Thursday, September 29, 2011

Saudi Women's Lives Full of Contradictions

It's difficult to explain the daily contradictions Saudi women face living in their male-dominated ultra-conservative Islamic country. Fellow blogger EMAN AL NAFJAN, who writes SAUDI WOMAN, has managed to express how utterly confusing life really is in the following article she wrote for the Guardian...

Life for Saudi women is a constant state of contradiction
Saudi Arabia's political paradoxes mean that a woman can be elected to parliament – but she'll need a man to drive her there

What's it like being a Saudi woman? A common question I've come to expect from outsiders – even fellow Arabs. The restrictiveness of the guardianship system, gender segregation and a persistently sexist culture add up to create an exotic and mysterious lifestyle that is difficult to not only explain but also to comprehend.

How do you explain the ingrained paradox of the driving ban on women? The point of the ban is that women avoid situations that lead to them mixing with and meeting men. However, the ban then leads to the necessity of hiring a strange man and getting into the car with him on a daily basis.

How do you explain the huge amounts of money the government spends on educating and training women, so much so that 60% of college graduates in Saudi are women – educating and training all these women, despite the fact that gender segregation laws makes employing them virtually impossible.

How do you explain that this is the way of life that the average Saudi wants for his or her country, when anyone getting on a plane leaving Saudi cannot help but notice how quickly the Saudi passengers abandon their abayas and conservative mannerisms?

A country of contradictions; Saudis have coined an Arabic phrase to explain the unexplainable that translates into "Saudi exceptionality". This past week Saudi exceptionality did not disappoint.

After years of Saudis campaigning and petitioning the king to lift the women driving ban and ease the restrictiveness of the guardianship system, King Abdullah decreed last week that women would be allowed as full members of the Saudi parliament and would be allowed to vote and run in future municipal elections. In bafflement, we celebrated the decree.

Then, within a couple of days of the decree, a Saudi woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving her own car. Although women are banned from driving, they have never been sentenced to physical punishment for it. The usual is signing a pledge and in extreme cases paid suspension from their jobs and prison sentences that are never more than a few days.

Local political analysts believe that this lashing was some sort of reaction from the judicial courts to the king's decree. A national and international outcry soon followed and the woman was later pardoned but the contradiction still stands. So in 18 months' time a Saudi woman can be a member of parliament providing that her male guardian allows her to and she finds a man to drive her there.

How do Saudis explain that? It depends on where they stand concerning women's rights issues. Those for women's rights commend the wisdom of empowering women at the highest levels of decision-making so that their voices will trickle down to create real change in the everyday life of the average Saudi woman.

Women members on the Shura council will help bring issues such as child marriages and the unemployment rate for women to the forefront. However, those who oppose the decision see it as the government bending to international pressure. To them, the recent campaigns by organisations such as Amnesty International and have pushed the government to go against the will of the people.

Either way, the end result is the same, another paradox. Another item to add to the list of things that make explaining what it's like being a Saudi woman difficult; another illogical milestone in Saudi history. The only consistency is "Saudi exceptionality".

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Woman Caught "Driving While Female" to be Lashed

I am outraged.

Two days after the King of Saudi Arabia declared that his country would no longer "marginalize" women, a Saudi woman who dared to drive her own car has been sentenced to 10 lashes.

This is barbaric and unacceptable.

Photo Credit: NPR Michael Bou-Nackie

Saudi women are denied the right to drive in this society. Some fortunate wealthier Saudi women can afford to hire drivers who are at their beck and call, but many Saudi women are not in the position to do this. Many women must depend on their husbands, fathers, or brothers to drive them to places they need to be.

This is degrading and undignified - and certainly it marginalizes women.

Men like to use the argument that women are prohibited from driving for "their own protection." After all, it is much safer for a woman to stay at home than to be out in a car where the streets are overrun with angry stressed-out testosterone driven cars. Saudi Arabia is an extreme gender segregated society. Women are not supposed to be alone with a man who is not related to them. Women who hire drivers or who take taxis are forced to be alone in a vehicle with an unrelated man. THIS IS HARAM! (Haram means forbidden, against the religion.)

King Abdullah, I beseech you - stop this barbaric madness!

Grant the women of your country their dignity. Women drive safely all over the world. Why not in Saudi Arabia? First it was Manal Al Sharif who spent 10 days in jail for driving while female. Now your country has upped the punishment to 10 lashes. Sentencing a woman to ten lashes for merely driving a car is insane. Driving a car is not a crime. What about all the little boys in your country who drive without any repercussions? Aren't they more dangerous behind the wheel than a grown woman?

This unfair, sexist and discriminatory practice against the women of Saudi Arabia must stop now! LET THE WOMEN OF SAUDI ARABIA DRIVE!!!

Further reading:

Ahmed Al Omran for NPR "Saudi Woman Sentenced to Lashes After Defying Driving Ban"

SaudiWoman's post "Saudi Women Driving Movement"

Washington Post: Saudi Woman Sentenced to 10 Lashes for Driving

UPDATE: Apparently King Abdullah has overturned the lashing punishment for the woman who was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving while female in Saudi Arabia.

King Says Saudi Women Can Now Vote

Photo Credit: TNT Magazine

It's big news. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made an announcement yesterday that Saudi women will be allowed to vote and run for office in the next municipal elections in 2015. In a country where women cannot drive, are legally considered children their entire lives, and must have their male guardian's approval to do things like travel, get an education, or work, getting the right to vote may sound like a really big victory for Saudi women on the surface. Outwardly to the rest of the world, this may seem like a major development, but before we get too excited, in actuality, is it really?

I hate to put a damper on this astounding development or to minimize the strides King Abdullah has taken in support of women, but I can't help but wonder exactly how big of a step this action really is? Now don't get me wrong - I was thrilled when I read the news. But let's face it. Saudi Arabia is a "KINGDOM." Political parties do not exist in Saudi Arabia because they are not allowed. What kind of power are the people in a kingdom like Saudi Arabia really given? Let's examine that.

Do you know how many "elections" there have been in Saudi Arabia's history? Three! These elections have occurred sporadically, about every 30 or 40 years! There were initially elections in 1939, then in the 1950s, and then not again until 2005. And yes, each time only Saudi men were allowed to vote in these elections. Another election had been slated for 2009, but it was cancelled. These are municipal elections that decided local governmental positions - not laws or rights or policies, and certainly not higher up national government positions. Important government positions are all appointed by the King, and most are filled by his closest, most loyal, and most trusted male relatives.

The part of the King's announcement that I was actually more excited to read about was that women would now be appointed to the Shoura Council - which has been made up of 90 male members appointed by the King. However, the Shoura Council serves only as an advisory board and has no real power at all to enact anything. While influential, all they really do is discuss issues and make recommendations. I was pleased when I read that the Shoura Council "applauded" the King for giving women the opportunity to be appointed to the council. I can only hope that the women who will be appointed to these positions will be effective, forward thinking, and will truly represent the issues, needs, and the desires of Saudi women.

King Abdullah was quoted as saying: "Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Shariah, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulema and others to involve women in the Shoura Council as members, starting from the next term." I just have to ask, exactly what do they think they have been doing all these years, if not "marginalizing" women in KSA society? What about refusing to allow women to drive - isn't that marginalizing women? Or requiring women to have a legal guardian all their lives - marginalizing women or not? Not allowing women to leave the country without her male guardian's approval? Refusing a woman admittance into court without her legal male guardian? Discounting a woman's testimony in court just because she is a woman? Shall I go on?

I remember the excitement in the air when in 2009 the country's first female Deputy Minister of Education, Nora Al Faiz, was appointed with the creation of a newly formed branch specifically for female students. This too was big news because no woman had ever before held a position in Saudi Arabia's government. Controversy immediately arose, however, when the appointee's photo of her uncovered face appeared in the newspaper. Really? Yes, this was scandalous. Many Saudi women wear veils and never show their faces in public. So how does she work with her all male colleagues and underlings in this society where gender mixing, even at work, is prohibited or discouraged by the religion? Why, via closed circuit television, of course! One can only wonder exactly how effective this veiled woman on closed circuit TV can be with this type of set up. But with people focusing on insignificant matters like a photo of her showing her face, instead of the real issues regarding girls' education in Saudi Arabia, how much will she be able to accomplish? Only time will tell.

Also discouraging was the fact that on the very same day this historic proclamation granting Saudi women the right to vote was announced, Saudi activist Najalaa Harir had to appear in court on charges of "driving while female." This is yet another example of how Saudi Arabia famously manages to take "One step forward and two steps back" at the same time.

As I see it, Saudi Arabia still remains very much a man's world. These teeny baby steps come much too slowly for me.

Or as one Saudi woman, alfadlmiranda, tweeted, "Will soon be selling t-shirts in #Saudi that read: Other countries went through the Arab Spring and all i got was this crummy voting right"

Further reading:

Rob L Wagner's post "Saudi Arabia’s Municipal Elections: Tough Lessons Learned from Islamic Conservatives"
- an interesting and in depth look at Saudi elections and politics.

TNT Magazine article "Saudi Women Win Right to Vote" - Also TNT photo credit of Saudi women marching with flag

Saudi Woman's post "Prominent Saudis: Mrs. Nora Al Faiz" - written when Al Faiz was newly appointed to her Ministry position.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Arab News: Blogging About the Saudi Experience

Arab News just published an article which interviewed four female bloggers who blog about Saudi Arabia.

I am honored to be included as one of the four bloggers.

The other three bloggers are my friend Carol at American Bedu, Laylah who writes Blue Abaya, and American Girl, author of Under the Abaya.

It's a really well written article about four women who are at very different points in their lives.

Please have a look.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fareed Zakaria: A Decade After 9/11

This explains a lot. Fareed Zakaria talks about a report on the Arab World's standing in the world regarding its wealth, education, governments, women's rights, freedom and other issues. Very interesting.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Libertarian Vent: Do You Remember 9/11? I Do.

I found the following essay as I was reading various articles about 9/11. It was written last year on 9/11 by a young man who writes as J-Victus on his blog called "A Libertarian Vent." His understanding of why 9/11 really happened impressed me and I wanted to share it with you...

DO YOU REMEMBER 9/11? I J-Victus

I was a child when a gorgeous Tuesday morning turned into a day of confusion, fear, and anguish. In an English class, the intercom from the front office called me down for an unexpected "doctor's appointment." No school? Great. I walked with a spring in my step down to the office and as I walked out with my mother, her face turned grimmer than when I first saw her and she said, "I won't keep you in the dark. The Twin Towers have been destroyed. We're under attack." In the mid-90s, my family visited the Windows on the World restaurant a few times.

I immediately imagined the people who were up there, and my worldview expanded in a day from Pokemon and yo-yo's to international relations. As I listened to George Bush acknowledge the day's tragedy, I was enraptured with the response he promised to deliver to these killers. I was suddenly an ardent kill-em-all neocon that would make Terry Jones blush. From here I derived a fun motto: "I am a recovered neocon. I was in puberty, what's your excuse?"

Until into 2004, I was aggressive, anti-Muslim, and unapologetically pro-Bush. But I am not an idiot. No WMDs were found. Call me crazy, but that was the reason we were given to invade in the first place. As I watched my elder Americans fall for the script rewrite that declared the objective of the war to be the liberation of the Iraqi people, an anti-government sentiment brewed in me and grew more intense with the week.

I regret only that it took until nearly the end of high school to solidify this universally anti-war position. I wish I could have warned more of my peers about the evils of empire because I did not and do not want to see anyone from my formative years die for our criminal overlords. But it is happening, and will likely get worse.

I find it deeply disturbing that my peers are choosing to enter the military in such a day and age. Two recent enlistments are college just-graduates who cannot find jobs in their area of study. Their case is not unique, but is actually a deliberate policy by the criminals in Washington. Known as military Keynesianism, it is the program of offering the military as an "employer of last resort" during economic downturns. The scum who pursue this despicable strategy then tout the lower unemployment rate.

It's a diverse bunch that are going to fight. Another is a former party girl who just recently left for Iraq. Another notable classmate is a young man whose father was killed in the Twin Towers. He is now a skilled marine sniper. His anger is perfectly understandable. I cannot imagine losing a father so young.

But our feelings have no bearing on facts, not even grief. Nine years on, I would tell this young man that the best way to honor his father's memory is to ask and understand why the attack that killed him happened. Warmongers framed the debate in the early years to make it seem that those who questioned aggressive policies were unpatriotic. While emotionally effective in a traumatized nation, it is typical neocon nonsense. Police always investigate the motive of a crime. That does not mean they sympathize with the killing! It's just good detective work.

Osama bin Laden himself told us why he ordered the 9/11 strikes: "Why are we fighting and opposing you? The answer is very simple: Because you attacked us and continue to attack us...Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them; you corrupt our lands." When he was ignored, he implored Americans to listen to their own intelligence community, which concluded that bin Laden was not lying to himself or to Americans when he explained his motives. It is impossible to leave an honest examination of the facts and history with a pro-war position because a look at reality shows unambiguously that the blame for this strife falls squarely on the United States government.

Yes, America started it. While the Bush gang decries "blaming America for everything," it doesn't change the fact that many terrible events are the fault of American policies. It shouldn't boggle the mind too much. We have a worldwide Empire, and imperial actions will have consequences.

Again and in caps: YES, AMERICA STARTED THIS WAR. Is it not obvious that before the 1950s, the Muslim world had either friendly or no relations with the US (except for the Barbary Pirates, who were a problem because they were pirates, not because they were Muslims)? What changed this? Our coup in Iran in 1953. It is a fact of history that the once-arrogant and warmongering British, who were watching their Empire disintegrate in the aftermath of WWII, came whining to the CIA about some kind of communist revolt in Iran when they asserted control over their oil. In response, Operation Ajax overthrew the popular government and installed the tyrannical and hated Shah (just another one of "our bastards"), ensuring continued western control of the oil supply. Of course, the Iranians are a powerful people, not to be underestimated, and they took their nation back not 30 years later.

The aftermath of Operation Ajax was ever-widening US intervention in Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, on and on) and unbending support for Israel, which made the Zionist regime all the more aggressive. Deepening parallel to the expanding meddling was Muslim anger seething against the interference. Is this unjustified? How would we react to foreign interference in the United States? What if our nation was occupied (By some army vast enough)? Would we not expect Americans to form militias and build improvised explosive devices? The most patriotic Americans would put the foreign soldiers through daily hell. The longer the occupation lasted, the more angry Americans would get, and with it their capacity for violence would grow. Is anyone deluded enough to think the American people have some unique moral buffer that would restrain the viciousness of any response? In the final months of WWII, AT LEAST 300,000 Japanese civilians (<---read boiled.="" br="" canals="" incinerated.="" that="" the="" were="">
Indeed, the March 9-10 Firebombing of Tokyo was deadlier than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Don't make me laugh and say that Americans would show an ounce of mercy to occupiers in their own backyard. Americans are humans and humans are violent, especially angry humans.

Of course foreign-occupied Americans would become enraged, and their actions would mirror that rage. They would kidnap occupying soldiers. They would torture and murder them on video and release the tapes to terrify all others. Don't deny it, my friend. Insurgency fights not the physical army face-to-face, but attempts a deeper assault on the will of its members. Insurgents who fight occupations seek to terrorize the troops who walk on their land. Therefore, it should not be shocking that Iraqi and Afghan insurgents are terrorizing US troops who walk on their land.

Especially since, lest you forget, America started it. Whether we want it or not, blood is on our hands because our tax dollars paid for every bomb that has hit a wedding and every bullet that has ended some bystander's life. And while the blood of those 3000 Americans is on the Al-Qaida thugs who murdered them, also to blame are the officeholders and lobbyists who pursued the unnecessary, stupid, and evil policies that made the attack possible in the first place.

So many Americans see 9/11 as some kind of declaration of war that came out of nowhere. This would be news to millions of Middle Easterners whose memory includes 50 years of American intervention. 9/11 was retaliation. It may be hard to accept--indeed it seems that some Americans (Especially those named Hannity, Bolton, or Limbaugh) are simply incapable by nature of accepting this truth--but it is historical fact that five decades of American intervention preceded the destruction of the Twin Towers. While the neocons speak of spreading democracy, all they really spread is bullshit (Sorry! Not really...) to obscure historical truths that cannot be refuted, but can most certainly be ignored to pursue more war. They have been ignored since the 1950s, they were ignored on September 11th, 2001, and they continue to be ignored as the stupidest war in American history --and likely our last-- is in the making.

So yes, remember 9/11, remember the victims. But the most important thing to remember is why. As I sat in confusion and fear watching over and over the images of devastation that ravaged our country, I asked,"Why?" like millions of my fellow Americans. The answer should be obvious. The CIA explained it and Osama answered us as well. Why were we attacked? Because we attack.

And our countrymen only died in vain if we ensure others will share their fate.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Wham! Bam! Islam!

Move over, Spiderman and Wolverine! There are some new superheroes in town.

The 99 is a cast of superheroes, each one representing one of the 99 virtues of Islam. They are being brought to the world in the form of colorful high-quality comic books by Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa and will soon be coming to your television screens as an animated series.

Each of The 99's superheroes, who possess a variety of super powers, hails from a different country and are portrayed in both male and female form. The very first episode, called "Origins," goes back in time to the 13th century and depicts an important Islamic library being destroyed. Somehow the 99 virtues of Allah manage to remain preserved. Ensuing issues involve each of the superheroes battling for the cause of good over evil. Al-Mutawa has been vigilant about keeping The 99 free of political overtones. It is important to note that The 99 characters are not all Muslim either. They represent the virtues of Islam, not Islam itself.

But combating crime and evil doers are not the only challenges facing The 99. Saudi Arabia's clerical community has not embraced the idea of The 99 and has forbidden the comic books from entering the country. Comic books have never really been as popular in Muslim countries as they are in other places around the world, and the Islamic world has certainly never endorsed superheroes of any kind. One of Al-Mutawa's wishes is that The 99 will transcend its emphasis on Islam, and that the virtues The 99 extolls will be seen as relevant to every child, no matter what their religion.

On October 2, New York's Lincoln Center will be hosting the New York Film Festival's World Premiere of "The 99 - Unbound."

Mark your calendars for October 13. On that day, PBS will air the documentary "Wham! Bam! Islam!" in the US about Naif Al-Mutawa and his creation of The 99. Check your local listings for the airing time in your area.

The 99 Facebook Page

Newsweek Pakistan article "New Age, New Heroes" (April 2011)

The Atlantic article, "Super Muslims"