothing more of it. But as the weather got warmer, it became obvious that the pool would not be used that year.

When I asked why, teachers told me it was against the ministry’s policies to allow female students to have swimming classes. Indeed, the education ministry does not allow physical education in girls’ public schools and discourages it in private schools – especially organised competitive sports – despite many calls for the inclusion of PE from parents, doctors, specialists and even Princess Adela, the king’s daughter, who is married to the minister of education.

It is not only policies that are standing between girls and physical education. There’s a whole culture behind this thinking that’s very difficult to shake, and many in Saudi Arabia frown upon physical activity for girls. Their reasoning is that it’s masculine, that exercise would somehow result in girls losing their virginity and that it’s against the physiological nature of being a woman.

In eighth grade, a friend and I were called into the principal’s office to sign pledges to never do “acrobatic movements” during recess. A teacher had seen us do cartwheels in the schoolyard and had taken it upon herself to stop this unfeminine behaviour. In response to a question about private gyms for women, the highest Islamic council replied that it was “nonsense”, and that a woman’s place and responsibility is her home. Shiekh Abdullah al-Manea, a consultant to the royal court and a member of the highest Islamic council, stated that sports such as soccer and basketball could result in loss of virginity.

The nternational Olympic Committee (IOC) has criticised Saudi Arabia for being one of the last three countries to send female athletes to the Olympics, and there is no shortage of Saudi Islamic scholars weighing in: Shiekh al-Najimi advised that Saudis stand their ground against the IOC, as we did with the World Trade Organisation. He says that we refused the conditions that do not fit with Saudi culture and in the end, after 15 years of back and forth, we were admitted to the WTO on our own terms. He called the whole issue an issue of western dictatorship. Sheikh al-Tirifi sees it as a matter of honour, and reminds viewers that those who die defending their honour die martyrs. Currently, the most popular view of Saudi women in the Olympics is held by Sheikh al-Munijid, who reasons that there is no possible way for a Muslim woman to take part in the Olympics without showing her body.

With all this resistance coming from the religious establishment, it’s no wonder Prince Nawaf bin Faisal Al Saud, the youth and sports minister, said that Saudi Arabia would only send a men’s team to the London Olympics. “If there is to be women’s participation,” he added, “it would be by invitation” from international sporting bodies. Meanwhile, Saudi officials are said to have sent a list of potential female participants to the IOC.

It’s a confusing picture, but in Reema Abdullah we already have a Saudi woman who is unhesitating and proud to be an athletic role model for Saudi women. Abdullah, unlike the ministry, is very open about her participation in the London Olympics. It’s no surprise she’s taking the lead in her capacity as Saudi Arabia’s first female sports radio host, and as captain and one of the founding members of Jeddah United, the first public Saudi women’s football team. She is also one of the lucky few who will get to carry the Olympic torch on the 8,000-mile route to London. Instead of avoiding interviews and dialogue, she has bravely chosen to be open to everyone. She’s available on Twitter and even jokes about her aspiration to be included in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first Saudi woman to carry the Olympic torch.

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Living in Denial


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From Saudi Arabia Corespondent Eman Al Nafjan…

The ministry of justice was provoked this week by an outspoken piece by Dr. Badriya Al Bishr to issue a statement to the same newspaper where Al Bishr’s piece was published. Al Bishr criticized the white washing of the Saudi justice system that took place at the International Association of Lawyers 55th Congress in Miami. There, the minister of Justice, prof. Mohammed Al Eissa gave a talk on the justice system in Saudi Arabia. According to local papers his talk mostly constituted a presentation on how wonderful and just the Saudi justice system. The papers reported that among other things he stated that the Saudi justice system does not discriminate between men and women when it comes to rights and obligations. The audacity of making such a statement at an international conference by no less than the minister of justice himself seriously makes me wonder if this whole thing is all my head. Did I imagine that a few weeks ago a Saudi woman was sentenced to ten lashes for driving her own car and that only a pardon from the king spared her the punishment? Is Najla Hariri’s upcoming trial for driving her car a figment of my imagination? How about that the ministry of justice refuses to issue licenses to women to practice law and won’t even recognize the title of lawyer for women who have obtained licenses abroad, did that change overnight?

AlBishr is apparently having the same delusions as I am, since she pointed out how sexist the ministry is when it comes to sentencing in homicide cases. If women are charged with murdering their spouse, it’s an automatic death sentence while men who murder their wives are dealt with much more leniently. AlBishr cites the recent case of a man who ran over his wife because she would not give him her salary. The murder was committed in daylight, in front of the woman’s family home and in front of several witnesses and yet the man was only sentenced to 12 years in prison. Another case that I recall is one where a man decapitated his wife in front of their toddler and was originally sentenced to only five years in prison then revised to 15.

AlBishr also notes the irony in that the minister’s talk coincided with news that a teacher at an elementary school has reached out to activists concerning the weddings of two of her students during Hajj break. The third and fourth grade girls were scheduled to be married off to adult men at the same time that the minister was giving his talk in Miami. To say that there is no gender discrimination in the Saudi justice system is an outright denial of the truth. However the ministry in issuing its statement today has shown that it is persistent in this denial even at the national level.

In the statement, the head of the ministry’s press office, Ibrahim AlTayyer, mostly took offence with the part of AlBishr’s column that raised the issue of child marriages. He states that according to ministry studies the number of child marriages are not high enough to consider it a phenomenon in Saudi. Though he did not mention what number would be enough for the ministry to act nor more importantly disclose the number of child marriages that was documented in those studies. To me one child marriage is enough to issue a law however it is obviously much more than that. According to an interview with AlRiyadh Newspaper on Jan/22/2010, a sociologist, Dr. Al Johara Mohammed, states that “among us there are more than 3000 Saudi girls aged no more than 13 years married to men in the age of their parents or grandparents”. Are 3000 cases of pedophilia not a signficant enough number for our ministry? How about that an anonymous source within the ministry itself informed AlWatan Newspaper on Oct/15/2010 that in the Eastern region alone, during the previous year, 40 cases of child marriages were stopped via verbal unofficial instructions. The number of child marriages that were approved however was not mentioned in that article, only an interview with a girl who was a victim of child marriages.

AlTayyer went on to state that regardless of the ministry’s position on child marriages, it is not within its governmental jurisdiction to issue a law consigning a minimum age for marriage. If it’s not the ministry of justice’s jurisdiction, than whose is it? The Shura council when they were discussing the implementation of a child protection system, refused to officially recognize child marriages as a form of child abuse. Their reasoning was a bla bla bla argument on the semantics of child and minor.

The remarkable thing is that there is a widespread consensus among Saudis that child marriages should be banned. Members of the royal family, religious scholars, high ranking government officials and celebrities have all spoken out against it. Yet you can tell from AlTayyer’s statement that simply issuing a law that sets a minimum age for marriage is not going to happen in the forseeable future.

Maybe this is due to the hold that fundamentalists have on the Saudi government. A member of the highest religious council, sheikh AlFowzan, wrote in Okaz newspaper last July that child marriages should not be banned and warns that if we do ban them God will punish us by inflicting us with wars and plagues. A sentiment echoed yesterday by a Saudi woman columnist, Fatima Al Faqih. Besides the usual disputed argument that the Prophet (PBUH) married one of his wives when she was only six and consummated it when she was nine, she reasons that since girls for centuries were able to physically survive child marriages then the scientific argument against child marriages is de facto disproven.

Regarding those who claim that we should not abolish child marriages because the prophet (pbuh) consummated his marriage with Aisha when she was nine, this has been repeatedly proven inconsistent with historian records. This is discussed and you can read more about it in English. Besides the historical inconsistency, it’s also inconsistent with the prophet’s behavior since all his other wives were not only adult women but also divorcees and widows. And if we were to go with the fundamentalist argument that we should not ban anything that isn’t banned by the Qur’an than slavery should be legalized and sexual intercourse between a master and his female slaves as well. Both should be considered completely legal if we were to solely go upon the text of the Qur’an. Yet the government has abolished slavery and intercourse is only legal within the confines of marriage. So why can’t we abolish child marriages in the same way?

On a final note, in the local papers on the minister’s talk at the Miami conference, it is reported that the President of the International Association of Lawyers, Pascal Maurer, was impressed by the Saudi judicial system and hoped that the law system would be made accessible to the international community so that they could benefit.

I could not find any report of Prof. AlEissa’s talk in American or international press.

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A Saudi Woman Is…


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From Saudi Arabia Corespondent Eman Al Nafjan…

In Saudi Arabia my gender decides whether or not I can enter certain ministries, what I can major in college and if I can name my own child.

My gender mandates that I cannot drive my own car. No matter what age I am or how well I drive, I have to find a male to drive my car.

If I were divorced, a widow or simply had a husband that was out of the country at the time, my gender dictates that I have to find a male relative to obtain a birth certificate and document my child’s name at government circles.

My gender also mandates whether I can freely leave the country or not. As a woman, if I need to travel, I am at the mercy of my father and husband. At the airport I am stopped and required to show an official yellow card from the Saudi Interior Ministry that states that my husband has granted me permission to travel. If I fail to provide it, then I’m escorted out of the airport and told to go home and convince my husband.

My husband can legally divorce me without reason, without my presence and without my knowledge.

In public schools, from the age of twelve, girls are forced to cover their faces completely with not even a slit for their eyes as they enter and leave the strictly girls only schools.

All restaurants cannot allow women in unless they have a separate entrance and area for them to sit in.

All of these rules are not only socially or culturally enforced but legally as well. So that no matter how much our society may move forward and general awareness is raised, the laws pull us back. This legal and governmental factor makes it extremely difficult for forward thinking women to demand change. If I drive my car as a woman, I am not only breaking a social taboo but also entering into a discussion of whether or not I’m breaking the law and challenging the government. This is what has led to the nine-day imprisonment of Manal Al Sharif. One of the accusations presented against her by government officials is driving a car while female within a city and inciting other women to do the same. Just last week another Saudi woman was sentenced to ten lashes for driving a car in a city. The king soon pardoned her, but it remains a fact that a judge can do that.

A member of the highest Islamic council, Sheikh Al Manea, reasons that it is justified to sentence a woman to physical punishment or imprisonment for driving a car, not because she drove the car per se but because she broke the law. These types of arguments are what makes it particularly difficult for the women rights movement in Saudi Arabia. The argument that you are not only breaking a social, cultural or even religious taboo but also going against the government and legal system can be a powerful deterrent to Saudi women who need to speak up for their rights.

A few months ago, the aforementioned Manal Al Sharif, spearheaded a movement to get Saudis used to the idea of a woman behind the steering wheel. July 17th was set as the day when Saudi women would start to drive themselves to work or school rather than rely on a male driver. The purpose was that from that day and onwards more and more women would slowly gain the courage to drive. At the same time Saudi society in general would gradually get used to the sight of women driving. Unfortunately that was not how it worked out. A couple of weeks before July 17th, Manal Al Sharif was arrested.

On the day itself there was a heavy police presence on all the main streets. Despite these obstacles, a few brave women drove their cars. I was fortunate enough to be able to be a part of it, even though Ive never learned to drive. I got into the car with another Saudi woman, Azza Al Shmasi. As I videotaped, she drove for 15 minutes close to a main street in Riyadh. When I got home I excitedly shared the video with my followers on Twitter, as did all the women who drove that day. Then for the next few weeks, more and more women drove and uploaded videos. It seemed as though we were making progress.

Unfortunately our progress was severely halted when several of the women who took part started receiving phone calls from the interior ministry and getting trial dates. I started receiving calls from the investigation unit at the Interior Ministry about a month after the last time I got into the car with Azza. In the beginning it seems as if they had made the assumption that my husband does not support me in my fight for women rights. They asked to speak to him, as though they did not have his full details right there in my file. This tactic of threatening women with informing their male guardians might have worked decades ago but Saudi society has evolved past that. The overwhelming majority of women who went out to drive have the full support of their immediate families. After two weeks of these harassing phone calls, my husband was called to the ministry. He refused to sign the pledge that he would make sure that I would not drive or upload videos of driving. The phone calls stopped. However, another Saudi woman, Najla Hariri has not been as fortunate. After her phone calls and visit to the interior ministry, she is currently awaiting a trial.

Here we were, fighting for the simple and basic right to drive our own cars. So we were surprised when King Abdullah surpassed all these rights that we had been fighting for and granted women not only the vote but also the right to be nominated as candidates in the 2015 municipal elections. The king also announced that women would be included in his appointed parliament. These changes are huge breakthroughs in the fight for womens rights, however they remain far in the future and have no effect on the day to day life of Saudi women today. They have however enraged many of our sheikhs. One such sheikh is Shiekh Allehiedan, another member of the Saudi highest Islamic council. He came out on TV to state that the king had not consulted with him before these announcements and that he is more protective of the country and its Sharia constitution than the king himself. Other extreme conservatives have also made a point of stating their unhappiness with these announcements. A worrying but unsurprising development; the extreme conservative have had a hold on the country from its very beginning. A partnership between the government and the mosque that is gradually growing sour because of the failure of both in reining in the peoples demands for their freedom and rights.

Many people fail to realize how relatively new Saudi Arabia is. It was not declared a country until 1932, so it is only about 80 years old. It is about 5 times the size of Germany. Our first king, King Abdulaziz, managed to unify this vast desert land despite the different cultures and even religious Islamic sects of its people. Then with the discovery of oil, led our dispersed people into building one of the more prosperous countries of the world.

Unlike the majority of our neighbors we were not colonized so we did not have a western law system imposed upon us. We had to start with the tools we had at the time; Arab tribal law and religion. Starting as we did from square one in the modern world makes for some interesting challenges. Condensing hundreds of years of evolvement of national law, civilian rights and freedom in a few decades. From that perspective, it is not hard to understand how we have come to have all these modern amenities and yet live a lifestyle that is reminiscent of medieval times.

As a Saudi woman, I understand all this. I also understand how exotic Saudi women are to the rest of the world. Our abayas and culture are a more subtle form of the same exoticism of the Padaung tribe where women wore neck bracelets that made them look giraffe necked. Despite how uncomfortable it looked and how much it affected their lives, it seemed to outsiders as though they were proud of their heritage and wanted to maintain it by passing it on to future generations. However when human rights organizations dug beneath the surface they found that it was face, politics and economics that were forcing this tradition on women who wanted better for themselves and their daughters.

Although we don’t wear our niqabs because we need to draw tourists, we still have in common with these Burmese women that a combination of face, politics and economics have constricted our freedom and put many unnecessary obstacles in the path of our happiness. Arab traditions and culture have dictated the most extreme governmentally enforced environment of gender discrimination. So much so that these factors have resulted in the creation of the only gender apartheid in todays world.
As a Saudi woman, I understand all this, yet; somehow it does not alleviate my frustration at how my country’s history has such an impact on my day-to-day life.

 

This is the English original version I wrote and was translated to German and published in the new print edition of Stern magazine no41/2011, Thursday, 6th of October, pages 54-57

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Mass Beheadings Of Foreigners In Saudi Arabia


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From Bangladesh Corespondent Rezwan…

Nothing can justify a capital crime, but capital punishment cannot ensure a cure or deterrent for such crimes. Bangladeshis were shocked to learn that eight Bangladeshi migrant workers were beheaded in public in Saudi Arabia on 7 October, 2011, under Qisas (an eye for an eye) law for being involved in robbing a warehouse and killing a security guard, Hussein Saeed Mohammed Adulkhaleq, an Egyption national. Three other Bangladeshis were sentenced to prison terms and flogging.

As videos of similar Saudi beheadings[Warning: Graphic content] were widely circulated in social networks, netizens were enraged about this horrific punishment questioning about the process of the trial and the role of the Bangladesh Government in ensuring these poor migrant workers’ rights.

Zahid Masudul Abedin writes:

Almost every nation in the world exercises capital punishment. Our country also belongs to the group. But how brutallly the execution of punishment can be is evident from this type of public beheading. I understand that the law must be properly implemented, but can’t we refrain from this kind of beastliness from the middle ages?

Mosaddik Uzzal questions :

We are not against capital punishment, because this may increase the rate of crime in the community. But why eight people had to die for one person’s death? What kind of law is this?

 

Niaz Murshed Chowdhury  has some points to ponder:

These (horrific) scenes are so ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia that they do not create any reactions among the Saudis. Rather the policy makers vouch for this punishment saying that implementing “God’s Law” warns people, makes them careful. It reduces crime in the society. I have read the same kind of logic in many internet postings. Many believe that this is not barbarism, rather an effective tool to reduce crime in the society. I have read and understood all this, but could not fathom why the “Gods Law” initiated 1,400 years ago could not eradicate capital crimes like killing from the Saudi communities? Why they had to behead 158 persons in 2007 and 108 people in 2008? Was not 1400 years enough for the “Gods Law” to eradicate these kinds of crimes?

According to news reports  the Bangladesh government had tried through diplomatic channel since 2007 to seek pardon for the eight Bangladeshis. Even the president of Bangladesh wrote a letter to the Saudi King asking for forgiveness. The Saudi foreign office replied that only the victim’s family can forgive the perpetrators. The Bangladesh government did seek forgiveness from the victim’s family in Egypt but they refused.

Swadesh Roy writes in the Times Of Assam:

The persons who were beheaded, their trial were basically far from international standard. All proceedings were in Arabic. Accused persons could not understand it. The court did not arrange any system to help the accused understand it. Besides, most defendants had no defense lawyer. Eventually, for the language barrier and lack of any help from the lawyer, they could not defend themselves. So, it is not a trial of any international standard, it is actually a mock trial.

Niaz mentions that confession through tortures and framed cases are regular affairs in such mock trials. He also quotes from the Amnesty report:

The Egyptian man was killed during a clash between the Bangladeshi workers and a group of men who allegedly were stealing electric cable from a building complex where the Bangladeshis worked.

He asks why the media is ignoring these “group of men” and why they had been absent in the trial process?

And of course there are some people who are more equal than others. Niaz mentions the hypocrisy existing in the Saudi Law presenting the case of William Sampson, who survived such capital punishment because he was a British national. Sampson wrote in the Guardian:

Finally released in August 2003, after 964 days of solitary confinement, torture and dehumanising terror, I harbour no illusions about what saved me: my passport. …Meanwhile, of course, Saudi’s poor migrant workers from Somalia, Bangladesh, the Philippines or Pakistan are virtually doomed if they face a capital charge.

Manob O Manobota has this to say to the King of Saudi Arabia:

Do you know whether these convicted did have the liberty and means to tell the truth to your judges or the verdict was made without due process?

It may be noted here that Indonesia has banned the sending of maids to Saudi Arabia after a migrant worker from West Java was beheaded in that country for killing her employer, who abused her.

Unheard Voice points out that there are many more Bangladeshis waiting to be beheaded:

These men didn’t have any power, money, influence. They hold green colored passports that have very little international leverage and they work and live under conditions just above slaves. When they die, they are easily replaced and forgotten. 16 more are waiting in line to take the 8’s place.

Rubana Haque is in grief seeing the silence of the world:

Strangely, the world seems unsure and divided on the concept of peace. On one hand, three outstanding women have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution to the non-violent movement in their countries: Liberia and Yemen, and on the other hand, eight of us have just been beheaded in the most violent manner in Saudi Arabia.
While Saudi Arabia seeks to secure justice through capital punishment in its soil, the Nobel committee has commended these three women for strategically voicing out their protest. Point is, when will the world wake up to shun the violent governments and when shall we all stand united on the idea of peace, the chimera of our modern times?

First published in Global Voices Online

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The Driving Veil


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From Saudi Corespondent Eman Al Nafjan…

Every accusation imaginable has been thrown at Saudi women who spoke up for their right to drive their own cars. Sheikhs and ultra conservatives have created this intricate conspiracy theory on how this whole demand is a well-planned Iranian/Shia plight to bring down the government by corrupting it’s women. Others have claimed that it is a Western conspiracy because somehow the Christian/Jewish West know deep down that Islam is the right path but they need to corrupt Muslim women through using their own women as an example. According to their logic, somehow women driving cars will lead to the fall of Islam. Confusing, I know, but nevertheless quite emotional and effective when presented in a religious context of salvation and preserving our faith and morals in an evil world. Another issue that they have is a “gotcha” argument where they say if women really wanted to drive for the good of the country and independence then they would first have to prove it by giving up their maids. As if maids were a requirement and by law, Saudi women are banned from doing their own housework as they are from driving their cars?! Choice and freedom are two words that are not in the opposition’s vocabulary.

That was all expected, it’s the same rhetoric that is employed by the extreme right in opposing anything they don’t like. However what was surprising is that quite a few Saudis who are progressive and some activists as well are against the women driving campaign. Some have taken it as a matter of pride, that the women joining the campaign are exposing the country to international ridicule. Some are cynical about why Western media has given this issue so much attention. They say it’s just an oriental stereotype that these outlets are abusing for their own amusement. Such a clear black and white case of gender discrimination in the 21st century is really not worthy of anyone’s attention. And that a government would arrest women simply for driving a car is a “stereotype” and not actual incidents happening nationwide. Then they question why western media doesn’t consult Saudis on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict or why they don’t cover this or that.

They also are upset at Saudi women who have had to resort to Western media to present their case, instead of being upset at local media for not giving these women a platform. The day after June 17, our newspapers completely ignored the issue except for one report in one paper, Okaz, where the traffic police denied that there were any cases of women driving. This was despite the fact that traffic police issued a ticket to a woman, Maha Al Qahtani, for driving without a Saudi license on the very same day they claimed that there were no women drivers.

These same progressives and activists claim that the women driving their cars are going about it the wrong way and that they should go through official channels. It has obviously slipped their minds that Wajeha Al Huwaider and Ebtihal Mubarak  had delivered a petition to the Royal Court to lift the ban signed by over 3000 Saudis. They also must have forgotten when Dr. Mohmammed  Zalfa during his time on the Shura Council (closest thing to parliament in Saudi) presented a proposal to lift the ban in 2006 and received a huge social and professional backlash in return. Also Abdullah Al Alami, a journalist and activist has been trying for the past year to get the Shura Council to revisit the issue with no success. It’s very obvious that the official track is pretty worn out. Although we have still not lost hope and are persevering in its pursuit.

One example of such progressives is Tareq Al Homayed, who claimed in an article published on June 27 and translated to English the next day is that the Western media is out of touch.  And that they have been following misinformed social media hype. He claims that the women who drove on June 17th and after are fewer than those who protested the ban in 1990. When actually the 1990 protest was only fourteen cars that had 47 passengers, while from June 17th and onwards there have been about seventy documented cases of women driving. He also claimed that this issue was politicized by the campaign when in actuality the politicization of this basic right was by the extreme right with their accusations from decades ago until today that this is a foreign conspiracy and that women who call for this right are traitors. Finally he claims that the low number of women driving is a reflection of the campaign’s low priority for Saudi women. As if he wasn’t Saudi and does not understand how paralyzed with fear people are here when it comes to any form of public demonstrations.  For example we have thousands of political prisoners who are in prison indefinitely and without trial and yet at its height of the protest only 200 of their loved ones stood in front of the interior ministry to demand their release.

In an interview on a weekly discussion show, Suad Al Shammari, a leading Saudi women rights activist presented the following statistics: only 45000 Saudi women have licenses which they can only acquire from abroad, 40% of cars purchased in Saudi are purchased by women and that there are currently over a million and two hundred thousand foreign men brought into this country for the sole purpose of driving our cars instead of the women owners. FYI the Saudi population is 27,140,000 a third of which are foreign workers.

You would think that it’s a reflection of our wealth while in reality, 70% of Saudi do not have the financial resources to buy their own homes. The unemployment rate for women is over 28%, the majority of those unemployed women have graduate degrees. The unemployment rate for men too is high with two million registering for unemployment benefits.  So essentially many of these foreign drivers are here only due to the ban rather than the “luxurious Saudi lifestyle”.

The low number of women driving their cars is not due to the low number of women who care. The overwhelming majority of women do not know how to drive since Saudi driving schools ban women students and just practicing with your father or brother might end up with both of you with a criminal record. The low number is also because Saudi society shames women who publicly speak out against anything. As one Saudi woman who desperately needs to drive told me: “I will put up with importing a driver and a salary I can’t afford to pay, because otherwise my family would estrange me and people would drag my name in the mud.”

Recommended Reading:

The veil behind the wheel: Reuters report on being in the car with a woman activist who happens to be of a conservative Bedouin background.

An Arabic statement released by Shiekh Abdullah Al Mutlaq, a member of the highest religious council in Saudi Arabia where he states that women driving is allowed in Islam however he likens it to allowing weapon trade which is also allowed in Islam but would have dangerous consequences on the security of the country and safety of society.

Another member of the highest religious council, Shiekh Qays Al Mubarak, surprisingly is being quite outspoken in this Arabic piece in the call for lifting the ban on women driving.

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Back In Time


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From Saudi Arabia Corespondent Eman Al Nafjan…

These past couple of weeks have convinced me that the government has made a huge scientific discovery, the time machine, and is now using it to pull the whole country back into the eighties. The King’s decrees, which included a generous package for the ultra-conservatives and gave absolute  impunity to the senior clerics council from media criticism, were just an indication of what was coming. Since then, it has been made official instead of being just a religious recommendation; women are banned by law from working as cashiers. This was due to a complaint and proposal by sheikh Yusuf Al Ahmed to the Interior Ministry.

A forum, “Women and Development”, on March 13th here in Riyadh called on the authorities to grant women incentives and stipends to encourage them to stay at home, and to push forward early retirement by reducing service to just 15 years. Also they suggested a special system of part time work just for women and to  limit their hospital work to women only wards and ER.

The only moderate muttawa in the PVPV, Dr. Ahmed Al Ghamdi, has been relieved of his post as head of the Makkah PVPV division. He was the only PVPV member who stated openly that women are allowed in Islam to not cover their faces and that there is no such thing as extreme gender segregation in Islam. The latter view is also shared and researched in depth by another high official in the ministry of Justice, Shiekh Eissa Al Ghaith.

Yesterday the interior ministry has announced (ambiguously) that over five thousand detainees were released in the past after they repented from terrorism and others are awaiting trial. Why was this statement made now though? Many of those in political prisons in Saudi were arrested because they belonged to the same ultra-conservative group in the eighties and nineties that produced people like Osama Bin Laden. The free ultra-conservatives are currently apolitical and have focused their energy on the safe and easy misogyny trend except when it comes to the matter of their imprisoned brothers. So this statement can be categorized as of more of the aforementioned appeasement of the ultra-conservatives. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s a huge leap forward and I completely support and celebrate their release. Imprisoning anyone without a clear case and fair trial only creates more terrorism. I just hope that the human rights activist Mikhlif Al Shammary would also be released.

Another blast from the past is that women again will be banned from voting. The municipality elections were announced to start on April 23rd and it was confirmed that women will be completely excluded from the process. For a country that states that it’s constitution is the Quran, excluding women does not fit in with the statement; the Prophet (PBUH) and later caliphs took pledges of leadership (very close to the concept of voting)  from both women and men. These are the second elections to take place in the kingdom, and the first excluded women too under the pretense that the logistics of including women and avoiding gender mingling would postpone the elections too long. This was six years ago, and all these years obviously have not been enough time to prepare for the impossible task of actually treating women as full citizens.

I  prefer to end on a happy note. The Saudi Women Revolution is now a healthy cooing toddler.  A group of women headed by one of Saudi’s biggest women rights activists Dr. Hatoon Al Fasi have decided to start their own municipalities parallel to the government’s.  If only we would start parallel cities where women can enjoy their full rights, I bet more and more Saudis will want to move there until the parallel becomes the majority and the current status becomes a margin.

Also this video is a actually a collaboration between a multi generational group of Saudi women who prefer to remain anonymous for now but are currently planning and working towards a bigger online presence.

I can’t wait until the women revolution here hits it’s teen growth spurt.

Finally, in case you missed it, the BBC had an excellent video documentary and radio show on Saudi women. I’m featured in both but more so on the radio show.

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Just Another Royal Decree


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From Saudi Arabia Corespondent Eman Al Nafjan…

Last Friday, the King made a three minute pre-recorded speech thanking Saudis for their loyalty in an obvious reference to no one coming out to demonstrate on the Friday before. After the speech, two tv presenters took turns announcing a number of royal decrees. The night before the king’s speech and announcements were made, all newspaper editors were told not to use the term “royal generosity” or anything similar to refer to financial packages. These little things are evidence that up high they really are listening to what we down here are saying.

Last Friday’s royal decrees were surprising in their traditionalism while we were anticipating the opposite. Retrospectively though, anyone who would have stepped back and looked at the big picture would have been able to foresee these decrees.

Besides the fun and bribe-like two month salary that almost every Saudi employee and university student is getting, the rest of the decrees are pretty much same old same old. A commission to fight corruption being set up, more interior ministry officers and a lot of money promised to infrastructure; where have I heard that before? The commission that was set up a couple years ago to examine the corruption behind the loss of millions assigned to Jeddah’s municipality has yet to name a culprit. We’ve all read about the millions poured into projects that never see the light of day like this outline prepared by fellow blogger Trad Al Asmari in which three different construction companies take turns being paid to build a ministry for education at a  total cost of about 350 million US dollars.

The rest of the decrees are to benefit the ultra-conservatives of Saudi.  First in a move reminiscent of medieval times, the highest religious council has been royally decreed as untouchable, anyone criticizing the senior clerics will be punished. Then we have the religious establishment’s own personal financial package which includes 53 million dollars for the PVPV, 80 million for Islamic missionary centers, 130 million to fix up mosques and finally 53 million to support Quran memorization and teaching centers. It made me wonder what the PVPV will do with their 2010 600 strong  fleet of patrol jeeps?  Meanwhile anyone who has been in a Saudi police station, visited the prisons or at the very least checked out the orphanage in Makkah can tell you how just how far a fraction of all that money could go. But like I said before this is all explainable and foreseeable. If you were in control of Saudi, who would you care more about appeasing? The Islamists who have since the initiation of the country shown how quickly they can become radicalized and violent, or the moderates and liberal who are just as anxious about the Islamists as the state is?

I’m not worried though. Good things come to those who wait. What with 125,000 Saudi students abroad being exposed to a world beyond a Saudi life deeply entrenched in prideful denial, traditions and the opposite of critical thinking. And then about 40% of the population under 14 being raised in the new media age, change is just a matter of time.

On Twitter, a lot of the Saudi tweeps were critical about the announcements. My favorites include:

Mahmoud Sabbagh tweeted: the senior clerics  bill for the prohibition of demonstrations fatwa has turned out to be really high.

Mohammad Al-Qahtani tweeted: All oppressive Arab regimes are trying to maintain the “status quo” by intimidation, bribery, employing armies of all kinds of mercenaries!

Abdullah bin Abid tweeted: What’s required is a constitution and a system that protects the rights of citizens and those in positions of responsibility, and assigns duties. We don’t need more security forces; security is in rights and political participation.

Abdulrahmin Allahim tweeted: A cleric is a citizen just as I’m a citizen. Why is he and his colleagues distinguished when it should be that the basic principles of citizenship ensure that he and I are equal  before the law? I have yet to find an answer since the decree was announced.

 

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