Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Saudi Woman Breaks the Law to Save Husband

A few days ago here in Saudi Arabia, a Saudi woman broke the law and in the process saved the life of her husband. What crime could she have possibly committed that actually saved her husband's life? She drove a car. She drove a car 120 km to get her incapacitated diabetic husband to a hospital.

One year ago, another young Saudi woman, 15-year-old Malak Al-Mutairi, was hailed as a hero when she saved the lives of several family members and eight other people as unusually heavy rains caused severe flooding in the city of Jeddah. How did she do it? She drove her family's Jeep to tow disabled vehicles to safety, rescuing people in cars that had been trapped by the floodwaters. But in doing so, she broke the law.

Earlier this year when my husband had heart surgery and couldn't drive, I wrote about the severe handicap placed on my family because of the restrictions placed on me which prevent me from driving here.

I have also written about how it's a daily occurrence to see young boys who aren't even tall enough to see over the steering wheel or reach the brake pedal driving cars here, and no one seems to have a problem with it. It's also no problem for men to drive with babies sitting in their laps and small children jumping around in the moving car - nobody is buckled in. Yet, ask Saudi men why women shouldn't drive here, and most of them will inevitably say it's for the woman's safety. Safety? What a crock! Then why does Saudi Arabia have the highest traffic accident death toll in the world? Could it be because only MEN drive here? Safety, my A$$!

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from operating motor vehicles. Since there are no public busses that women are allowed to ride either, what this law means is that in order to get around, the women of Saudi Arabia are forced to pay for a driver or to take taxis driven by strange men. Since most Saudi men must work and those who don't work don't really want to chauffeur around the women of the family to all the places they need to go, thousands and thousands of foreign men are brought into the country to drive women around - women who are perfectly capable of driving themselves but are prevented from doing so by the misogynistic law of the land.

Although the issue of women not driving here is not contrary to Islam, the reasons given for why this ban is in effect almost always point back to Islam. However, all other Islamic nations in the world allow women to drive! I'll never forget the words of Saudi Cleric Dr. Abd Al-Aziz Al-Fawzan when he said that the push for women to drive in Saudi Arabia was really a Western conspiracy to corrupt Saudi society, and then he threw in how Western men just simply rape any woman they desire, like it's a normal common occurrence.

Some women want to drive so badly that they will go to extremes to try to do so, from dressing up as men to particpating in reckless high speed races, like many young men here do - sometimes with disastrous results.

A campaign called "We the Women" was begun to promote the case for women driving in Saudi Arabia by a young Saudi woman working on her post-graduate degree in the US. The concept is simple. Promoting open dialogue about the driving issue by encouraging women to print off a blank bubble with the "We the Women" logo on it and write their feelings about not being allowed to drive in their own words, such as "I don't like the back seat" or "Driving shouldn't even be an issue" or "Driving isn't against my religion." Then they are to post it in a public place - shop windows, utility poles, restaurants in hopes of promoting dialogue.

Back in 1990 when the Saudi government finally put a law in the books prohibiting women from driving (prior to this women were denied the right to drive, however there was no actual law on the books), women who drove cars were described as "portents of evil." (What I don't get is why WOMEN driving are considered "portents of evil," while men behind the wheel are not.) At the time, the Saudi Minister of the Interior was quoted as saying, "Women's driving of cars contradicts the sound Islamic attitude of the Saudi citizen, who is jealous about his sacred ideals."

Jealousy? Whatever! These excuses for preventing women from driving here are so feeble it's laughable. Except I'm not laughing. While there are some Saudi men who are secure in their manhood and would like to see women given the right to drive, the truth is that most Saudi men just want to control women here - and letting women drive would give women too much freedom. But putting women in the position of having to break the law in order to save lives? That's just sick and wrong. And until the law is changed or done away with altogether, it just makes Saudi Arabia appear very backward in the eyes of the rest of the world - not that KSA has ever been concerned too much with that image...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's Not "Lady-Like!"

n investigation is underway regarding a shocking and controversial sporting competition that was held recently here in Jeddah. Shocking? Yes - because the event was for females (for shame!) and the event organizers failed to obtain prior approval from the Ministry of Education. Which begs the question: Are male sporting events subject to the same restrictions? Somehow I doubt it. Female sports here in Saudi Arabia are practically non-existent because girls’ athletics are frowned upon by religious clerics and many old-fashioned Saudi men as being “unlady-like,” among other ridiculous reasons.

The illegal and contentious sporting event – thought to be the first of its kind in the Kingdom - was held on December 8th at Effat University and included competition in such unlady-like sports such as swimming, basketball, and badminton for some 200 young high school women representing six different Jeddah girls’ schools.

In the aftermath of the tournament, a member of the Board of Directors of one of the participating schools claims they had received more than 60 “anonymous” complaints about girls participating in sports.

All this commotion comes at the heels of another report out of Iran where a Muslim cleric condemned women’s sports and forbade Iranian females from participating in the Asian Games. He was quoted as saying that women’s sports are a product of the West’s “dirty” culture and should be shunned. I want to know, exactly what is “dirty” about women’s sports?

This is 2010, almost 2011. It is common knowledge in this day and age that regular exercise promotes good health, weight control, and a sense of well-being. Yet for the girls and women of the kingdom, these facts don’t matter and aren’t considered important.

Last year I wrote about how the government cracked down on women’s gyms across Saudi Arabia, closing down countless women’s facilities if they were not properly licensed and if they were not affiliated with a hospital, while there are no such restrictions placed on men’s gyms. The closing of these facilities drove up membership costs and made it impossible for many Saudi women to be able to afford going to a gym. And it’s already hard enough for women to try to exercise in this country as it is. Women here are forbidden from swimming (well they can, if they are fully covered), riding bicycles (too provocative as it reveals the female's behind), or playing sports in public. Saudi Arabia has been long criticized for denying Saudi women from particpating in the Olympics and other sporting events.

Physical Education classes in girls’ schools are a very low priority. You won’t believe some of the ludicrous reasons given for why girls shouldn’t be allowed to participate in sports or exercise in school: The female hymen might break during exercise so the girl wouldn’t be considered a virgin anymore. “Good girls” would never disrobe outside their own home, not even to change into gym clothes at school. If girls did disrobe in front of other girls at school, they might get turned on and have nasty thoughts that they may want to act upon. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!

All this craziness aside, women’s obesity is becoming a major health crisis here in Saudi Arabia, evident in the dramatic increases in diabetes, hypertension, depression, and other weight-related health issues. For the most part, women here lead a very sedentary lifestyle – many don’t even do any physical household chores because they have maids.

This antiquated mindset of restricting women from exercise and sports places Saudi Arabia way behind the times in promoting women’s health and well-being.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Trust in Business

The other evening, my husband and I went out just to walk around at a small local mall here in Jeddah. I like to look at the traditional long dresses that many women wear here, so we went into one of the small dress shops in the mall so I could take a look. Many of the traditional dresses are embroidered, or embellished with beading.

I found three that I liked - and you've heard me complain about this before - but generally there are no dressing rooms here for women to try on clothing.

I've been given many excuses for why there are no dressing rooms for women in clothing shops here in this country, ranging from the problem with women shoplifting clothing by just putting it on underneath their big black abayas, to the potential problem of men sales clerks molesting women who are undressed in the dressing rooms. FYI - there ARE no women sales clerks allowed in Saudi Arabia - don't get me started! Suffice it to say that this country is big on "prevention" when it comes to the matter of women and sex, no matter how remote the possibility of whatever it is that might occur.

Anyway, back to my story... I guess business was rather slow that night, so I figure that this shopkeeper was anxious to make a sale.

What he did next almost floored me.

He took the three dresses off the hangers, folded them nicely and put them in a bag for me. In Arabic he told my husband, "Take the dresses home and let your wife try them on. Keep what she likes and bring back what she doesn't want. Then you just pay me for what you keep."

He took no money.
He didn't ask for my husband's name or phone number.
He didn't make a note of the merchandise that we walked out of the store with.
He didn't request that we bring the money or the items back by any particular date.

I'm still shocked.

Would a scenario like this ever happen where YOU live?

(NOTE: The dresses shown in this post are from

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Interview with Sand Gets In My Eyes

Sand Gets in My Eyes (SGIME) has always been a favorite read of mine since I moved to Saudi Arabia and discovered blogging. She is an American who has lived in Saudi Arabia for eight years and has also lived elsewhere in the Middle East, Australia, and other places. With a background in psychology, her posts are always thoughtful and she tackles highly controversial issues with persuasive aplomb. In October of this year, the SGIME blog was blocked in Saudi Arabia and is still blocked. This means that people within the country cannot access her blog but it is still accessible outside Saudi Arabia. She recently came to the decision to "lay down her pen" after nearly seven years of writing SGIME. Her blog will continue to be available online to the rest of the world, however she plans to discontinue adding new material.

SGIME was kind enough to answer some questions I posed to her...

Susie – What kept you inspired all those years and in what ways was blogging rewarding for you?

SGIME - Susie, I guess it comes down to this – there are (and of course will continue to be) a lot of important issues in Saudi that need to be talked about openly, but for whatever reason, they just aren’t. Maybe there’s too much intentional misinformation out there, maybe they’re taboo, maybe they make people uncomfortable, maybe they’re complicated and complex, maybe they’re one piece of a bigger puzzle, maybe they’re just so confusing and confused that no one wants to take the time to understand them. Maybe people are lazy and unmotivated. Maybe it’s just easier not to talk about them. SGIME was my way of talking about those things, and encouraging others to talk about them, too. I guess you could say I planted seeds and waited for them to take root. When that happened, I got all the inspiration and reward I needed.

Susie - Your blog was blocked by the Saudi government in October and is still blocked. Do you have any personal ideas about why it was blocked?

SGIME - Gosh, I have a lot of ideas, and have gotten some new ones from others who probably know more than I do about such things! Obviously I hit a nerve with someone who had enough wasta to get SGIME blocked. What nerve that was…not sure. I'd recently been reaching out to different people, both inside and outside of the Kingdom for insight into various topics I was covering, and my guess is that was seen as potentially threatening to someone since for awhile the email associated with the blog was also blocked. SGIME had also recently received some heavy press in the States which created a significant spike in readership, and that might have had something to do with it too. One theory I’ve heard a lot is that I was “too relentless” when it came to women’s issues. Not exactly sure what that means or if it is even possible!
The thing is, I always knew there was a fair probability that SGIME would be blocked at some point simply because of the topics I covered and the way I covered them – unvarnished and passionately. I have no regrets.

Susie - Did the blog blockage play a major role in your decision to stop blogging?

SGIME - Yes, but not in the way most folks would assume! SGIME readership actually went up after the blog was blocked, in large part, I think, because so many people wanted to show their support. A lot of new readers were showing up and those who had been silent, were sending emails and messages of encouragement, which was awful nice!

Getting blocked was an affirmation of sorts that SGIME was seen as an agent of change, which was a good thing, but also meant as the author of the blog, I was no longer “under the radar”, something I’d tried hard to maintain and was (and is) important to me.
But the truth is, getting blocked was one in a growing number of messages that it was time to put SGIME aside.
Jesus Christ is my foundation, and over the past several months, He’d been putting it on my heart that I was spending more time thinking about and learning Islam than about Him and what He had to say about matters. It was negatively impacting everything about me – including my faith, my joy and the sense of peace I depend on. Once I listened to – and accepted – that message, the decision to stop blogging was pretty easy!

Susie - You often wrote about many of the women's social issues in Saudi Arabia which are perceived as problematic by the West. Do you think that mere bloggers can make a difference or have an impact?

SGIME - I think that in Saudi Arabia, the Internet is just about the ONLY thing that can – and does – impact change! The current "rules" don't just separate people, they separate and isolate thoughts and ideas and information. In many ways, the Internet - especially social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter – makes the "rules" impotent, it breaks through the walls of isolation and puts all those decisions about interaction and relationships and natural curiosity back on the individual. The sad thing is that a lot of Saudis don’t remember a time when those decisions were in their hands, and they don’t have any idea how to make them anymore. There’s a steep learning curve ahead for individuals and the Kingdom, and I’ve no doubt social media will be part of the solution.
But, to the first part of your question, Susie, human dignity shouldn’t be perceived as being the right of some and not others, nor should the denial of human rights be seen as problematic by just one group of people. When one person is denied human dignity, we must all see it as a problem worth tackling, otherwise it is always “someone else’s problem”.

Susie - How much did you find yourself self-editing your posts on controversial issues?

SGIME - I’m a freak when it comes to word choice and tone no matter what I’m writing, and of course that carried over to SGIME. Over the years, I wrote posts about every topic imaginable, no matter how controversial or inflammatory, sensational or biased, and then self-edited as to which posts got published. Several really great posts never saw the light of day!

Susie - Have you ever had any personal interaction with the religious police here in KSA? How do you view their role here?

SGIME - Sure, on several occasions! Hasn’t every woman in KSA- regardless of nationality or religion? I mean seriously, if you wear an abaya, they harass you to cover your head. If you cover your head, they harass you to cover your face. Cover your face and they harass you to cover your eyes! And if you cover everything, they harass you for being in public! To paraphrase Mick Jager, “they can’t get no satisfaction”! For that reason, as well as many, many others – including on religious grounds - I can probably count on two hands the number of times I’ve worn an abaya over the last seven years.
As far as role…I see the religious police as bullying stand-ins for personal responsibility and accountability, as intimidating dispensers of moral compass-by-proxy, if you will. They make the decisions so others don’t have to. Personally, I prefer to make my own, thank you!
I was reading thru the Wikileaks (source: the other day and came across the following, which I found fascinating, telling and absolutely spot-on when it comes to the issue of religious police:
“ In a meeting with Jeddah CG and XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXXXX was blunt when asked about SAG efforts in countering extremist thinking. ‘King Abdallah was here,’ he said, pointing around his well-appointed office XXXXXXXXXXXX in Jeddah. ‘He told us that conservative elements in Saudi society do not understand true Islam, and that people needed to be educated’ on the subject. King Abdallah, he said, used a metaphor of a donkey to explain how the religious police use the wrong approach. ‘They take a stick and hit you with it, saying ‘Come donkey, it’s time to pray.’ How does that help people behave like good Muslims?’ XXXXXXXXXXXX quoted the king as saying.”
Yeah, spot-on.

Susie - Child brides, women driving, the guardianship system - why are topics like these so prevalent in your writings?

SGIME - Frankly because they raise my ire! They symbolize what I see as the irrefutable wrong-mindedness of Saudi society and how that society views women: Females are property, and thus can be bought, sold, traded and mistreated with total disregard for their feelings, wishes, dreams or futures. Females are incompetent, incapable, incomplete and irresponsible (although of course, at the same time they are seen as wholly responsible for male morality and behavior). Females cannot be trusted to make reasonable, independent decisions on anything other than accessories and maybe groceries. Females are unwelcome children who should be neither seen nor heard, but instead be isolated and locked away physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually, all the while thankful for and content with whatever crumbs or hand-me-downs they might get.
Saudi will continue to struggle unless and until these views change.

Susie - When you have driven in the West, did you ever feel like you were a “portent of evil” behind the wheel? (NOTE: This term was used in 1990 by the Saudi government and religious conservatives to describe women who drove automobiles within the Kingdom in a rebellious and organized act of civil disobedience. The united women’s action prompted the drafting of an actual law prohibiting women from driving. Prior to that, there was technically no written law on the books although women were still not permitted to drive.)

SGIME – LOL. The very idea that the absence of a penis makes someone a “portent of evil” (behind the wheel or anywhere else) is absurd and offensive and ignorant and insulting. If I didn’t know people alive today who think that way, I’d say it was laughable. But we all know better.

Susie - Are you hopeful that women in Saudi Arabia will make gains in obtaining their basic human rights?

SGIME - Hope springs eternal! lol Seriously tho, ask a lot of Saudi women and they’ll tell you they already have their basic human rights – which frankly, is what I see as the root cause of the many human rights violations that go on here. (And, contrary to what people say in public, there are a lot of them!)
When more Saudi women believe they deserve their God-given rights than believe they must settle for what men are willing to give them, the women of Saudi Arabia will demand change. That tipping point hasn’t been reached yet, and I’m not convinced it will ever be reached. Too many people have too much invested in maintaining the status quo.

Susie - What will you be doing with all your free time now that you are no longer blogging?

SGIME - I can’t believe how much free time I have! I always have a few writing projects in the hopper, and I’ve been working on a reasonable schedule to finish them up. I’m also putting together a documentary, and brushing up on some of the skills that requires. And, as I mentioned before, I’m going to be spending more time thinking about God and less time thinking about Islam. I’m looking forward to whatever next thing God has planned for me here, and just soaking in all the goodness and light that comes from focusing on the right things.

"We should not permit tolerance to degenerate into indifference." - Margaret Chase Smith

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Life of a Camel Herder

Just a few minutes by car from the busy seaport city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, are many outposts where the native one-hump dromedary camels live, herded in by rickety barbed wire corrals. Fresh and frothy warm camel’s milk is available for sale (about $5 US per gallon), and for very special occasions, one can also buy whole camels for their lean meat as well (about $1000 US).

However some camels can fetch a much higher price for their great beauty – earlier this year at the famous King Abdul Aziz Festival, the camel beauty contest offered prizes totaling 70 million Saudi Riyals (that’s 14 million Euros).

But this story is about Hussan. He is from Sudan and he is a camel herder. He is a content man with simple needs, not many worries, and very limited means. His cheeks are freshly shaven and his graying mustache and beard are neatly trimmed. He has beautiful white teeth and a ready smile. I have to admit that not all the camel herders I have seen here are as clean and well kempt as Hussan.

Hussan and several other men from Sudan take care of a herd of probably more than a hundred camels altogether. They feed and water the camels every day and milk them on the spot when a customer comes by and requests fresh camel milk, which is arguably a healthier alternative to cow's milk. It is very nutritious, and compared to cow's milk, is higher is Vitamin C and is more easily digested, which makes it better for those who are lactose intolerant. Another interesting fact about camel's milk is that is doesn't curdle! It also has wonderful health benefits, such as controlling diabetes due to its high concentration of insulin and being great for one's skin because its content is so high in fatty acids like lanolin. Camel milk is an important dietary staple for many people in the world.

The camel herders live out in the scorching desert heat with the camels that they tend, in very primitive and simple living arrangements.

Not far from the stately luxurious palaces and the spacious tiled villas of Jeddah is where Hussan and the others live on the outskirts of the city. It is just a few feet from where the camels sleep in their barbed wire corrals. The camel herders’ shelter is built from odd and ends of discarded wood, plastic and canvas tarps, and several large old prayer rugs. If you look closely, you can just barely see part of an old Saudi style bed frame where he sleeps. I saw at least one more bed inside, and there might even be a third. The beds are elevated from the desert sand floor and are covered with old bedding.

The harsh climate of Hussan's humble desert abode must be brutal for him to tolerate especially in summer’s hottest months, yet his warm smile and polite demeanor always greet his customers unfailingly. I saw large water jugs about, but I'm not sure how or where he and the others bathe. I also noticed a large white tent nearby that might possibly be used for their toiletry needs, and there were buildings off in the distance, including a mosque, not too far of a walk away.

Several of these makeshift shaded bunks where the camel herders nap were here and there, crudely built of old pieces of wood and draped with various fabrics and bedding. You can click on the photos to enlarge them, and in this one you can see one of the guys actually napping inside the shaded bunk.

I also saw in the surrounding desert area several pieces of dusty old discarded furniture that the camel herders could use for resting. It's common to see old furniture outside apartment buildings and businesses in the city, where the building caretakers can sit.

The life of a camel herder must be very tough and physically grueling, but from all outward appearances, they all seem very happy to me. There is something to be said for their non-materialistic simple lifestyle without the pressures and trappings of a modern-day existence.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Man After My Own Heart

The religious stranglehold in Saudi Arabia has a very tight grip on the country. It intimidates its citizens from behaving with immoral turpitude, discourages anyone from expressing individuality or from being different, and despises Western values and lifestyles. But from what I can see, these attempts to control people in so many aspects of their lives seem to have the opposite effect on the actual targets. The vast majority of people here in KSA don't really need religious police to keep them in line or make them behave morally because they already are. What the religious police here don't seem to grasp is that a certain percentage of the population is automatically not going to have high morals, is prone to criminal activity, and enjoys being different from everyone else. And they also don't seem to understand that applying all this unnecessary pressure on those who don't really need it is only going to make them resent it, push back, and rebel. Forbidden fruit just tends to make people want it even more. It's simply human nature.

Credit: AFP File Sheikh Ahmed Al-GhamdiThat's why I was so excited to read the latest quotes from the controversial head of Mecca's religious police, Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, who spoke in Jeddah this past week to a group of women attending a conference on "Women's Participation in National Development." The issue of women and their employment in various capacities in the kingdom was the hottest topic discussed because of all the unreasonable restrictions imposed on working women by the religious faction.

Not only does this moderate and sensible religious figurehead object to the ban on women driving here, he also believes that there is nothing wrong with “ikhtilat,” which is the gender mixing of men and women, in public and social situations. Gender segregation strongly contributes to the belief by religious fanatics that women should not be employed in countless positions here. In defense of his opinion, Sheikh Al-Ghamdi states that Islam "orders a woman to cover her body to allow her to participate in social life, not to prevent her from doing so." Braaah-Vo!

Many of the hard line religious rulings seem to be aimed at keeping the women of the kingdom at home, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, and totally under the control of her legally requisite male guardian, which virtually makes her dependent on a man for her entire life. Saudi women who are lucky enough to have a decent male guardian don't really have a problem with this guardianship system; however there are many women who are abused and taken advantage of by this system in many ways and have no legal recourse.

Sheikh Al BarrakStrict gender segregation is a Saudi Islamic policy that has been challenged by Al-Ghamdi before. Earlier this year when Al-Ghamdi declared that there is nothing in Islam that prohibits men and women from mixing at work or in school, the religious backlash caused such an uproar that it was reported that he had been relieved of his duties as chief of Mecca operations of the religious police. But within days, the outspoken Al-Ghamdi was back in and it was business as usual.

In the meantime, an overzealous religious cleric, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Barrak, called for a death "fatwa" (religious ruling) to anyone who promotes men and women in KSA working or attending school together. This was a huge blunder on Al-Barrak's part since his statement intimated that King Abdullah's revolutionary vision of KAUST, a new advanced studies university outside of Jeddah where men and women work and attend classes together, was worthy of the death penalty. So while the forward thinking Sheikh Al-Ghamdi was reinstated, the bumbling Sheikh Al-Barrak's website was blocked and he was in hot water.

Criticism for Al-Barrak's death fatwa came from many sources, including from a wildly popular Middle Eastern poetry contest television program (comparable to American Idol, but with poetry instead of singing). The viewing public witnessed a female Saudi contestant, Hissa Halal, rebuff the craziness of some of the country's fatwas, using the word "evil" to describe them. She was quoted as saying, “I’m against ikhtilat that leads to social flaws and immorality, but ikhtilat in workplaces and conferences and symposiums and that doesn’t impinge on the dignity of men or women or on morals is harmless and should not be forbidden.”

Image of Rosie the Riveter, Photoshopped by Susie of ArabiaPrincess Adela bint Abdullah, one of King Abdullah's daughters, has also spoken out about the need for allowing more women to hold normal jobs in the country's work force. She said recently that "Women's participation (in the workforce) is behind expectation. A society cannot walk with a limping leg."

Saudi society depends heavily on imported foreign workers to drive around the half of the population here that is deprived of the right to drive. This alone represents a huge “limping leg” for the society and the economy here. Saudis also rely on imported foreign workers to perform much of the sales-related, office, and menial labor jobs that most Saudi men consider beneath them and that Saudi women are denied. This society has crippled itself by being so totally dependent on foreign labor that it will not be able to function on its own without it. And denying women the right to work isn’t helping matters either. Any way you look at it, economically speaking, KSA is headed for disaster if the employment situation doesn’t change and that means allowing its women to take their rightful places as productive members of this society. And there is nothing about this that is against Islam and its values.