Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why Women Can't Drive

This is another satirical video created by fellow blogger Aafke, a talented Danish artist. While Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif was released from jail as of yesterday - she was arrested and jailed for driving a car in Saudi Arabia where women are forbidden from driving - this video is relevant in highlighting the absurd reasons given for not allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia and supporting the cause of lifting the ban. Thank you again, Aafke.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Expatriates and Loyalty

As an ex-pat living in Saudi Arabia, all too often I hear complaining about the treatment and attitudes of each other from both Saudis and foreign workers. I was taken aback when I first read the following op-ed piece written by retired Saudi naval officer, Abdulateef Al-Mulhim.

During my early years, I saw very few expatriates — Americans working for Aramco, Germans working for Phillip-Hollzmann, Indians and Pakistanis working in hospitals and the Alhassa electric company.

But by the end of 1973, the Saudi demography changed forever. Oil prices rose sharply and the Kingdom had the biggest economic boom and the largest infrastructure projects in modern history. The mega projects during the 1970s required hundreds of thousands of skilled and non-skilled workers. The doors of Saudi Arabia were wide open.

Now, we have 8 million expatriates, Muslims, non-Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs. Expatriates entered our closed doors and closed society. In the past some small towns never saw a foreign man or woman except in some magazines. Nowadays, every home, hospital, company and school has many expatriates.

But, how about the loyalty of the 8 million expatiates to the Kingdom? Should we be worried about them? During the past 20 years, the loyalty of the expatriates was put to the most stressful test. The first was in August 1990 during the invasion of Kuwait. Then there were sudden terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia a few years after the 9/11 attacks in the US.

In both cases, the expatriates showed an amazing and genuine loyalty to the Kingdom. During Desert Shield and Desert Storm, only very few expatriates left the Kingdom and some left because they already had scheduled their leave and simply took it earlier or extended it. But, we have to understand their motives. And during the peak of the war, we saw expatriates from the Arab world, Philippines, India, Pakistan and Western countries who were ready to die for Saudi Arabia. And nobody forced them to stay. Some Saudi embassies abroad received calls from former employees who worked in the Kingdom, and they offered to fly to the Kingdom to defend it. No one asked them to do so, but they stayed loyal to our Kingdom.

Former Saudi Aramco employees in the US were the most effective public relations means for the Kingdom when Saudi-American relations were shaky after the 9/11 attacks. And later on, during the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, the cooperation of the expatriates with Saudi authorities won the admiration of every Saudi. I asked one Indian engineer why he wanted to defend Saudi Arabia during the liberation of Kuwait. I consider Saudi Arabia is my country, he said. And I once spoke to an American classmate of mine who works for Saudi Aramco of why he didn’t leave the Kingdom during the terrorist attacks, and he said, I would not leave Saudi Arabia till they tell me to leave. His loyalty is to Saudi Arabia.

The other beautiful side of expatriates in the Kingdom is that they are the ones who built the country. They came over because we wanted them to. They did not board a boat and land illegally on Saudi beaches. And if we want some of them to leave then we have to do a lot of changes in our habits. We have to change our work ethics. Why do we, the Saudis bring a nonskilled worker just to make coffee in a company office? Why do we have a lot of street sweepers? We can reduce their numbers by simply not throwing any garbage in the streets. We even can decrease the number of workers at McDonald’s restaurants if we pick and clean the tables after we finish from a big Mac Meal.

I am the biggest supporter of employing Saudis, but we have to get rid of some habits from our social system. Our fathers and grandfathers worked at humble jobs and were not ashamed of it. Now we have 8 million expatriates, the Saudis must win the hearts of the expatriates by thanking them for their work. A smile can make a big difference. This is in particular to the maids and nannies. I know some nannies in some Saudi homes are mistreated, but there are nannies who travel all over the world with their sponsors. Giving an expatriate his salary on time is the most important part of the relations. He has a family to feed back home. Also Saudi mothers have to share the responsibilities of raising the children and Saudi men have to be the main family driver, not someone from a faraway place. With 8 million expatriates, we should expect the frictions because of a few bad apples. Saudis and expatriates shouldn’t let the bad apple spoil our relations. Embassies in the Kingdom should also put more efforts to help their citizens. As for the loyalty of expatriates to the Kingdom, well, to some expatriates, our Kingdom is the only place they know and love.

— Abdulateef Al-Mulhim is commodore (Retd.), Royal Saudi Navy. He is based in Alkhobar and can be contacted at: almulhimnavy@hotmail.com
The article can be seen in its entirety along with part of a panel discussion on this topic on this SUSRIS page. For a short bio and links to more thoughtful articles by Al-Mulhim, please see this SUSRIS link.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sabria Jawhar on Saudi Women's Driving Ban

The following is a reprint of a post written by Sabria Jawhar, a leading Saudi journalist and contributor to The Huffington Post, Saudi Gazette, and other publications. She is a doctoral candidate at Newcastle Upon Tyne University in the UK. Sabria was honored in 2010 by Arabian Business magazine when she was named to its "Power 100 List" as one of the world's most influential Arabs. She also writes a blog called "Sabria's Out of the Box," where this opinion piece was originally published and which then appeared in The Huffington Post...

There was a time when I firmly believed the endless debate about Saudi women banned from driving cars was trivial. It distracted Saudis from the real problems of the denial of women’s rights: employment, education, guardianship abuses, inheritance, and fair and equitable treatment in the Saudi judicial system.

The arrest and imprisonment of Manal Al-Sherif, 32, after driving a car in Khobar, has changed all that. The driving ban is no longer a distraction to Saudi women’s quest for their rights, but could very well be the centerpiece of our struggle to obtain rights long denied us.

My change of heart comes from the fact that it’s obvious that well into the 21st century, Saudis are unable and apparently unwilling to solve minor issues like a woman’s right to drive an automobile. So what makes me think that we can solve the weightier problems of guardianship and justice in the courts?

Well, we can’t. The path Saudi Arabia is taking towards judicial reform and granting women better employment opportunities is questionable. It’s a questionable because Manal broke no laws, yet she was arrested in the dead of night on a vague allegation of “violating the public order.” She is accused of “violating the rules and the system by driving her car, roaming the streets of the province" and "inciting public opinion" by posting a video of her driving on YouTube.

Clearly it’s the Khobar municipal police and the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue that have violated the public order. Manal was performing basic tasks as a woman in charge of her household. If that means driving a car to perform those tasks, so be it. By arresting Manal for exercising her rights to perform these chores, the police and commission violated the public order. The public order was further violated because the arrest caused anger among Saudi women who empathize with Manal’s attempts shed light on her plight to get around town to take care of her family.

The facts as we know them are that Manal, who possesses an international driver’s license as required by Saudi authorities, drove her car. She was wearing a seatbelt, obeyed all traffic laws, wore the hijab and had her brother in the car with her. There is nothing in the Saudi traffic codes about women not permitted to drive. There is nothing un-Islamic about her behavior. Sheikh Ahmed bin Baz, and long before him, Sheikh Al Al-Bani, said there is no Islamic reason to deny women the right to drive.

By arresting Manal Al-Sherif, Saudi authorities elevated the once trivial debate on women driving to a major issue. King Abdullah in an interview with Barbara Walters, and virtually every Saudi minister from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, unequivocally said that women driving is a societal issue. King Abdullah said that only Saudi society could determine the appropriate time when women can drive cars. He said he believed that time was soon.

I gather in this case Saudi society comprises of the religious conservatives who continue to object to this simple right, although there is no religious foundation to prevent women from driving. Manal’s brother, the woman who sat in the passenger seat of Manal’s car and Manal’s family apparently do not qualify as members of Saudi society. Nor does the woman arrested with her two female relatives the other day for driving in the rural province of Al-Ras. And perhaps the Al-Ras arrests are even more troubling than Manal’s detention.

For decades, Saudi women living in rural areas have driven cars and trucks to keep food on the table, take children to school and to make sure the family business runs smoothly. It strikes me as odd that the Saudi government gives rural women a free pass, but denies Manal a trip to a Khobar supermarket to put food on her table.

Saudis, however, have no one to blame but themselves. And I wonder whether they even understand the significance of Manal’s case. A Saudi male colleague wrote to me the other day that his father’s “neighbor refuses every single young man who comes asking for the hand of one of his three daughters in marriage … They should go to court and complain against him but they did not. Isn't (marriage) a more important issue than driving? Why do you, women, insist on driving and forget your other more basic rights?”

Clearly, the right to marry whom one pleases is more important than driving. Yet we have no hope of solving this more significant problem if we can’t even agree on the less important ones.

Frankly, I’m ashamed of what happened to Manal. Saudis hold themselves up to ridicule from the global community. Saudi Arabia singed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as long as it doesn’t conflict with Sharia. Women driving cars does not conflict with Sharia. In addition, Saudi Arabia has earned a seat on the United Nations’ new women’s rights agency, UN Women. It was my hope that the CEDAW ratification and the membership to UN Women would bring Saudi Arabia into the global community’s embrace of universal women’s rights.

It appears we are not even close to that goal.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Manal Gets Another 10 Days for her "Crime" of Driving

Now faced with losing custody of her son, Manal Al-Sharif has been sitting in jail since the wee hours of Sunday, May 22, when a brigade of policemen swooped down on her home to haul her off to jail. Arab News has just reported that she will be spending an additional ten days in jail for her crime - driving a car in Saudi Arabia, which is illegal because she lacks that extra appendage between her legs required for drivers in Saudi Arabia.

I have yet to figure out why this appendage is necessary for drivng in Saudi Arabia. Although I have never noticed my husband actually using it when he drives, maybe some men use it in steering or perhaps for flicking on the turn signal or the windshield wipers. Maybe some well-endowed men actually use it for gunning the gas pedal or slamming on the brakes. (Ouch.) I really haven't figured it out. What I do know is that in all my years of driving experience before moving to Saudi Arabia in 2007, I must have been very lucky that this appendage deficiency of mine didn't cause me problems when I was behind the wheel.

Another thing that I do know is that in Saudi Arabia, where only men are allowed to drive, the country is widely known for its unsafe and irresponsible drivers, and extremely high percentage of fatal traffic accidents, consistently ranking among the worst and deadliest in the world. Statistics don't lie. Apparently that little appendage seems to actually impede males' driving proficiency in Saudi Arabia instead of improving or enhancing it.

Women don't belong in jail for driving. Women shouldn't be humiliated and treated like children who can't behave or make decisions for themselves. Women just want to be treated fairly and take their places as valued members of society.

For years, the King of Saudi Arabia has said that he is not opposed to Saudi women driving. Petitions with thousands of signatures have been submitted to the government the past few years requesting that the ban on women driving be lifted. Human rights groups have been critical of the men-only driving policy. Lately women have posted videos on the internet of themselves driving in Saudi Arabia despite the threat of being arrested, losing their jobs or children, or being beaten. Every year it is reported that it is hoped that Saudi women will be allowed to drive by the end of the year, and every year, nothing happens.

The excuse, though, for continuing the country's ban on women driving is always that this change will take time for Saudi society to accept this idea first.

I must ask: IF NOT NOW, WHEN?

Cartoon Artwork or this post courtesy of Aafke, artist extraordinaire and blogging author of Clouddragon and Aafke, Horses, and Art. Thank you, Aafke!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

TRUE CRIME: Daring to Drive!

SCENARIO: A woman makes plans to go to the mall with two of her girlfriends. They decide to meet up at her house, chat for a bit, and then the three of them gather their purses and are out the door for a fun trip to the mall.

The three women get into the car and buckle up. The woman behind the wheel checks the vehicle's mirrors, makes sure she is clear to pull out onto the road, and proceeds with caution, blending into traffic seamlessly.

Suddenly flashing red lights and sirens ascend on the car. The driver of the car is removed from the car and detained by the police.

Her crime? DRIVING!

Scandalous! Horrors! Where else in the world but Saudi Arabia is this considered a crime? Where else in the world would an incident like this make the news? When will this infringement on Saudi women's freedom end?

The latest episode in the continuing saga of Saudi women's quest for the right to drive - this Arab News article details the crime of another Saudi woman caught DARING TO DRIVE!

Saudi Women Want to Drive

Monday, May 23, 2011



Manal Al-Sharif is a 32-year-old Saudi mother of a five-year-old son. She was reportedly arrested for a second time, this time allegedly in the middle of the night by a brigade of 9 police officers. According to Sabq Newspaper, Manal will remain in custody for five days for driving, for letting herself be filmed while driving, for posting the video online, and for inciting other Saudi women to break the law by driving. Some sources also say that her brother was arrested as well.

One would think that the international outrage would be enough to embarrass the Saudi government into granting women their god given right to drive, however unfortunately the Saudi government has never been too concerned about its image to the rest of the world when it comes to women's rights. Strong independent women in Saudi Arabia are viewed as a threat to the male dominance and, hence, must be eliminated. Shame on Saudi Arabia for violating and denying its women's rights and dignity.

Here is another article issued by the Associated Press regarding Manal's re-arrest.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Rain Starts with a Single Drop

June 17th has been set as the date for women in Saudi Arabia to unite and take their rightful places on the streets - behind the wheel.

There is no organized meeting place, no fanfare. Just a call for women with valid international drivers licenses to take to the streets on this day and drive. A Facebook Event Page has attracted almost 13,000 who have pledged that they will particpate.

Women in the rural areas of Saudi Arabia drive without any problems, but city women are forced to hire drivers or taxis or depend on male family members to drive them. Sometimes women have even had to break the law by driving to save the lives of their loved ones. And imagine how humiliating it is for a woman to be denied the right to drive yet there seems to be no problem at all with her pre-pubescent son getting behind the wheel. This movement to allow Saudi women to drive has garnered the support of many Saudi men as well. Crippling half the population of the country by restricting women from driving themselves places undue stress on the men who must drive them and economic hardship on many families. Abdullah Alami, a well respected Saudi economist and writer, even organized a petition campaign to lift the ban against women driving and presented the signed forms to the Saudi governmental advisory body called the Shura Council.

I have written many times about my perceptions of the lack of freedom for women in Saudi Arabia, but the topic I have focused on the most has been the ban on women driving within the country. The reason for this is because not being allowed to drive in KSA has personally affected me and my quality of life in Saudi Arabia, and not in a good way. There is nothing in Islam that forbids women from driving. Saudi religious scholars, however, have determined that men would lose control over women who are able to drive themselves. Since prevention of immorality is such a big part of Saudi culture, women are forbidden from driving.

Some brave trailblazing Saudi women have already begun driving and have even posted videos of themselves at the wheel. They include:

Najla Hariri (above) in Jeddah, an experienced driver who holds an international drivers license plus licenses from two other Middle Eastern countries. She was inspired to act by the protests in the Middle East earlier this year. Najla is a 45-year-old mother of five who has the full support of her husband and her family in her quest to drive in Saudi Arabia legally. Najla was quoted as saying, "In this society I am a little bit brave. I am not scared."

Manal al-Sharif (above) in Al-Khobar
who was arrested this past week by the religious police when they spotted her driving. Her motivation to get behind the wheel was the extreme frustration she experienced one night on her way home. "I had to walk on the street for half an hour looking for a cab. I was harassed by every single car because it was late at night and I was walking alone," she told CNN. "I kept calling my brother to pick me up, but his phone wasn't answering. I was crying in the street. A 32-year-old grown woman, a mother, crying like a kid because I couldn't find anyone to bring me home."

SaudiWoman wrote this in depth post on her blog about Manal, the controversy surrounding the planned driving event for women on June 17, and the opposition to it - like calling for the whipping of women who dare to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Manal al-Sharif didn't set out to be a hero or a revolutionary. She just feels that Saudi women need to start speaking up for their rights. Driving is just a starting point. There are many other women's issues that need to be addressed like the outdated male guardianship system and women's employment issues, just to name a couple. In the video below, Manal tells CNN about a well-known saying in her country: "The rain starts with a single drop."

You can sign this petition to End Saudi Arabia's Ban on Women Driving.

UPDATE: The Facebook Event page above has been taken down. Manal Al-Sharif was reportedly arrested again, this time in the middle of the night by a brigade of 9 police officers. According to Sabq Newspaper, Manal will remain in custody for five days for driving, for letting herself be filmed while driving, for posting the video online, and for inciting other Saudi women to break the law by driving. Some sources also say that her brother was arrested as well. One would think that the international outrage would be enough to embarrass the Saudi government into granting women their god given right to drive, however unfortunately the Saudi government has never been too concerned about its image to the rest of the world when it comes to women's rights. Strong independent women in Saudi Arabia are viewed as a threat to the male dominance and, hence, must be eliminated. Shame on Saudi Arabia for violating and denying its women's rights and dignity.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Women in Black

Hala is a young Saudi woman, intelligent, progressive, and well-educated, who writes about women's issues in Saudi Arabia. She is optimistic about the future and strives for changes in the roles that Saudi women play in Saudi society. I was impressed by this poem she wrote and wanted to share it with you. You can find out more about Hala by reading this interview she did on American Bedu's blog a while back.

Hala's introduction to her poem, "The Women in Black" :

"When I was a little girl I was inspired by a stranger, an anonymous woman who showed up once in Gazzaz shop in Jeddah. My mother used to shop frequently there and to take us along, that young woman who had an air of confidence, and who was completely on her own enjoying herself without a fear of being watched or harrased was such an inspiration for me… Long before I can put the exact words of autonomy and self sufficiency to an independent woman, that strange woman embodied the meaning… I dedicate the following poem to all the great women of Saudi Arabia who never fail to show strength and perseverance no matter how much they face an unmet needs… This poem was recited at the Cyber activism women bloggers conference in Copenhagen" :

The Women in Black

Once upon a time, in a busy shop

In the land of tribes and ancient civilizations

A little girl sat watching…

in silent resignation

Grown-up women with shrouds of black

Hidden and silent… in isolation

With a “no-trespassing” look

They wandered around in simulation

When a single woman appeared, suddenly, in the shop

The little girl felt a sudden sensation

Yes, the woman wore the black alright…

Yet, she walked with determination

Not cautious, fearful, or covered-up

The woman moved as a distinct population

She seemed to own the world

She was … such an inspiration…

Why would she be on her own? The little girl wondered?

Wasn’t she afraid from reprimands or accusations?

Looking that pretty in embroidered black,

Defying the norms as if in a celebration

Who gave her the money that she’s spending

Without a second thought or a hesitation?

Was she really confident and strong as she seemed?

Or is it the little girl wishful imagination????

In that little girl’s life

Most women shared a specific combination

Emotions were not revealed, opinions were suppressed

With lots of reservations

They held on to their black tightly

Least someone recognize their identifications

Their world seemed full of judging men

Watching for proofs of condemnation

So the women in black kept their covers tight

Protecting their reputation

Yet a single woman in black dared to show her face

Visible without a mask, in obvious relaxation!!

The little girl knew that something/ someone

Must explain that awkward observation

Of that visible woman in black

Despite the isolation… despite the limitations

As time passes-by,

The little girl grows in fascination

More visible women are out there

Raising their voices in frustration

They no longer accept second-places

They no-longer sat in resignation

The reality doors are shut but the virtual ones are forcedly-opened

With fierce determination

The women in black want their rights

Demanding full participation

Campaigning for municipal elections, driving,

Minimum marital age or right of self- representation

Commenting on international treaties for women,

Gender-equality, or women-rights affiliation

They are loud and visible

No longer silent, passive, or fearing condemnation

They write, blog, tweet, and post

In a constant flow of information

They build networks and constituencies

Unlimited by gender-segregation,

No longer helpless or maintained

As prisoners of infinite duration…

Yes, we are in a constant fear of social backlash

But the power of words defeats organizations

The little girl recalls the single woman in black…

Whenever she feels a hesitation…

Beautiful and powerful in her own way…

A woman, who defeats stagnation…

We will not be deprived

We are a different generation….

And if countries can be flipped over and start anew

In search of liberation

We, too, the women in black

Can exceed our own expectations…