Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ladies First: Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates

I just watched “Ladies First: Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates,” a short New York Times video documentary regarding the historic elections in Saudi Arabia last December.  The film features three different Saudi women who were not only granted the right to vote in local municipal elections for the first time ever last year, but who also decided to run for office.  

While Saudi Arabia remains a kingdom, at the local level there are city councils consisting of elected officials.  It should be noted that Saudi men were barely given the right to vote and hold public office in 2005.  The next election wasn’t until 2011.  That same year King Abdullah announced that women would be able to vote and run for office in 2015.   

Offering a glimpse inside the lives of these brave, yet very different, Saudi women, the film follows the frustrations and roadblocks females face in her day to day existence, much less in running for public office.  If the man in a Saudi woman's life is not supportive of her dreams, he has the right to reject her desires - because every Saudi woman has the legal status of a child her entire life, and every decision about her life ultimately rests with her legal male guardian.  

I highly recommend watching this film if you are interested in how things work (or don’t work) in Saudi Arabia.  Great job by Mona El-Nagger, an Egyptian journalist who has been covering the Middle East for ten years. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"You're Lucky You Are Cute!"

"You’re lucky you are cute.  If you weren't, you wouldn't be sitting here next to me." I can't tell you how many times my husband has said that to me over the years.  While I feel like he is mostly joking, deep down I can't help but think that there must be some truth to it.  Lucky for me, he still thinks I am cute at age 65.  Lucky for me, he likes chubby women!  I've even asked him, "What if I were grotesquely disfigured in some kind of freak accident or a fire?" He says that it would be a deal breaker for him - and again, I feel like he is joking, but I certainly hope I never have to find out.  

The thing is that many, if not most, Saudi men probably feel this same way.  

I remember back almost 40 years ago when I first met my husband at university and I was getting to know him and his friends.  I would ask them a lot of questions about their culture, religion, education, views on life, and their thoughts about women.  I can recall asking several of his friends what qualities were they looking for in a wife? Every single one of them answered, "She must be beautiful."  

Surprisingly there weren't any other real attributes they were looking for in a woman. Personality didn't matter.  Intelligence didn't matter.  Neither did kindness, character, or even if she was an all-out bitch.  Physical beauty was the number one most important asset these Saudi men wanted in a woman.  Interestingly enough, the Koran is quite explicit about what type of woman a man should seek out when searching for a mate – and it’s not physical attractiveness.  Devotion to her religion is the quality that the Koran says a man should look for.

I know this makes my husband and other Saudi men sound like they are extremely superficial, and in this area, maybe they are.  But one needs to understand certain realities about the Saudi culture.  Extreme gender segregation is enforced from the onset of puberty.  Dating is not allowed.  And not only is it unacceptable to mix socially with the opposite sex, but it is also against the law - and one can be imprisoned or even lashed for being alone with a non-relative of the opposite sex.  Realizing these things, it’s easier to understand why physical beauty is so important to Saudi men.  In very conservative and traditional families, a couple may only meet face to face once prior to marriage, so first impressions are very important - and let's face it, in this situation looks matter.  

Some of my friends have told me about their relationships with their Saudi husbands.  Some of them are constantly belittled by their husbands about their weight or their cooking. Several of my friends have had weight loss surgery and some have had cosmetic surgery.  Some of them are persistently threatened with the very real possibility of their husbands taking a second wife, and several have even had to endure the pain when he actually went through with it.  Still others have been physically abused by their mates, while some are pressured to change themselves to be more to his liking.  I have always figured that my husband chose me because of who I am, not because of what he wanted to change me into.

Every morning at breakfast over our coffee, my husband looks at me across the table, with my disheveled hair and puffy eyes, and he tells me how beautiful I look.  And throughout the day when I least expect it, he repeats it again, and again.  I know I am lucky that he still sees me as that pretty young thing he first laid eyes on so long ago.  Even when I make him upset or do something mischievous, he still sloughs it off and says, “You’re lucky you’re cute!”  We rarely fight or get upset with one another.  Our marriage is an easy going one of mutual respect and lots of love.  He makes me laugh.  He makes me happy.  He makes me feel special - and beautiful.

I can only wonder how I got so lucky.  

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Flash Mob, Saudi Style

This video was produced by a large supermarket chain in Saudi Arabia called HyperPanda in honor of Saudi National Day which is celebrated on September 23rd.  Enjoy!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Waad Academy

Waad Academy just opened its doors this past fall to welcome students.  I recently had the chance to tour this impressive state of the art facility located in the Obhur area of the city.  

This new school offers a brand new concept in education here in Jeddah, focusing on turning out well-rounded individuals by feeding the mind, heart and body.  So in addition to academic achievement, Waad’s philosophy incorporates spiritual and physical well-being as well. 

This academy has succeeded in creating a nurturing learning environment, using modern technology, creative designs, and delicious colors which sets it apart from other local schools.  

The main building houses the administrative team, the beautiful and spacious auditorium which accommodates 1000, and the cheerful lunchroom. 
Shooting off from the main building are brilliantly designed wings which provide separate boys and girls campuses, which will eventually serve students from KG2 through Grade 8.  
There is also a beautiful modern library – which is "oh-so-much-more" than just a library.  
One unique and creative feature of the school are its mega slides, which certainly help to make learning more fun at the academy.  
The school's sporting and recreation facilities are extraordinary, including themed outdoor play areas, gymnasiums offering an assortment of indoor activities and sports, basketball and tennis courts, plus a soccer field, running tracks, swimming pool, and a rock climbing wall.
A host of extracurricular activities and a wide variety of after-school programs are also available to students.  There is even a wonderful nursery on site for the children of teachers and administrators.
Waad Academy encourages the involvement of parents in the child’s education and progress and also invites the entire community to participate in planned social and sporting events.    
The attention to detail makes it obvious that years of thought and planning went into the making of this institution.   The future of education in Saudi Arabia is here and now at Waad Academy. 

To learn more about Waad Academy, CLICK HERE.  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Saudi Society Will Accept Women Driving

I just wrote a guest post about the women's driving issue for the site called SAUDI WOMEN DRIVING, which offers news and thoughts pertaining to the issue of - you guessed it - Saudi women driving.  

I was prompted to write this in response to a recent statement by the man who is a son of the current king of Saudi Arabia and who is also second in line to the Saudi throne, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.  Last week he unveiled Saudi Vision 2030, a comprehensive plan outlining the future course and goals for Saudi Arabia.  A very small part of that plan dealt with the women driving issue, and here is what I have to say about it in my guest post on SAUDI WOMEN DRIVING: 

That's me - driving in Saudi Arabia!

A few days ago Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, second in line to the throne, was quoted as saying, “Saudi society, not the government, will determine whether women will be allowed to drive cars.”

To that I would ask: Exactly how loud does society have to yell in order to be heard? 

Women have been demanding the right to drive here in Saudi Arabia since 1990 when a few dozen women organized and drove in the streets of Riyadh.  They were severely punished – by the government – with the ramifications affecting their lives for many years.  Since then, many other women have driven on their own - and those who were caught have also been arrested and punished.  In fact, women who drive in KSA can now be charged with terrorism, open to the government’s interpretation.  

But wait a minute! If the government isn’t responsible for keeping women from driving in Saudi Arabia and punishing them if they do, then who is?  Society?  Really?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

My Favorite Photo from 2015

I was challenged to choose my favorite photo from last year and write a blog post about it when I came across a website called Social Print Studio and saw some of their favorite photos from 2015.   Social Print Studio is a San Franscisco-based company that creates really cool metal prints and photo books.

I take well over a thousand photos each month - some months I take 3000-5000 photos if I have visited somewhere special - so picking a favorite wasn't an easy task at all.  But I like this epic photo that I chose as my favorite so much that it also graces my photo blog as its header.

My favorite photo from 2015 is one that my husband actually took of me with several young Saudi women at the huge IECHE Education Fair that was held in Saudi Arabia's capital city of Riyadh in April 2015.  This annual fair is attended by thousands of Saudi students and their parents who are searching for the right institution of higher education for their child's chosen field.  The CPVPV (Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a.k.a. Saudi Arabia's religious police) even has a large booth at the event, trying to recruit new trainees.  The event is open to all and is free.  Hundreds of universities and technical schools from all over the world are represented, trying to attract students to their programs.  It is quite an impressive event.

Because of my ready smile, rosy complexion and light hair, I am frequently asked by total strangers here in Saudi Arabia to pose for photos with them.  These young ladies approached me at our booth and asked me if I would mind having my picture taken with them.  Of course I obliged!

Even though the quality of this photo could be a little better, what I love about this photo is that it dispels the notion that Saudi women are oppressed or unapproachable and it shows how really normal they are.

They just dress differently - that's all!

I love how you can actually see their eyes smiling even though you can't see their smiles underneath their veils.

I love that the one young woman is taking a selfie of us - such a typical and normal thing that most people do around the world now, yet it's something that outsiders may not ever imagine Saudi women would do because of the unfortunate misconceptions about them.

I love that these veiled women were as interested in me as I was in them.

I love that they all hugged me afterwards before they went on their way, leaving me with a warm fuzzy feeling that many people may never experience because their hearts and minds are not open to it.

I chose this photo because I love the feelings I get when I see it and how it gives me hope that one day we can all live together in peace and understanding and that we can accept and appreciate one another, differences and all.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Pesticide Deaths in KSA: "It's Allah's Will..."

One day when we left our apartment shortly after to moving to Saudi Arabia, we were engulfed by a thick misty smoke-like fog.  I suddenly couldn't breathe.  I quickly covered my mouth and nose with my scarf.  My husband was furious as he knew all too well what it was.  A resident of the building we lived in had likely called the city or some extermination company to spray for annoying insects and pests. 

On any given day, many parts of the city of Jeddah are consumed with a dense and dangerous haze of insecticides that can send people to the hospital with respiratory problems or worse.  People have reported that some places are fogged with pesticides twice a day (morning and night), others twice a week, and some maybe only twice a year.  

Municipalities in many areas of Saudi Arabia routinely spray insecticides most often without warning.  Entire blocks will suddenly become engulfed in toxic mists of poisonous fumes.  Many people have ended up in the emergency rooms of local hospitals.  A friend of mine recently reported that her entire family fell ill when the Baladiya (municipality) switched from its usual type of insecticide to a different stronger one used to control mosquitoes.  Fortunately the family sought treatment at a hospital emergency room and they are all okay, but others haven't been so lucky.   

Even though there are bans in Saudi Arabia on certain types of pesticides which contain toxic chemicals, in particular aluminum phosphide, products containing it can still be purchased or brought into the country fairly easily.  These particular products are not intended for personal or home use and are frequently sold to untrained civilians who improperly use it inside homes with often times deadly results - and all too often small children are the victims.  

Apparently when humidity or moisture makes contact with aluminum phosphide, a dangerous gas called phosphine is produced.  Symptoms of phosphine poisoning can include difficulty in breathing, dizziness, headache, numbness, lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea.  Just a few hours of exposure to the toxic gas can result in death within 24 hours.   

I remember reading about the tragic deaths in February 2009 of two young Danish children living in a compound here in Jeddah after inhaling the toxic fumes of an industrial grade pesticide while they slept.  There have been many other similar tragedies.  During a period of about one year and a half between late 2007 to early 2009, more than a dozen deaths occurred in Saudi Arabia, mostly children, from deadly insecticide poisoning.  Two Ethiopian boys died in January 2009.  Two Saudi children in September 2008.  A Filipino woman in October 2007.  An Afghani teenage girl in Jeddah in March 2014.  Three Pakistani children in Madinah in September 2008.  Two Egyptiangirls in August 2007.  An entire Pakistani family of six living in Riyadh died at the hands of their careless upstairs neighbor in July 2007 when he poured toxic pesticide down his drain, poisoning and killing the whole family below.  Countless more have been hospitalized over the years - and it continues to this day.  

The problem of the misuse of aluminum phosphide / phosphine gas is so alarming that a film documentary called “Phosphine” was produced in 2014 with the cooperation of Saudi public health authorities in an attempt to educate the public of the dangers of using this lethal type of toxic substance. I have embedded the film here for you below.  It is in Arabic but with English subtitles. It has been viewed almost 5 million times.  Hopefully it will reach enough people to make a difference so these unnecessary tragedies will be avoided. 

One of the most disturbing themes of the documentary was how the families of the victims were dismissed so easily with the logic that it was God's will that their loved ones died.  This lack of taking responsibility is the prevalent attitude toward death in Saudi Arabia and justifies careless unnecessary deaths when taking small preventative measures would have saved lives.  For example, most people here still do not use seat belts and don't use car seats for babies.  Instead, mamas continue to hold babies in their arms in the front passenger seat and when there is an accident and baby dies because it became a human projectile crashing through the windshield, they say it was God's will.

I realize there are health concerns, what with dengue fever and the Zika virus, and this is why the municipality regularly sprays as a preventative measure, however shouldn’t the public be made aware of what type of chemicals are being used and given proper warnings prior?  Some people have reported their animals dying as a result of spraying.  Simple activities like walking or jogging must be curtailed due to these trucks coming around and spraying.  People can literally taste it in the air!  Some have been suddenly enveloped in the smoky fog while walking to the grocery store.  What are the dangers, the neurological effects, and other health risks after repeated exposure to these chemicals?  Don’t we citizens have a right to know?


Read more about this subject:

Two detained over Basateen poisoning

2 Danish kids die in incident at compound

Afghan girl dies in pesticide poisoning; four hospitalized - March 2014

Editorial 2009 - Pesticide Deaths

Insecticide Kills Again 

Silent killer: Saudi YouTube film "Phosphine" gains over 3.5 million views