Saturday, November 24, 2012

Keeping Her on a Tight Leash

Recently there has been an interesting development pertaining to Saudi women's mobility hitting the news.  No, we're still not allowed to drive here and it doesn't look like we will be any time soon.  But first, let me give you a little background information to help explain the reasoning for this new policy. Saudi women have the legal status of children their entire lives. There is a designated male guardian who is legally responsible for each and every Saudi woman, no matter how old she is. From birth until she marries, the woman's legal guardian is her father. Upon marriage, her legal guardian becomes her husband. In cases where she no longer has a father or husband, the responsibility falls to another relative, such as her brother, uncle, or son.

"Mahram" is the Saudi term given for the woman's legal guardian. Without her mahram's permission and/or accompaniment, a Saudi woman may not continue her education, travel, work, receive medical attention, marry, or appear in court. Many Saudi women are very happy with this arrangement of not being responsible for major decisions in their lives and being taken care of. However, as you can imagine, this system opens the door for abuses of many Saudi women by unscrupulous and misguided male guardians.

Outsiders tend to interpret this guardianship system as Saudi women being nothing more than the property of men, which Saudis vehemently deny. Saudis argue that their women are treated with more respect and have more rights than their western counterparts, which I must admit is an argument that I don't see or understand.

So what is the new mobility issue that has been in the news here lately? Saudi Arabia has implemented a new tracking system for women and other dependents. Saudi men will now receive a text message when their wives, children, or even sponsored employees leave or enter the country in a program being called "Relax! We'll track your wife down!" Some have wondered why the government just doesn't go ahead and equip Saudi women with ankle bracelets similar to those worn by criminals, or better yet, why not just implant an electronic chip under the women's skin? Of course women cannot leave the country without her mahram's written consent, but one did slip through the cracks recently causing quite a scandal, so apparently this is what has prompted this new female monitoring and tracking system.

I might point out that phone companies in the US offer tracking services for family members' phones.  It is an optional tracking service offered for a fee that many parents use to keep tabs on their teenagers who are on their phone plan.  Of course, if the phone is turned off no tracking signal is emitted. Also a common practice in the states is to implant pets with electronic GPS chips for tracking in case the pet is lost. GPS technology has opened up a world of amazing, though sometimes scarey, possibilities.  But Saudi women are adults, not property or pets.

At any rate, Saudi women continue to feel the grip tightening and the thought of true freedom continues to be an elusive dream for many.  Saudi men continue to enjoy their own personal freedoms while exerting their control and retaining their dominance and power over the women of this country.

Are Saudi men really that insecure and distrustful, and do Saudi women really need to be monitored and controlled in these ways? 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sculpture Mysteries Solved

Art has always been a passion of mine, ever since I could pick up a crayon in my chubby little fingers when I was a toddler and turned a blank piece of white paper into an artistic masterpiece - in my eyes, anyway. I have always drawn, painted and created as long as I can remember. So when we moved to Jeddah in 2007, one of the reasons for my excitement was the wondrous assortment of public art in the form of sculptures adorning the city that I could hardly wait to feast my eyes upon.

"Alterations in Space" sculpture by Dr. François Kovacs - in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
In the five years since I have been here, there are still some sculptures that I have not yet seen or photographed. Even so, I have taken thousands upon thousands of photos of these sculptures and have published many on my blogs and posted others in some online photo albums. One thing that I have found very frustrating, though, was the lack of information about many of the sculptures around the city. The only reliable source of reference has been a book called Jeddah: City of Art by Hani M. S. Farsi, however the book is now over 20 years old and contains only a fraction of Jeddah's amazing sculptures.

"Family" sculpture by Dr. François Kovacs - in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
I wrote an article about the sculptures for Ethiopian Airlines new in-flight magazine "Selamta" earlier this year.  In the article I mentioned  The Jeddah Restoration Project, which has been going on now for almost a year - a process whereby many of the sculptures of Jeddah are being repaired, refurbished, and restored to their original glory. Over the decades many of the sculptures have been vandalized, graffitied, or have suffered the ill effects of Jeddah's heat and harsh climate as well as the elements of the salty sea air and dust in the atmosphere.

"Circle and Square" sculpture by Dr. François Kovacs - in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Through my blog postings, I have been contacted by several relatives of the artists and craftsmen who have had a hand in creating some of Jeddah's sculptures. It has been a thrilling and rewarding aspect of blogging for me.

Dr. François Kovacs during production of his Jeddah sculpture "Circle and Square"
So it is my great pleasure to know that my photo blog was instrumental in solving some of the mysteries surrounding the origins of several of the sculptures of Jeddah. At least five sculptures that were listed as "Artist Unknown" can now be attributed to the work of talented Belgian artist  Dr. François Kovacs. The sculptor's son, Dr. Blaise Kovacs, wrote to me and identified one of my sculpture postings as having been made by his father. He also sent me the link to his father's website. Upon viewing the website, I immediately realized that it was likely that several more pieces of art in Jeddah should be credited to Dr. François Kovacs.

"Heart Cross Section" sculpture by Dr. François Kovacs - in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
François I. KOVACS was born in Hungary in 1915.  At age 16, Kovacs began working as a sculptor of monuments alongside his brother Erno.  This was when he learned all the basics of sculpting.  As a young man he studied art (painting and drawing) as well as medicine, both fields of interest that he was passionate about.  In 1956 with the advent of the Hungarian Revolution, Kovacs fled from his homeland to Belgium, where he practiced medicine and lived out the rest of his life.  He also conducted insightful medical research which garnered him the respect of his peers.  The doctor devoted himself to his art in his spare time and made many trips to Italy so he could work with marble.   He managed to have successful careers in medicine as well as in art.   Kovacs died in Brussels in 2005.

Dr. François Kovacs during production of his sculpture "Heart Cross Section"

Thanks to Dr. Blaise Kovacs for the use of the photos of his father with the sculptures.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Saudi Man's Bisht

This article is from an Arab News article (Nov. 7, 2012) by Rima Al-Mukhtar which explains about the history and details of the flowing formal robe for special occasions worn over the long dress that Saudi men wear.  Traditionally made of wool, today's modern versions are also made of lightweight sheer voile.

"Traditional and Modern: The Saudi Man's Bisht" by RIMA AL-MUKHTAR
Reprint from Arab News article posted November 7. 2012

Bisht worn by King Faisal as he shakes hands with US President Richard Nixon in 1974.

A bisht is a traditional Arabian long cloak men wear over their thobes. This cloak is usually made of wool and ranges in color from white, beige, and cream to the darker shades of brown, grey and black. The word bisht is derived from the Persian — to go on one’s back.

Originally the bisht was worn in winter by Bedouins. Now it’s only worn for special occasions like weddings, festivals, graduations and Eid.

The bisht has been the choice of formal wear for politicians, religious scholars and high-ranking individuals in Arabian Gulf countries, Iraq and countries north of Saudi Arabia. This traditional flowing cloak is meant to distinguish those who wear it. People say no cloth can provide the distinction of a hand-tailored bisht. This is why the art of bisht tailoring is a skill handed down from generation to generation.

Continue Reading...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Schoolgirl's Odyssey - Witness - Al Jazeera English

Three weeks ago, 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was systematically hunted down like an animal and left for dead with two bullets lodged in her head and neck as she was returning home on her school bus.  Two of her classmates were also wounded in the attack.  The huntsman, a member of the Taliban, is still at large, thought to be hiding out in Afghanistan.  The reason Malala became an assassination target of the Taliban is because she spoke out against them in her desire to receive an education.  The Taliban has notoriously forbidden the education of females.

Malala has become an inspirational symbol around the world for women's rights and education, since at the age of 11 she began writing an online blog for the BBC about the challenges, turmoil, and threats of trying to get an education despite the fear of grave danger to herself.  The attempt on her life has further galvanized her iconic status for oppressed girls and women everywhere.  As she recuperates in a British hospital, Malala's doctors report that she is now stable and making progress, although she still has a long recovery process ahead.

The documentary below was originally filmed in 2009 and aired in 2010 on Al-Jazeera and follows Malala and her family in their journey as they live in a land of upheaval, violence, and oppression.  It is quite moving and eye opening.  It saddens me that in this modern day and age, females continue to be the objects of suppression by men who want to control them.

To read more about Malala and the grave situation in Pakistan:

As teen recovers from Taliban hit, Pakistanis demand answers

Pakistan official: Boys involved in Malala attack

Shot Pakistan girl Malala Yousafzai 'symbol of courage'