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.
Tariq Al Mubarak, a columnist and high school teacher based in Riyadh, was detained since the 27th of October for helping and supporting the Oct26th Women Driving Campaign. This is the lastest article he wrote for Al Sharq Al Awsat and published the day before he was arrested:
After the events of 9/11, a growing number of Americans became too afraid to board airplanes and public transport, and became fearful of being in crowded enclosed spaces, such as restaurants and cafes. This was a natural result of the horrific scene they lived through at the hands of terrorists whose bombings claimed the lives of thousands. Yet counter to this growing fear rose another approach that insisted that the correct response to terrorism is for people to continue practicing their normal lives, with caution, but without fear. They would not let fear prevail by depriving them from enjoying their daily freedoms. Thus giving Al Qaeda and the rest of the terrorists what they want; a retreat as a reaction to their threats. Ultimately Americans were drawn to the second approach of not succumbing to the main goal of extremism and terrorism which is the confiscation of the freedom of others through intimidation and threats. American society stuck to their freedoms and did not hide in burrows. They even began resisting and fighting government sectors that eavesdrop on people under the pretext of pursuing Al Qaeda.
What is happening in our society is also terrorism; an innovation occurs or rights are about to be given to some minority, and this sets off a small group to threaten to use violence to derail the project and imprison society in their extremism. These extremists intimidate people into not exercising their natural lives. In fact, the aims of most extremists do not focus on their own practices and rights, but on suppressing the rights and freedoms of others. In the name of reorganizing society according to their vision, they kill a group of people to subject the rest of society to fear. They would even destroy a place of worship in order to ensure people do not exercise their religious freedom.
Last April a judge sentenced a US marine, convicted of burning an Ohio mosque’s rugs, to 20 years. The marine committed the arson to revenge the American soldiers who were killed and injured at the hands of Muslims. But the judge in his ruling responded to the marine’s justifications, saying that the perpetrators of hate crimes like him want to destroy what is beyond buildings. They are targeting their way of life. The judge went on to state that their freedom is greater than this man’s hatred. The Egyptian writer Amr Ezzat remarked on this judge’s statement, saying that you will not find the last phrase in the preamble of any Egyptian court’s rulings on one of the aggressors on churches or even mosques that were assaulted or subjected to arson or even those that were partly or completely demolished.
It is true that you will not find in our courts sufficient provisions to deter those who threaten and terrorize others from exercising their everyday lives and freedoms because the rights and freedoms guaranteed to every human being are not instilled in our culture, nor our interpretation of religion, and of course are not protected by our laws. Thus it becomes easy to subject society as a whole to the mob’s threats of violence against exercising our natural freedoms.
Let’s look around and see how many innovations have we stalled and how many freedoms have we deprived people of through the terrorism of a violent group of extremists. We can be cautious of their threats but we cannot hold society hostage for decades during which they are not allowed to practice their natural lives and take advantage of modern technologies. These extremist are the ones who should go hide in their burrows instead of holding us in a burrow of fear.
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My piece for Amnesty’s Livewire:
If there was one word to describe what it is like to be a Saudi woman, it would be the word patronizing. No matter how long you live, you remain a minor in the eyes of the government.
In Saudi Arabia we take patriarchy to the extreme. The fact that the culture, like many others around the world, is male-dominated is not the major challenge. The real challenge is that the government has allowed this patriarchy to dictate how it deals with citizens. To read more, CLICK HERE…
A few weeks back I was in Molde to talk about Saudi and what life is like for Saudi women. I enjoyed both the talk and the town. But what I found most fascinating is another person who was invited to speak there. His name is Yehuda Shaul. He came as a representative from an organization called Breaking the Silence. What they do at Breaking the Silence is educate people in Tel Aviv and the rest of the world about the horrific human rights violations that the Israeli military commits as it occupies the Palestinian people. The testimonials from veterans are in written and video interview formats. None of it is new to me or to most Arabs. The realities of the creation of the Israeli state on Palestinian land and the inevitable refugees and occupation that it incurred are common knowledge in the Middle East. Something that is unforgettable and undeniable. To bring it closer, it would be as if Germany had succeeded in taking over France, and the French would be excepted to accept it and melt into any of the neighboring European countries as refugees because “all Europeans(i.e. Arabs in our case) are the same.”
Initially when I heard Yehuda speak, I had mixed feelings. With my mind I knew he was doing the right thing. But to my heart he remained a soldier who probably stood by as settlers shot at and abused the Palestinians whose land they’ve stolen. His hands were hands that probably killed a few Palestinians. He represented the invader in the Palestinian struggle that my grandfather lost the use of his leg for and that I, like most Arabs, had grown up on and simply know as The Cause. As he talked about Breaking the Silence, it seemed like he was talking about an alternate reality where The Cause was little known and needed awareness raising. Then I remembered the Why do They Hate Us? rhetoric that caught fire after 9/11. I remembered how especially clueless and egotistic the Americans seemed as they went on and on about the Middle East “hating them for their freedom.” When the truth was Americans are hated in the Middle East for their hypocrisy and crudely selective morality. They are hated because they are the number one financial supporter of the violent Israeli occupation. And they are hated because they are the only ones in the UN that could be consistently counted on to veto any attempt of the Palestinians at dignity and a 1967 borders statehood. Yet, here I was listening to an Israeli veteran talk about the occupation and the Palestinians as though he was uncovering a little-known scandal! He talked about how hard it was for him and other soldiers to talk about the atrocities they committed. He talked about the social stigma that people in his organization suffer from. It was enlightening and vaguely familiar. Afterwards I asked him how he thought the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict would end and he said he couldn’t see it ending. Then he pointed out that most milestones in human history were unpredicted and happened just when things seemed hopelessly stagnant. And although it’s been a few weeks since I’ve been back, what he said and Breaking the Silence stayed with me.
Is it really 2013? Not in Saudi, it isn’t. We’re pretty progressive considering we are still in 1434. Where in the world did a country pass into law a system to protect it citizens against abuse in the 15th century?! Of course, the system is based on a 1434 understanding of abuse but it remains something that’s hopefully better than nothing. So what does a 15th century system to protect society’s most vulnerable look like? It’s a system where children are protected from sexual abuse but a marriage between between a 50 year old man and an 11 year old girl is completely sanctioned and legal. It’s a system where the definition of abuse could be used against the victim since “not being loyal in performing duties” might be used by husbands to claim their wives are abusive for being disobedient and by employers against their employees. A 15th century protection system is a system that exists within a legal framework that considers all females as forever minors with a male guardian assigned to each. It is a system where each migrant worker is assigned to a Saudi citzen who can decide when, where and if the worker can work or go home. It’s a system where abuse is so institutionalised that the police are ordered to stop and arrest any woman for simply driving her own car.
Hala Al Dosari wrote an insightful post in Arabic on the main issues with the Saudi protection against abuse system and I’ve translated it below:
After first proposing the 17 point Protection from Abuse System to the Shura Council for discussion in 2013, last Monday the Saudi Council of Ministers finally passed it into law. Now all that’s left is for it to be regulated so that it can be implemented by the authorities.
However there are some concerns with what has been put forward:
1- No specialized government body or authority has been named for dealing with cases of violence and abuse. This is likely to create mechanism conflicts at implementation and negatively affect how authorities respond to cases.
2- No certified definitions of harm and abuse were adopted in the system. This is a handicap especially in light of the fact that the system’s definition ambiguously includes such terms as basic needs, misconduct, and failure to fulfill duties in its definition of abuse.
3- The objectives of the system are vague and numerous. They include protection and provisions for victims, accountability of perpetrators, raising awareness, and addressing behavioral phenomena. Yet the system does not say anything about how it will ensure the protection of victims or in what way it will address behavioral phenomena. At the same time the system completely neglects to mention anything about current institutionalized abuse or attempt to reform the regulations and legislation that creates a tractable environment for abuse such as the guardianship system; denying women some governmental services without the presence of their male guardian; and the migrant workers’ sponsorship system; and all other unjust regulations and legislation.
4- The system does not include any mechanisms to address cases when the vague concerned authorities fail to protect victims. The system also does not address the how to and conditions for raising cases to the administrative body of these authorities. Above all it does not assign a watchdog for grievances in the event that failure does occur.
5- The fact that the system leaves it completely up to the concerned authorities to assess cases and decide the severity of the response regardless of whether theses authorities are in healthcare, education, or police. The system does not implement or even discuss any specified criteria to determine the type of response needed. At the same time, the system dedicates several points to awareness raising and prevention campaigns. In article ten of the system about responding to abuse cases, the system makes a point to prioritizes guidance and prevention above all else. The stages of prevention and awareness should precede the stage of the actual occurrence of abuse and not the other way around. And leaving the assessment to the discretion of those informed is not productive considering the nature of the local culture and the importance of family reputations and ties above all else.
6- In point four of article seven, the system states that abusers should be called in and made to sign pledges as part of the response. This is already what is currently implemented and has proven to be useless in the protection of victims. The system is supposed to provide alternatives rather than maintain and endorse the traditional response mechanism that is currently in place to protect the family framework at the expense of its members’ safety.
7- The concerned authority is assigned the responsibility of assessing and responding to cases of abuse without putting similar powers in the hands if those who are exposed to abuse to report and seek protection.
8- In an excellent step, the system gives primacy of commitment in its implementation to all regional and international conventions and agreements that the Kingdom has signed. We will have to wait and see if and how this will be taken into account in incorporating and implementing the system within government bodies.
9- The system supports research and programs that address violence and abuse. This is an excellent step considering how much civil societies suffer currently from restrictions in exercising this role. One example of this is the persecution of the Saudi citizens who started the White Ribbon campaign to encourage men to speak out against domestic violence.
This is a translation of a piece written by Dr. Badria Al Bishr for Hayat Newspaper:
I’ve heard stories, some of which reached the press and others didn’t, and it’s hard to comprehend how it could get this bad. In the first story, a woman tells me that her husband abused her for years before divorcing her. One time he locked her in the house for days while he went on a trip. She found a young man living next door by looking through the bathroom window. She told the young man her story so he bought her a meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken. He found a board to put between the two windows and slid the meal across. I never could understand why he bought her a KFC meal instead of calling the police to release her.
The story seemed to me a bit romantic despite its cruelty. The kindness of that young man is the only thing that stands out to the woman out of her years of abuse. The other story, however, lacks any romanticism. This time the newspapers did publish a photo of a wife whose husband would lock her in his bathroom and would only open the door to urinate on her and leave. She sought her father’s help but he was too busy with his second wife. Eventually the woman was able to escape and get to the police. A photo of her broken demeanour appeared in the newspapers with a red shawl covering her face and shoulders. She was standing in front of the police station instead of inside it. Do you know why? Because the police wouldn’t accept a complaint from her without the presence of a male guardian. So she either had to bring her indifferent father or her abuser husband to complain about the latter. It turned out that the husband was wanted by the police for other unrelated offenses. Yet the wife was unable to get the police to help her get her daughter away from him.
Today I now understand why the young man and the police couldn’t help these women. I now see that any person who attempts to help an abused wife will get a deterring punishment similar to the one dealt out to Wajeha Al Huwaidar and Fowziya Al Oyouni. They helped a Canadian woman married to a Saudi man. The Canadian had reached out to Wajeha and Fowziya by sending them a text that she was being locked up and that she had no food. So they took some groceries over to her. When the husband found out he raised a case against them for “invading his privacy and disturbing his peace.” The judge ruled that Wajeha and Fowziya each get a ten month prison sentence and a two year travel ban under the charge of “takhbeeb.” And takhbeeb means corrupting a woman and making her hate her husband. It’s in the tradition of archaic rulings concerning slavery and those who help slaves to run away. So basically the court ruling says that a wife to her husband is not unlike a slave to its master.
Wajeha and Fowziya were quick to write a statement that the woman’s first language is not Arabic or English but French; a language neither one of them speaks. So how did they manage to communicate enough to get accused of “takhbeeb”? Did they use sign language? Language is also probably why the judge never bothered to actually ask the Canadian woman her side of the story. The Canadian woman posted an apology on her Facebook page to Wajeha and Fowziya and stated that she never meant to run away but that her husband had not left her any food or drinkable water.
I don’t know if takhbeeb applies to Canadian women but apparently it does to Saudi women. On this occasion, I would like to congratulate the husband on the court’s ruling to his favor. After this, nothing stands in the way of him doing whatever he wants with his wife, even if he wanted to lock her up in a bathroom and urinate on her. Or he could simply just keep starving her.
For Human Rights Watch’s statement about the case, CLICK HERE.
Last month news came out that private schools for girls would be allowed to have a physical education curriculum. Many of these schools already did include such a curriculum such as Kingdom Schools and Manarat Al Riyadh. But there were more and more private schools that boast of having physical education as a way to stand out without having the proper infrastructure for their students to exercise and play properly and safely. So the ministry wisely decided to regulate it instead of banning it completely.
Then a week ago the General Presidency of Youth Welfare licensed the first sports club for women. The literal translation of the presidency’s name is the General Presidency of Young Men’s Welfare. I don’t believe it even occurred to the government in 1974 when the presidency was created that women might want to play sports too. To read on CLICK HERE.