Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Saudi Arabia Wastes Biggest Untapped Natural Resource: WOMEN

O ne step forward. Two steps back. This could aptly describe Saudi Arabia's attempt at growing and changing with the modern world. Technologically speaking, the Kingdom voraciously gulps down the latest in electronics and communications. Astronomical oil revenues outfit Saudis with the latest in gas guzzling luxury SUVs, haute couture fashions from Paris, and the gaudiest furniture and jewelry imaginable. But amidst the glaring opulence, one fact still remains evident: Saudi Arabia continues to waste, oppress, and ignore possibly its most valuable natural resource - its women. Saudi women are either kept hidden at home or hidden in public beneath loose fitting black cloth, cloaking them from head to toe. They are invisible. They are unapproachable. They are inaccessible. And this is exactly the way the men here want it to be.

Anything Saudi women do must be done with the consent of their Mahrams, or male guardians, usually their fathers or husbands. This includes traveling, education, and working, or something as simple as going to the mall. It seems that the more women try to push a little for their rights, the more religious clerics push back with even tougher stands and rulings. Now mind you, these are the same religious leaders who also recently upheld as perfectly permissible the marriages of eight and ten year old girls to old men. These leaders are deathly afraid of Western influences on social behaviors of Saudis, so much so that they try right and left to control many aspects of people's lives that most Westerners would consider outrageously intrusive and ridiculous. It always comes down to the religion - they say the religion says that women must be controlled and behave in these ways, but more than the religion, it is cultural, really - strictly Saudi culture.

In previous posts I've written about the extreme censorship here, the strict segregation of the sexes, the restrictions on women working and not being allowed to drive, and so on. Well, now the latest controversy to hit the newsstands is one forbidding Saudi women to appear on television or in print. This effectively prohibits women from, among other things, reporting the news or hosting shows - not that they ever DID here in Saudi Arabia anyway! The reasoning behind this is that the images of a woman on TV or in a magazine are too tempting for rational and god-fearing men to be expected to control themselves. No matter how conservatively a woman might be dressed and even with her hair covered, just the sight of a woman on TV is deemed obscene by the religious clerics. Claiming that they are merely trying to preserve morality in Saudi Arabia, this pretense is a lame excuse for oppressing women even further in this male-dominated society.

What I don't get is why nothing is ever said about all the violence on TV – and there is plenty! Isn't violence immoral? So in essence, the morality police say that a man shouldn’t see a Saudi woman's face on TV because he might get aroused, but it's perfectly okay to see all the blood and gore and guts and heads blown off he wants - and that’s just fine and dandy. But don't a lot of men actually get turned on by violence? All of these religious rulings seem to be directed at punishing and oppressing women. It’s as if men can do whatever they want here but the women always have to pay the price.

This latest absurd ruling comes on the heels of the appointment of the first ever woman official to the Ministry of Education. Wow - such progress! But, the woman’s photo was run in the newspaper without her permission, and she voiced her own objections about it. Of course in her position with this government agency, she will only be allowed to attend meetings and work with the rest of her “colleagues” by proxy via closed circuit television! It really makes me wonder how effective she will really be cut off like this from the rest of the good old boys.

Another recent inane fatwa (religious ruling) attacks women for riding in vehicles with their drivers, saying that it is highly immoral since intimate conversations in the car can easily lead to immoral conduct. Since women in this country are not allowed behind the wheel in the first place, hiring drivers is the only way for women to get around. Women are forced into this situation but now are being criticized for doing so. In addition, paying for drivers causes additional expenses for the family. But some wise old religious leaders are now saying that Saudi women - are you ready? - should just stay home; there is no need for them to go out! Can you imagine?

There are many Saudi women who get advanced college degrees but then never enter the workforce. I read somewhere that there was something like five million foreign workers here in Saudi Arabia. Many of them are drivers. Many work in restaurants – you won’t find any women working there either. Many of them work in shops in the malls as salesclerks, positions that women are forbidden from holding. So women are again forced into uncomfortable situations where they must purchase their undergarments - from strange men. Does this make any sense at all in this prim and proper society?

I can only imagine the vast improvements in customer service and the efficiency of day to day business operations that would be possible if women were allowed to take their rightful places alongside men in the workforce here.

When will Saudi Arabia wake up and realize that it is suppressing and wasting one of its largest natural resources: ITS WOMEN. Women are the most under-used and under-productive members of this society. Will Saudi men ever stop treating and looking at Saudi women purely as sex objects? Why can’t Saudi men be expected to exercise self-control around women and behave in a civilized manner as men in most other countries of the world do? When will Saudi women be allowed to work, or to manage their own affairs, to drive, or to have their voices heard?

It all makes me wonder: What am I doing here?

UPDATE: Arab News just published an interesting but sad article on the status of women "business owners" here in KSA.

Want more? Please read American Bedu's recent post about how women's gyms in Saudi Arabia are the next item on the KSA's hit list - yet another ban aimed at women.

For a more optimistic view of feminism in Muslim countries, please read Sand Gets in My Eyes's post.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Widowed in Saudi Arabia, Part 4

This is Part 4 of a 4-part series. Click here for Part 1.

I t’s not easy being married to someone from a totally different country, culture, and religion. And it’s certainly not easy to leave your family behind and move to your spouse's homeland, uproot your whole life, forget about the religion you were raised with, and give up the many freedoms you have taken for granted to come to a country like Saudi Arabia, where a woman literally become the property of her husband. Until my own son was 14, the idea of moving to Saudi Arabia never really crossed my mind. Then suddenly, after 30 years in the states, my husband expressed his desire to move back to the country where he was born and grew up. If my son had been a girl, I would have never agreed to come. And the fact that he was already a teenager and would be a man in a few years was a factor in my decision to come here also. If things didn’t work out here in Saudi Arabia for us, then I figured we would be able to leave when my son came of age, although my husband has always assured me that we are free to leave here at any time if things get too unbearable for us. You see, females in Saudi Arabia are always the wards of a man here, whether it be her father, or her husband, or even her own son, as in Asima’s case.

Just recently Asima was referred to a Saudi lawyer by another British friend. The lawyer kindly offered his services free of charge and he represented them in court, which finally named Faris, at 20, the legal guardian over his sister Jannah. He is also the legal guardian of his mother Asima, since they are related by blood. Once Faris turns 21, he will be his own man, no longer needing a legal guardian of his own – formerly his grandfather, now his uncle – which means that once Asima has their affairs in order and sells their home, they will finally be able to leave Saudi Arabia. Once the house is sold, the proceeds will have to be divided up according to Islamic law.

I have the utmost respect and admiration for Asima. I’m actually in awe of how she has managed to hold her family together and survived here despite the odds and the obstacles she has had to face. Getting virtually no help from her husband’s family, as well overcoming the power struggle they have imposed on her over the years, has only made her stronger. Asima is a survivor. Yet she doesn’t see herself as brave and feels that she has only done what any other mother in her same position would have done to protect her children, although that’s not entirely true. Other women who have been widowed or divorced here have chosen to leave Saudi Arabia, most having to leave their children behind because of the laws here that favor the man - no surprise in this male-dominated society. Asima credits the support of a few close friends and the loyalty of her Pakistani driver with helping her make it through these past eight tumultuous years. Before he dies, her husband Abdul had asked the driver to stay on and watch over his family after he was gone, and the driver has done so, even though he's past retirement age. He tells her that he will only retire and return to his home once she is free from this place with her children.

Asima has no regrets about marrying her husband. She has two awesome children and fond memories of her all too fleeting years spent with Abdul. But there are times when she thinks about how many years of her life she has lost for loving him and staying. However as far as her kids are concerned, nothing has been too high of a price to pay to stay in their lives as she has done. And when I asked her what advice she might offer to Saudi wives before coming to the KSA, she had this to say: “I wish I could just say ‘Don’t Come!’ But life isn’t that black and white. We always believe the worst won’t happen to us. We are with the person we love and who loves us, and that’s all that matters at the time. I would certainly advise all women to make a contract before marriage and be prepared just in case, both legally and financially. Also, have all legal documents kept safely with her, the house in her name, separate bank accounts, and dual citizenship for herself and the children.”

By the way, you may have guessed that Asima is not her real name. It was a name we chose for her because of its Arabic meaning, which is “protector.” Her sole aim all these years has been to protect her children, and she has done a remarkable and admirable job of doing just that. She hopes that by letting her story be known, it might help at least one woman make the right decision in her life and be protected. Asima knows that there are good Saudi men (she had one!) and good Saudi families. Unfortunately her Saudi family has been unkind and cruel to her and her children, a fate they will hopefully not have to endure much longer. She can see the light at the end of the tunnel now, and it has been a very long tunnel. Telling her story has been very difficult for her; it’s been like reliving the pain of the last eight years again. But she has hope for the future, and she’s confident now that there IS a future for her and her children out there.

So let Asima’s story serve as a warning for any woman marrying a Saudi man and considering a move to Saudi Arabia. We all want our happy ending, but Saudi Arabia may be a difficult place to find it.

Asima continues to live in Saudi Arabia for now and still has her ups and downs, good days and bad. The end of her story has not yet been written because it has not yet played out. She still has hurdles ahead of her. There will be another chapter down the road, maybe even two, before all is said and done, and I will bring it to you at that time. Please keep her and her children in your prayers in the meantime.

And thank you, Asima, for sharing your important story with us.

UPDATE: Follow THIS LINK for a final update to Asima's story.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Widowed in Saudi Arabia, Part 3

This is Part 3 of a 4-part series. Click here for Part 1.

A  sima’s husband had been happiest at home in their garden, so she and her children planted a tree in their courtyard in his honor, so the children could remember him in the peaceful place that he loved.

In Islam, when a woman is widowed or children are orphaned, the blood relatives are supposed to take care of them. Abdul’s family ended up providing her with a small monthly allowance, which was not really enough to support her family. So she was forced to look for work to support herself and the kids and was able to secure a minimal paying job as a teacher’s assistant in a pre-school. Education and medicine are two of the very few fields in which women are allowed to work in Saudi Arabia because women and men are forbidden to work alongside one another in this strictly segregated society.

It was a battle with her in-laws to keep Faris in a Western school, and in the end Asima prevailed, although the family would only pay for the very cheapest Western school they could find. Asima was able to take Jannah to the school where she worked, without the knowledge of her in-laws since they were against sending the three-year- old girl to school. Somehow her in-laws never found out that she was working. They tried to control every aspect of their lives. They told her how she should dress, how to raise her kids, that she couldn’t leave the house when her son was at school. She sought help from the British Consulate but because she had dual nationality, they refused to help her, not that they would have been much help in a country like Saudi Arabia anyway. Asima hadn’t had any time to grieve for her husband because she had to remain strong for her kids. She was tired, but she couldn’t give up and let them win.

Through a good friend who encouraged her and helped her get the job and to face life without her husband, she gained strength and hope.

The in-laws took Asima to court under the pretext that they were trying to get her widow’s social security payments. Luckily her good friend sent along a translator for Asima and was it ever a good idea that she did! The hearing was an attempt to gain control over Asima’s finances and to force her to sell her home. The judge realized what was going on and denied her father-in-law these rights. She was VERY lucky to get this judge – many judges here in KSA would have ruled against her just because she’s a woman. Her father-in-law stormed off, leaving Asima and her toddler standing on the street outside the courthouse in the blazing sun. She had no idea where they were. Her father-in-law was so angry that he stopped providing her measly monthly allowance and didn’t speak to Asima for months. Months later, he tried once again to get her to sell the house. He took her to a little dumpy apartment, telling her that this would be her new home, that she didn’t need that big house. She had finally had enough. Raging, Asima screamed at her father-in-law, “I refuse to sell my house! That home is everything that Abdul worked for!” Abdul's father backed down, knowing that he had pushed her too far this time.

Asima has also had to endure extreme harassment from Abdul’s brother Gamal. He has stalked her, terrorized her, attacked her, accused her of immoral behavior, barged into her home, threatened her, and scared her children to death by his strange and inappropriate behavior. It all came to an end a few months ago when Faris was able to stand up to him and told him to leave them alone – or else! Gamal broke down into tears, apologizing for his strange behavior, and claimed the devil had made him do it! He did promise to leave them alone and so far, he has been good to his word. This chapter in their lives made Abdul’s family realize that Faris is a man and no longer the child they used to be able to push around.

Over the years, there were moments of hope when Asima thought she might be able to leave the country with her children, only to be shot down time after time. When her son would reach a certain age, she was told, he could legally be made his mother’s and his sister’s Mahram (guardian), but strangely the required age kept changing, from 15 to 18 then to 21. She has watched her son grow into a man, but his grandfather denied him permission to study abroad, so he stays home now, bored, depressed and languishing while they wait for the day when they will be able to leave this country that has been like the family’s prison for the last eight years. Faris cannot work because no employer will hire him here with only a high school diploma. This is the dismal future Asima’s in-laws have given Faris, not the one his parents had envisioned for him. Many teenagers in Saudi Arabia become depressed or get into trouble because there are very few activities they can participate in. Little Jannah has been traumatized by the actions of the in-laws so much that she fears any man wearing a white thobe and has serious trust issues.

Financially Asima has struggled to make ends meet month after month. She has done freelance writing for a couple of major newspapers, has taught ESL to a very prominent Saudi family, serves as an amazing source of valuable information to the ex-pat community in Saudi Arabia, and surprisingly feels she has actually been given some job opportunities here that she may not have had elsewhere.

Four years ago her father-in-law passed away, and it pains her to say this, but her son Faris was so happy about it. Asima always wanted to keep peace in the family, but they made it impossible. So much so that Faris hated his grandfather and rejoiced when he learned of his death. It was definitely a relief for Asima and her children.

** You just read Part 3 of 4. Proceed to Part 4.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Widowed in Saudi Arabia, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a 4-part series. Click here for Part 1.

The night that Abdul died, Asima left the hospital with her kids after a particularly horrifying episode their dad had from the side effects of his treatment. The following morning, Abdul’s brother Gamal stormed loudly into their villa, waking Asima up, yelling at her to get him Abdul’s ID. What? Why? “He’s dead and you have one hour to get to Makkah,” he rudely told her. Asima was stunned.

She had to awaken her children and tell them that their father was dead – it was one of the hardest things she ever had to do in her life. On top of that, she had to rush to get them ready for the funeral in Makkah. Abdul’s family made all the arrangements and Asima wasn’t consulted on the plans at all. In Islam, the body is disposed of as quickly as possible, in a very specific manner and done with very specific rituals. No one from Abdul’s family comforted her or explained things to her. She had never before been to a Muslim funeral, so she wasn’t aware that she was supposed to wear white. So when she arrived wearing the traditional funeral black of her own culture, Abdul’s family was horrified and did not hold back telling her how disrespectful they thought she was. Asima held her children close as they said their final farewells, and little Jannah lovingly placed some tiny fragrant flowers over her father’s lifeless body. Again Asima caught flak from Abdul’s family about how disrespectful little two-year-old Jannah’s action was and questioned if Asima wanted Abdul to go to hell because of her infidel ways.

At this point, Asima became alarmed and had had enough. She was confused and scared, hurt and in pain, but she also knew she had to be strong for her children. In her grief, she felt all alone, and all her husband’s family managed to do was to point out her missteps! There was no compassion for this grieving widow, the woman their son loved so deeply, the mother of their grandchildren. She decided then and there that her responsibility was to her children and she had to help them get through this monumental loss. Asima collected her children and took them upstairs to a guest room and locked the door. She held the kids tight and she let them talk about their father and tried to answer their questions as best she could, reassuring them that they would be okay because they had each other. Asima gave Faris the option of going to the gravesite to bury his father, but Faris chose not to. He wanted to remember his dad alive and not to remember an image of his dad being lowered into the ground.

The result of Faris’s decision not to go to the gravesite was that Abdul’s family never revealed to them where he was buried. In Islam, there are no headstones, only unmarked graves. They also burdened Asima and Faris with the accusation that they had condemned Abdul to hell for having such unbelieving children. Asima comforted her son by telling him that death is such a private matter and that we should do what our hearts tell us to do. She stayed up in the room and refused to go down to sit and receive mourners. Her sister-in-law kept pounding on the door and dramatically yelling to please don’t kill herself because Allah would punish her. How ridiculous she sounded - Asima had two children who desperately needed her and the crazy woman outside the door is screaming, “Don’t kill yourself!” She returned home with the children to their villa in Jeddah as quickly as possible to deal with their grief in peace. Her children were her number one priority and they were all that mattered now.

Several days later, her BIL Gamal showed up at her door and told her that she and the kids would never leave Saudi Arabia, that the kids were Saudis and Muslims and that they would all stay there forever. He threatened that if Asima ever tried to take them away that the family would take the children away from her. A few months later, the family was awarded guardianship of the children, without Asima ever appearing in court or signing any documents. She had no rights over her own children! The family ordered her to have no more English friends, no more English TV, and her son was to be pulled out of the English school he was in and enrolled in an Arabic only school. They also told her that she would have to sell the villa and move. Her in-laws were trying to take control of her whole life. Family members drilled into Faris that he was Saudi and not English and screamed at him when he would insist that he was half English.

Asima was made to feel that she was now the enemy and it didn’t matter that she had just lost her husband and best friend. She pleaded with her own mother in England to come and help her through this difficult time but was disappointed when her mom refused to come. Asima told me that she had a horrible abusive childhood, so she wasn’t really surprised at her mom’s decision not to come.

On top of all this, the discovery that she was, in fact, penniless made her hysterical.

For months after her husband’s death, Asima lived with the guilt of not being with Abdul when he died. His family had told her what a bad wife she was and that Abdul had been crying in pain and screaming out her name before he died. What kind of a selfish wife would do that to their dying son when he needed her most? After months of hating herself and feeling guilty, she finally received the hospital report of Abdul’s death, which stated that he had died quietly and peacefully in his sleep – a perfect end for a wonderful man. So what was the point of his family lying and being so evil and hateful, making her feel so bad and guilty that she happened to be with her children and not with her husband when he died? Abdul’s family also withheld the Saudi Family Card after he died. Asima would have been given certain benefits and rights as Abdul’s widow, but his family denied her and her children these rights for four long years.

She came to the realization that it was she and her kids against the world, and this knowledge gave her strength.

** You just read Part 2 of 4. Proceed to Part 3.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Widowed in Saudi Arabia - Part 1

This is Part 1 of a 4-part series.

This is the true story of a young British woman who fell in love and got married to the man of her dreams, only to have her dreams shattered into an unimaginable nightmare when she became widowed in Saudi Arabia. Hers is a cautionary tale for all young women with stars in their eyes who happen to fall for a Prince Charming from Arabia and a story that must be told.

Asima was still a teenager in 1987 when she met Abdul, a handsome Saudi student who was a few years older than she. She was swept off her feet and six months later, they married. Within no time at all, she was happily pregnant with their son Faris and settled into a blissful family life in the U.K. Asima even became a Muslim, as many Western wives of Muslims do. Abdul kept his marriage a secret from his family until after Faris was born, explaining to Asima that his parents would be more accepting of her if they already had a child together. In early 1990, just a few months before the Gulf War started, they made the decision to move to Abdul’s native Saudi Arabia since they were struggling financially in England. The young couple’s plan was that they would give it a try for five years to see if Asima liked it there and could adapt, and if not they would move back to England.

Initially Abdul’s parents welcomed their new daughter-in-law and grandson with open arms and made room for them in their home in Makkah. After several months of working long hours at the family business with not much to show for it, Abdul thought they should try living in Jeddah, where he felt he could make more money to support his family. So they moved into a building owned by his father and lived there rent-free for a while. Asima remembers being home alone with baby Faris a lot while her husband worked long hours. She was terrified during the Gulf War, as residents were told to prepare a chemical safe room in the house, stock up on supplies of food and drink, and were even given gas masks. They lived through all that, and a while later Asima obtained her Saudi citizenship. As much as she hated living in Saudi Arabia, she also loved it at the same time. (Even though it is technically illegal to hold dual citizenship like this, it is common practice for Western countries to allow women in these situations to retain their original citizenship as well.)

Over the next few years, they shuffled back and forth between the UK and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Several years later Abdul decided to start up his own business from home in Jeddah so he would be able to spend more time with his little family. This proved to be a stroke of genius on his part, and soon they went from struggling to make ends meet to rolling in money. They built a huge villa in a nice part of the city, and they were truly happy and seemed to have it all. But the happier they were, the unhappier Asima’s in-laws seemed to get. They criticized Abdul for being so westernized and complained that he didn’t visit them enough. They told him that other people were sure to put the “evil eye” on them for living in such a huge home and for flaunting their success.

When Faris was almost ten years old, after many years of trying, Asima gave birth to their beautiful daughter Jannah. She was the spitting image of her doting father. At last their family was complete, and their futures looked bright and shiny. But as fate would have it, their “happily ever after” was not to be. Abdul became ill and was diagnosed with cancer. His family barged into their lives and took over with his care, shoving Asima and her children to the sidelines. Abdul optimistically held on to his positive attitude that he would beat the cancer and he and Asima talked about the future. A few months before his death, Abdul tried to warn her and told Asima to take the children back to England and leave him to die there in Saudi Arabia with his family. But how could she? What kind of a wife would do that? He was her soul mate, the love of her life, and deep down, she convinced herself that he just couldn’t or wouldn’t die. So she remained in Saudi Arabia, the faithful and loving wife.

One of Asima’s friends came to see her and advised her to be prepared for the worst. She suggested getting paperwork together that would show any assets and accounts in Asima’s name only because his family would likely try to take control of everything if Abdul died. Asima just shrugged it off. Abdul went into the hospital once again and they attempted to have paperwork drawn up – secretly, without the knowledge of Abdul’s family – that would allow Asima and the children to leave Saudi Arabia. (In Saudi Arabia, women and children are not allowed to travel without permission from their legal male guardian, called Mahram, usually the husband or father.) The hospital needed to verify the papers saying that Abdul was of sound mind. But the official at the hospital caused a big scene - in front of Abdul’s family - saying that Asima shouldn’t want to leave the country with the kids because they are Muslims! Of course Abdul’s family became enraged and he quietly told Asima to give him a few days to straighten things out with his family.

But as it turned out, Abdul didn’t have a few days to get this done, and in the summer of 2001, less than fourteen years after they first met, Abdul passed away. He was only 36 years old. Asima became a young widow with two children in Saudi Arabia. Son Faris was thirteen and baby daughter Jannah was only two. Abdul’s illness and tragic death was the beginning of her worst nightmare.

** You just read Part 1 of 4. Proceed to Part 2.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Taxes in Saudi Arabia? Nah!

Yesterday, April 15th, came and went without any fanfare here in Saudi Arabia. There were no outrageously long lines at the post offices, no people griping about getting all those complicated forms filled out to file their taxes. Taxes are virtually non-existent here in Saudi Arabia. There are no property taxes, no capital gains taxes, and even at the grocery store, you pay exactly what an item's price says and not a Riyal more. You don't have to make sure you have that extra additional cash in your wallet to cover the usual 5-8% of sales taxes.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia holds twenty five per cent of the world's oil reserves, and most of its fiscal operating budget capital comes from these profits. Individual workers here pay absolutely no income tax - period. Ex-pat workers from the US must still pay their US taxes, however generally speaking in most cases, the first $80,000 of income or so earned outside of the country is tax exempt. Foreign ex-pat workers are also given an automatic filing date extension of an additional two more months to get their paperwork submitted. However since each person's situation is different and tax requirements and payments can vary and I am no tax expert, please refer to the IRS website to determine what taxes you may owe if you are an ex-pat worker in Saudi Arabia or any other country.

One thing that Saudi Arabia does have is something called Zakat, which is a religious tithing of sorts, and alms for the poor, if you will. It is actually one of the five basic pillars of Islam - to give a small percentage (2.5%) of 15% of your profits (it's not based on your gross income) each year to those less fortunate. This is a flat-rate and is not based on any type of sliding scale and there are no loop-holes. Zakat makes up the majority of the income each year that Saudi Arabia receives that is not oil-based. There is also another form of Zakat that Muslims are encouraged to pay during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daylight hours, among other things, to gain a better appreciation for those who don't have enough to eat. This Zakat ul-Fitr is given in the form of food.

I recently did a post listing many food prices here in the Kingdom so you can compare with your area. Here's the link in case you missed it. It's actually a nice feeling paying exactly what the sticker price says and not having to try to figure out how much more in taxes you will have to pay!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Rose Water

When I first met my husband back when we were college students more than thirty years ago, he introduced me to rose water. He would put just a drop of rose water in the pitcher of water he kept in the fridge and I thought it tasted just exquisite compared to plain old water!

 Recently we traveled to Taif, Saudi Arabia, for a few days, where we visited a "Rose Water Factory," and I got to see how rose water is made. The plain building didn't look like much of a factory from the outside, however the smell of roses was definitely in the air!

Out back behind the building was their large rose garden. They use only the light pink roses of Taif to make the rose water.

When I entered the building, I saw dozens of distilling contraptions and the process was explained to me. The entire intact head of the rose was used at this factory, not just the petals. However no stems or leaves are used.

About a dozen large bags of rose heads were placed inside each large vat of boiling water. The roses are boiled, steamed, and steeped in the water. The steam from the rose water rises and condenses as it goes through a tube in a cooling tank.

The rose water drips slowly into an awaiting collection vessel.

The discarded leftover waste is placed out on the edge of the road in front of the factory for anyone to take for free. It can be used as mulch.

Each day each distilling set-up can produce two full large bottles of rose water, which is then poured into smaller bottles for sale.

Rose Water not only makes drinking water taste wonderful, it is also used in cosmetics and in food products, especially sweets, has some medical uses and also religious purposes.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Halal Meat: A Disturbing Lesson


M uslims eat meat, but much like the Jewish term "kosher," the meat that Muslims eat is supposed to be "halal." What makes meat halal? Well, there are several conditions required. First, the animal to be slaughtered must be healthy. The kill must be done in a humane way so that the animal's suffering is kept to a minumum. Muslims use the method of one single swift swipe with a razor sharp blade across the animal's neck which severs the windpipe, the jugular vein and the carotid artery. This way the animal's death is quick and least painful. Right before the stroke of the knife, a recitation from the Quran is said aloud. Finally, all the blood must be drained from the animal.

There are also some other minor requirements as well. These include that the animal must be fed normally and given water just prior to the slaughter. Other animals cannot view the kill. The knife blade must be extremely sharp and should be four times the width of the animal's neck. The animal should also be positioned facing Makkah.

I remember when I was a kid growing up in Arizona, we had some friends who lived on a ranch out of town. One weekend when I was about ten years old, we drove out to the ranch, and the group of us kids - about 10 of us - were told to stand over by the fence. A cow was led out before us by two ranchhands. One of them was carrying a rifle. They shot the cow in the head and hoisted it up by its back legs, hanging it upside down. Then they slit the cow's throat to drain all the blood out. Before our eyes, they skinned it and butchered it until all that was left was a large bloody puddle on the ground beneath. As horrified as I was, I felt that I couldn't move and I found it strangely interesting. It is something that I have never forgotten to this day.

My husband grew up in Saudi Arabia back in the 1950s, and it was pretty common back then for the families to kill the animals they were going to eat. I don't think they had much in the way of supermarkets in this country back in those days. So he remembers being exposed to this ritual from quite an early age, and it didn't traumatize him. The kill was always done in the Islamic halal way, and respect and thanks were shown to the animal which was about to become their next meal. Children were brought up with this as a normal part of their life. I don't think it had any ill effects on the kids - this was what needed to be done if they wanted to eat. Nowadays most Saudi families buy their meat at the supermarket or a meat market, already neatly packaged into different cuts of meat. Today, families usually only buy an animal to have it slaughtered for holidays or special occasions like weddings.

Recently a friend of mine, Manal, told me about an incident that happened at her ten-year-old son's Saudi school. A rabbit was brought into the classroom and the boys were allowed to play with the fluffy creature for a couple of hours or so. Then the teacher took the animal to demonstrate how an Islamic halal kill is performed. But when the demonstration was over, the animal was tossed into the garbage can! Manal's son was horrified. The event deeply disturbed him. He told his mom that he could understand if it was killed so someone could eat it, or even if the fur was going to be used for something. But to allow the kids to play with the cute little bunny, and then murder it and toss it into the garbage - what kind of senseless and disturbing lesson is this? Manal called the school to voice her objections and displeasure and was told that she was the only parent complaining about it! I find it hard to believe that other children weren't equally as distraught as Manal's son was and that no other parents made a fuss about it.

I don't know about customs around the world in regards to this subject, but I find what happened at this school to be reprehensible. This lesson makes a mockery of any compassion for life and dismisses the humane treatment of animals as a joke. What value is there in teaching children to kill animals like this?