My contribution to: MENA Women: Opportunities and Obstacles in 2014

This was published as part of the annual Wilson Center’s Middle East Program celebration of International Women’s Day. You can find articles by women from all across the Middle East. I highly recommend Hala Al Dosari’s article on page 7.

The year 2014 marks the third year since the Arab Spring began in early 2011. Three years in and women in the MENA region are just now beginning to find their bearings and leave their mark. While women in the rest of the world were making strides in women’s rights, women in the Arab world had but only a few victories here and there that were never generalized or widespread to all. Fortunately, things have now changed dramatically, especially for Saudi Arabian women.

Although the same obstacles, including the guardianship system and gender segregation, are still in place, the difference now is in the virtual opportunities. Grassroots movements in Saudi Arabia have finally come into their own. Saudi women have mastered social media and its tools and are now using them to organize in a country where people are imprisoned for participating in public civil societies. Saudi women are not only taking advantage of these tools for women’s rights issues but also participating in the national discussion about human rights in general and the rights of Saudi citizens.

Through the ongoing grassroots movement of the October 26 Saudi women driving campaign, Saudi women (and men) put to rest the myth that the country is made up of a backward, misogynistic people ruled by a progressive governmental elite. Now they are showing the world that Saudis are capable of peaceful civil movements regardless of whether or not the government is ready or willing to accept that they are no longer subjects but citizens. Through the use of social media, Saudi women and men are now able to gather and discuss their issues without the threat of being arrested for breaking political or gender segregation rules. They are now able to find one another and organize with others who have the same civil and human rights goals. The usual tribal, gender, and regional divisions no longer apply. And from where I am sitting, I can see that Saudi people are taking full advantage of these virtual opportunities.

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What Happens When you Synonymize Authority with Immunity

This is a translation of an article written by Saudi human rights activist Ali Al Hattab:

The dangers of officials’ immunity and absolute authority on individuals’ freedom of opinion and expression in society

Introduction:

We all agree on the importance and the necessity of laws in regulating social interactions on all levels to ensure that these interactions do not clash or conflict. Since the emergence of humankind, man has been on a constant quest for mechanisms to organize his public life, beginning with his formulation of simple social norms and ending with advanced legislative constitutions which are considered the highest canopy for laws and regulations, with the objective of serving society and establishing peace and security within their specific frameworks of time and place.

The Dilemma:

It is the “holy union” between immunity and absolute authority granted to administrative governors and its obstruction of the right of opinion and speech for all individuals in society, or what is termed “freedom of opinion.” This is the first and foremost civil liberty sought by individuals; unless a person is emboldened to speak with complete freedom, he will never dare to express his ambitions or object to and reject all forms of injustice and tyranny.

The mechanism of immunity and authority on all legal levels has become the “big stick” that does not differentiate between legitimate and non-legitimate demands. Authorities use it to gag mouths and confiscate freedoms and demands regardless of their orientation, under the pretext of royal or princely immunity. This has led to the destabilization of civil peace and the natural social balance between ruler and ruled, especially with regards to transparent expression, accountability and liability.

Officials have striven to make themselves totally immune to criticism, placing dictates in articles of law in order to achieve personal gains and ambitions independent of legitimacy and the popular will. As a result, hope was lost, demands for reform aborted, the initiators of these demands imprisoned.

To follow are some examples of constitutional codes and articles which make clear the danger of immunity to freedom of opinion and expression in each member state of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the resulting legal liabilities and penalties.

Kuwait

Article 54: “The prince is the head of state and his royal person is not to be touched.” Kuwaiti constitution, 1962.

In 2013, Sarah Al-Diress was sentenced to one year and 8 months in prison for tweets she posted on her Twitter account, for which she was accused of insulting the royal person of the prince. Leader and former parliament member Msallam Al-Barrak also received a preliminary sentence of 5 years for insulting the royal person in a speech he gave in October, 2013.

Qatar

 

Qatari Poet Mohammed Al-Ajami sentenced to 15 years for writing  a poem.

Qatari Poet Mohammed Al-Ajami sentenced to 15 years for writing a poem.

Article: 64: “The prince is the head of state. His person is inviolable and respecting him is obligatory.” Qatari constitution, 2004.

Mohamed Rashed Hassan Al-Ajami “Ibn Aldeeb” was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years for a poem that became popular on YouTube and which was considered incitement to overthrow the regime and an insult to the ruling prince.

Bahrain

The king is the head of state and its nominal representative, and is inviolable. He is the trustworthy protector of the religion and the homeland and the symbol of national unity.” Constitution of Bahrain, 2002.
Activist Nab
eel Rajab was sentenced to 3 years on the charge of participating in an illegal assembly, insulting officials and questioning their patriotism.

Oman

Article 41: “The sultan is the head of state and the supreme commander of the armed forces. His person is inviolable and cannot be touched; respecting him is obligatory and his commands are to be obeyed.” The Basic System of Government, 1996.

In December 2012, The Court of Appeals sentenced Basma Al-Kayoumi, Said El-Hashemi and a group of Omani activists to terms ranging from 6 months to a year on the alleged charges of ridiculing the sultan, the violation of the Information Act, illegal assembly and disturbing the peace.

Saudi Arabia

 

Saudi Mohammed Al Qahtani serving a 10 year sentence for political & human activism

Saudi Mohammed Al Qahtani serving a 10 year sentence for political & human activism

The basic system of government in Saudi Arabia has no articles referring to the criticism of royal personages, yet many demands for rights and political liberties have been rejected, with those demanding them penalized under other punitive regulations – such as the system for combatting IT crimes which states in article six: “Punishment by imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years and a fine not exceeding 3 million Riyals, or either of these punishments for anyone who produces material detrimental to the public good, religious values, public morals or the sanctity of private life, etc…”

The Criminal Court of Riyadh ruled for the dissolution of the ACPRA Society, the confiscation of its money, termination of its activities and the imprisonment of its members Abdullah Al-Hamed (11 years) and Mohamed Fahd Al- Qahtani (10 years) for “cyber crimes” based on the above-mentioned article six, because they were demanding political and constitutional reform.

United Arab Emirates
Article 29: “A prison term and fine of up to one million Dirhams for any person using information technology with the intention of satirizing or damaging the reputation and standing of the state or any of its institutions, including the president, vice president, the rulers of its emirates, crown princes or their deputies, the state flag, national security, the state emblem and national anthem or national symbols.” Law for the combat of cyber crimes, 2012.

Activist Waleed Al-Shehhi, arrested in May of 2013, was sentenced to 2 years plus a fine of half a million for tweets posted on his Twitter account about indicted Islamists.

These in addition to hundreds of other cases and examples in the same context, whereas international law is clear in stating that state officials with their wide range of authority must necessarily be liable to a higher degree of criticism than the average citizen.

The UN Commission on Human Rights which issued binding standards for freedom of opinion and expression in article 19 of its Declaration, has made clear that insulting public figures does not justify penalties. It stressed that public figures “including those who exercise the highest political authority such as state presidents and governments” are legitimate targets for criticism.

The aura with which the gulf rulers have surrounded themselves is an exaggerated form of sanctity, and gives them expansive legal grounds to try those who demand political reform and other rights, especially as the position of the ruler is not merely a ceremonial one as is the case in most Western monarchies; It is an administrative position with broad executive powers directly linked to the needs, ambitions and destinies of their peoples.

Hence citizens have a legitimate right to criticize the performance of the ruler and to monitor him, away from personal insults and abuse, in an effort to improve living standards and the quality of life. The constitutions of advanced countries allow for the monitoring of the president and criticism of his performance and even subjecting him to enquiries in certain circumstances, through elected parliaments.

Recommendations:

  1. The rewriting of the articles of the constitution and penal regulations to commensurate with freedom of opinion and expression, and to ensure the implementation of international agreements and conventions.
  1. The establishment of precise criteria based on international standards to clarify and define the basic principles of the right to freedom of expression.
  1. The annulment of all laws that obstruct freedom of opinion and expression.
  1. The immediate and unconditional release of all political activists and defenders of human rights who have been imprisoned for practicing their right to freedom of opinion and expression, in addition to dropping all charges related to their practice of freedom of opinion and expression.
  1. The ratification of a new charter that irrefutably endorses the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

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Dog for adoption in Riyadh

My sister rescued this two month old female from the desert.
Her name is Precious, and the name fits her perfectly. She is friendly and playful, but very shy around strangers. Precious is vaccinated and we had her checked out completely and the blood test came out perfectly healthy. All she needs is a loving home. If you are serious about adopting her please send an Email with your details and contact info to Saudiwomanblog@gmail.com

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Saudi activists criticize new counter-terror law

By Abdulla Jaber criticizes the five years prison sentence for using the Rab'a logo

By Abdulla Jaber criticizes the five years prison sentence for using the Rab’a logo

Saudi Arabia’s new counterterrorism law went into effect on Feb. 1. The law’s definition of terrorism among other things includes “acts that harm the reputation of the state or its standing.” A couple of days later, on Feb. 3, a royal decree was issued by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in which not only people who fight abroad in Syria and Iraq would be criminally penalized, but also any person who publicly endorses or sympathizes with a group or trend that Saudi authorities deem as extremist.

According to the new law, people can be held for as long as a year without charge pending an investigation. The law and decree do not mean any real change from current practices, but more of a legal blanket for them. For example, blogger Fadhil al-Manasif is being prosecuted under the same charges covered by the new law. Evidence used against Manasif include him writing on a napkin: “Amid the turmoil surrounding us we have to look for points of convergence and find words of unity for the sake of our country and its security. Calls for development, change and reform are charged with incitement and people are imprisoned for it. But with patience they will be an option that cannot be avoided.” This note was considered as proof that Manasif had gone against the government, disturbed public order, undermined society security and state stability and incited sectarianism. TO READ ON CLICK HERE.

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Loujain Al Hathloul

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In a country where you get an eight years prison term for torturing your daughter to death while another gets a ten years sentence for dancing naked in the street, it’s safe to say we are conformists. That’s why there is no experience like that of being on an international flight outbound from Saudi. The people you get off the plane will look completely different from those who got on. While most women in Saudi wear the niqab and most men wear a thobe, these magically disappear once the plane crosses Saudi borders. Most of the women who get off at the end of the trip will have their faces uncovered and many will not even have their hair covered now that they are safe from the conformist claws of Saudi. This duality is so integrated that it’s second nature to most.

Loujain Al Houthloul

Loujain Al Houthloul

That’s why being an individual in Saudi is a ginormous feat that has surprisingly been accomplished by a young lady, Loujain Al Houthloul. And like everything that Al Hathloul does, her first appearance in the Saudi collective consciousness caused a commotion. She posted a Keek video where she not only appeared with her face and hair uncovered but also addressed the fact openly by making fun of ultra-conservatives and defyingly saying that she won’t ever cover. The video instantly went viral and had such a huge impact that she deleted it from her Keek page. Yet it was too late. The video had been downloaded and sent over every social media format in existence. Once the 24 year old French Literature undergraduate got her second breath and adjusted to the attention, she stood her ground and posted several more Keek videos. When racists started to try to put her down by spreading a rumor that she’s originally from India, she responded in a Keek video that she would be proud to be Indian. Others tried to “tame” her through attempting romance and marriage. One guy publicly offered her a million and a half Saudi riyals for her hand in marriage.

She currently has over a 150,000 followers on Twitter, 92,000 on Instagram  and over 670,000 followers on Keek. I’m also betting that there are thousands of Saudis who probably check her accounts on a daily basis but don’t follow her so as to not encourage her.

When we at the October 26th Campaign were looking for a celebrity to announce the campaign, we contacted people who we knew were pro women driving. They all refused because they feared that they would lose followers, fans and might have trouble at their places of work or study. Then someone suggested Loujain and we contacted her. When we explained the campaign to her, she instantly and boldly agreed to announce it. Then an hour later, she contacted us again. I thought she was going to back out like the others but instead she asked if she could add her own take about the injustice of the driving ban to the announcement. I officially fell in love with her right then and there.

The next day she posted the Keek video and within 15 minutes it was viewed by over five thousand people and we could safely say that the October 26th Campaign had started. She had nothing to do with the idea of the campaign before her announcement and little to do with it after. However she received the brunt of women driving opposers’ attacks. Many assumed that since she announced it then she must be the person behind it. She got everything ranging from death threats and insults to false rumors of her arrest and ban from travel. Instead of backing down and staying in Canada where she was studying, Loujain booked a flight home to Riyadh and then drove herself from the airport while her father filmed her. Then she posted the video. It drove the opposers crazy! So crazy that the Ministry of Interior called her father in and made him sign a pledge to not allow her to drive again. It got so bad that her great uncle was pressured into releasing a statement renouncing her actions. Despite all of that she still stands her ground and to this day tweets and plans to post videos that go against Saudi duality. I don’t care how cliché it is, she really is like a breath of fresh cool air in this hot desert climate.

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Saudi men who have gone to prison for helping Saudi women

Abdulkareem Al Johaiman, author, teacher and newspaper editor. Imprisoned for supporting opening schools for girls.

Abdulkareem Al Johaiman, author, teacher and newspaper editor. Imprisoned for supporting opening schools for girls.

Salah Alazaz, artist and photographer, imprisoned for photographing the 1990 Nov 6th women driving protest.

Salah Alazaz, artist and photographer, imprisoned for photographing the 1990 Nov 6th women driving protest.

 

Tariq Al Mubarak, columnist and high school teacher, imprisoned for supporting the Oct 26th Women Driving Campaign.

Tariq Al Mubarak, columnist and high school teacher, imprisoned for supporting the Oct 26th Women Driving Campaign.

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Saudi Women Drivers Not Deterred by Arrest

When a woman in Saudi Arabia gets behind the wheel, the police stop her, call her male guardian and get both to pledge that it does not happen again. On Nov. 6, 1990, 47 women unsuccessfully protested the ban. They were punished so severely that no one dared again until Manal al-Sharif unsuccessfully tried in 2011 and was punished for it. This year, a new grassroots campaign was launched by a number of Saudis too large to be stopped and punished. The third time is always the charm.

Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/11/saudi-arabia-women-driving-campaign.html#ixzz2jTIxS97l

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