Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"No Refund Policy" Angers Middle East Customers

I've written about it before, but I really hate shopping in Saudi Arabia. Despite the fact that the countless sparkling new shopping malls are beautiful and amazing, and irregardless of the sad truth that because of cultural restrictions there is just not much else to do in the way of activities for women in Saudi Arabia besides shop, shopping in Saudi Arabia is not something I have ever really enjoyed - and it's just gotten a whole lot worse.

The large Middle Eastern retail conglomerate, M. H. Alshaya, has enraged customers with a new policy that does not allow refunds for returned merchandise - only store credits will be offered.

The big unique problem in Saudi Arabia with this policy is that most clothing stores in the country do not provide dressing rooms for women to try on clothing before purchasing it. Why? Because they are illegal! Since most sales positions in KSA are jobs almost exclusively limited to men, even in women's clothing and lingerie stores, there are just too many wild X-rated possibilities that could conceivably happen in these changing rooms. So the imaginative Saudi religious clerics have deemed these convenient little necessities as totally immoral dens of filthy lust. Their answer is to deprive women in Saudi Arabia the ability to actually try on clothing first before buying it, preventing sexual attacks on women in various stages of undress in retail changing rooms.

Many stores have routinely imposed a strict return policy in the past, limiting the time frame for a return to three days. Imagine the problems this creates for women in Saudi Arabia who cannot drive and do not have drivers at their disposal to run them back to the store to return an item that doesn't fit. It's more than just a hassle.

Across the Middle East, Alshaya controls over 55 different retail chains, managing more than 2,000 franchises in 15 countries. Here is a list of companies in Saudi Arabia that Alshaya manages (I've included some links to their websites or email addresses):

American Eagle
Claires - email: customersupport@claires.com
Debenhams - email: heretohelp@debenhams.com
Dorothy Perkins
Foot Locker
Justice - email: customerrelations@tweenbrands.com
Office Depot
Pottery Barn
Pottery Barn Kids
Vision Express

I would urge you all to voice your objections to these stores' unfair trade practices in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Alshaya's phone number in Saudi Arabia is 920000-2482. For Alshaya's phone contacts in other countries in the region, click here. And here is the email address of Alshaya: customercare@alshaya.com

A Facebook group
has also been established to promote the boycotting of these stores under the Alshaya umbrella. Please join and show your support.

WOMEN OF THE WORLD, I ASK YOU: Have you ever been sexually attacked by a lusty salesperson while trying on clothing in a retail changing room? Whether you have or not, I want to hear it from you, so please add a comment to this post with your experience. What do you think of the Saudi religious establishment's position of forbidding women's changing rooms to prevent sexual attacks on women - justified or not?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Saudi Women's Suffrage Mired in Suppression

The following opinion piece was just published in The GlobalPost and was written by Saudi blogger, Eman Al Nafjan, who writes one of my favorite blogs, "SAUDIWOMAN'S WEBLOG."

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz addressed the 150 members of the all-appointed advisory council (Shura) in September to announce that he rejects the marginalization of Saudi women. He said that after seeking advice from religious scholars within the country’s highest Islamic council and others outside of it, he had come to the decision to include women in the Shura and allow them full participation in future municipal elections.

This announcement came as a complete surprise to most Saudis. When word got out that the King was to address the Shura, most thought it was to speak about the housing crisis, a major concern and a point of grievance for many. And although there is a women’s suffrage campaign headed by Dr. Hatoon Al Fassi and Fawziah Al Hani, it was recently overshadowed by the campaign against the ban on women driving. So women’s suffrage and their appointment to the Shura was the last thing anyone was thinking about then.

To outsiders, the king’s announcement may seem like an enormous breakthrough for women’s rights. However, the current status of women foretells that it will take a lot more than one royal announcement for things to change in Saudi.

As a Saudi woman, I was overjoyed to hear King Abdullah’s announcement. But since then, it has become apparent that misogynistic religious fundamentalists still have quite a hold on governmental decisions and public opinion. There has been little indication so far of any substantial change in processes and procedures within the government. And the tone and discourse of the Saudi religious establishment remains as conservative as it ever was, if not more so.

Sheikh Al Luhaidan, the oldest member of the highest Islamic council was probably the most shocked by King Abdullah’s speech. In an interview on an Islamic cable TV network, Al Majd, he said that he had no prior knowledge of the king’s decision nor was he asked his opinion on the inclusion of women. He also said he wished the King had not mentioned the highest Islamic council at all.

The Minister of Justice, Sheikh Mohammed Al Eissa, was quick to issue a statement the next day that women appointed to the Shura will not be allowed to be physically present on the floor. Instead, arrangements will be made for them to watch each session via closed circuit TV and only participate via microphone so they remain unseen to the Shura’s male members.

Shortly after the king’s announcement, a Saudi woman, Shaima Jastania, was sentenced to 10 lashes across the back for driving her car in the port city of Jeddah, and a young man was sentenced to 15 lashes and two weeks in prison for taking photographs of Shaima while she was driving. Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal announced that the king had pardoned Shaima and vacated the lashing sentence, but her case is still pending in court.

Two female reporters, Samiya Al Eissa and Nesreen Najm Al Deen, wrote about Shaima’s case in a local newspaper. As a result, the two reporters were referred to the Ministry of Information’s press violation committee — not for reporting an untruth, but for reporting a truth that the Ministry views as threatening to national unity. The Ministry’s accusatory letter was leaked and a scanned copy made the rounds on social media, where many pointed out that the two reporters were not the only ones to report Shaima’s case. A similar report by a male reporter was published in Al Hayat newspaper, no reports have surfaced that he was reprimanded or accused of causing national discord.

That my country’s stability is so fragile in the eyes of some that a woman driving her own car and two women reporting the injustice of her punishment is a threat to its very unity is an indication of how sinister the women’s movement is to them and how seriously challenging it is to speak out for women’s rights.

Last week, 17 members of a literary association in the Western city of Al Baha walked out of meeting in protest of a female writer and professor, Suaad Al Mana, addressing the association on stage with her face uncovered. This despite her wearing the full black cloak — the abaya — and completely covering her hair. The members who walked out stated that a woman standing on stage in front of men is the beginning of the moral disintegration of Saudi society. Before walking out, the group called those who remained “secularists” as if it was a dirty accusation and shouted that this type of gathering is what caused the fall of the Islamic Empire in Spain. A spokesperson for the group, Ahmed Al Amari, told Al Sharq Alawsat that their objection “is based on sharia, legal and social grounds.”

Replying to inquiries from members of the Shura, the Ministry of Justice spokesperson stated on November 14 that Saudi authorities cannot force their employees or judges to look at a woman’s face to compare it against her ID card. That’s why they will implement an electronic fingerprinting system to verify a woman’s identity without having her remove the cloth covering her face.

Recently, Saudi public elementary schools have allowed first through third grade boys to have female teachers. One of the last orders made by Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz as he was leaving his post as Riyadh governor to become Minister of Defense was that these schools must ensure the 6- through 8-year-old boys not be able to talk or play with their female peers in school corridors or during recess.

These examples demonstrate how long and treacherous the road will be for the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Even decisions at the highest level of government in an absolute monarchy such as ours will only just begin to dent the armor of fundamentalism behind which many hide their misogyny.

As a country that is trying to modernize its economy and society, this fundamentalist mindset poses a unique challenge. Since the late 1970s, this faction of society has had immense decision-making power particularly in education and the courts — the two areas where interaction between the government and the average citizen is greatest. Three decades later, they have managed to make their ideology the foundation on which education and justice are based. Even appointing progressive ministers has failed to make any substantial change because from the bottom up, the system is sustained by people who have a religious conviction to resist change. Nothing is harder to shake than that type of conviction.

Steps such as appointing women to the Shura council and allowing them to participate in municipal elections, positive as they may be, are not as influential as enabling and empowering the average Saudi woman to represent herself without the obstacles of male guardianship, male drivers and strict segregation work codes. What’s the use of having a female Shura member as a representative to the government when a woman cannot represent herself in her own life?

This work was supported by a 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion and edited by Knight Luce 2011 Fellow Caryle Murphy. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California's Knight Program in Media and Religion.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Women Drivers Are Not Virgins

This is yet another post which falls under the category of:

In one heavyweight punch aimed at keeping Saudi women out of the driver's seat in Saudi Arabia, the country's religious establishment has apparently conducted a "scientific study" with surprising results, leaving the rest of the world reeling at the absurdity of it all.

In the continuing saga of the controversial battle between those who want to keep Saudi women at home (or in the back seat) and those who want to see Saudi women sitting behind the wheel, the study's findings seemingly show conclusive evidence that allowing Saudi women to drive would result in the loss of their virginity. How this magically happens is not exactly clear. But Saudi Arabia's religious scholars are convinced that in all other countries of the world where women DO drive, there are no more virgins left - so they can only assume that this would occur in Saudi Arabia too if letting women drive were permitted.

Saudi Arabian experts have long maintained that in the rest of the world where women can drive, all these women drivers have become immoral sluts - and now these experts allegedly have "scientific evidence" to back up these claims. Not only that, the study also supposedly proves that lifting the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia would also cause KSA to suffer other effects of moral decline as well, such as a rise in homosexuality, pornography, unmarried sex, and divorce rates.

With a divorce rate already as high as a jaw-dropping 62%, letting women drive in Saudi Arabia would spell certain disaster for the sanctity of marriage in KSA. On the other hand, since the divorce rate is already so high, maybe women drivers would have the reverse effect, who knows? Probably not though, since their study was "scientific," after all.

The campaign for women driving has gained steam over this past year, with women all over the country quietly taking to the wheel despite the ban. Earlier this year Manal al Sharif was jailed for ten days for driving, and another woman, Shaiman Jastaniya, was sentenced to ten lashes for daring to drive in Saudi Arabia, but was spared that fate by the Saudi king.

Saudi women must rely on male family members for their transportation needs, or are forced to hire drivers or take taxis - situations which place Saudi women in the precarious position of being alone in a car with an unrelated male, which is forbidden by the strict Saudi interpretations of Islam.

In a country where religious police are necessary to keep the population in line morally, this latest "scientific study" comes as no surprise. One of my first thoughts when I read about this study was that if women ever do gain the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, the old perverts in the country will flaunt this study to justify marrying 8 year old girls because there weren't any other virgins available.

Do they know how ridiculous all of this sounds to the rest of the world, or do they just not care what the rest of the world thinks?