Huda Al Hamd, an anchor on Saudi’s channel has been suspended from work. On her morning show this Saturday she took up the unemployment problem in Saudi Arabia. She had on the show two extremely outspoken writers, Saad Al Dosari and Dr. Hasan Al Ajmi. Mr. Al Dosari made many statements such as that it is an outrage that 12000 Saudis apply when only 45 positions are announced. He also said that there are people or a mafia benefitting from how things are run. He even likened the current foreign labour system to human trafficking. He demanded that ministers do something about it, that they go to the King and show him how desperate the situation is by tearing their thobes (cultural gesture of desperation). Then Dr. Al Ajmi weighed in by stating that ministers only drive around in fancy cars, enjoy the centralized air conditioning and smell the most expensive Cambodian incense. He declared the ministries of Labour and Civil Service complete failures and the Ministries of Education and Financial Affairs disappointments. He said that it’s not employers who mistrust Saudis, its Saudis who mistrust employers. He urged ministers to inform the King truthfully of the situation and assured them that the King will support them.
According to Sabq, Saturday night and until the early hours of Sunday, meetings and calls from decision-makers were going on at the Ministry of Information and Culture. Sunday it was announced that the Ministry’s spokesperson Mr. Haza’a would manage the channel for the next six months; he’s the same person who caused an uproar after he suggested that Saudi bloggers register and get licenses to blog. Also Ms. Al Hamd’s suspension was followed with the suspension of her colleagues Samira Madani and Mohammed Al Radaini.
I have written on unemployment before. The situation is desperate. It’s bad for men and much worse for women. You can read my last post on it here.
I recommend you watch the video even if you don’t speak Arabic, the passion and anger of the guests goes across languages. This controversy resulted in a hashtag on Twitter #hoda2alhamed in support of Huda Al Hamd
Some of the tweets include:
With my rejection of the suspension and what happened, nothing will ruin the country more than Al Ajmi and Al Dosari when they say demeaning jobs and jobs that are beneath Saudis, that’s bull.
مع رفضي للإيقافات وماحصل، لكن ماراح يدمر البلد إلا عقليات العجمي والدوسري، ايش مهن حقيرة، ووظائف لا تليق بولد البلد، كلام فارغ #hoda2alhamed
Calling these people human traffickers is an insult to human traffickers.
وصف هؤلاء الأشخاص بتجار الرقيق هو أهانة لتجار الرقيق #hoda2alhamed
The Ministry of Information’s message is clear, anybody in the media who takes up unemployment transparently and boldly will soon join the unemployed.
رسالة وزارة الاعلام باتت واضحة: كل من تسول له نفسه من الاعلاميين تناول ملف العاطلين بجرأة وشفافية سوف يصبح منهم #hoda2alhamed
Samar Badawi, a 29 year old divorced mother who was imprisoned for 7 months for not listening to her legal guardian (her father), has been released today into the custody of her uncle. Her cause was courageously taken up by Fouad Al Farhan on Twitter under #Samar. The full story was covered by fellow bloggers Hala Al Dosari and Ahmed Al Omran and Financial Times correspondent Abeer Allam. Now that the nightmare is over for Samar, I wonder how many more people are in prison indefinitely at the mercy of one of our all-powerful judges’ whims.
Mikhlif Al Shammary whose plight was published in detail by HRW in English and Arabic. I highly recommend reading the report. The accusation against him is “annoying others”. He was taken into custody on the 14th of June and is still in prison to this day. This is a letter he sent out for help:
Commission of Hum.Rights
Please protect my rights and demand from saudi gov. to release me . I am Mukhlif bin Daham Al-shammary 57 Male saudi natiomality. Well known as HR defender .Due to my activities in HR and fighting discrimination against Women,Expatriates and religion minorties as well as my online articals calling for peace between Sunni and Shiaa muslims ,and condmn radical religous. So,gov.arrested me on June 14,2010 they charge me of(Annoying others)
The Court reject the case ,but i still in jail .
HRW,Front line defender and Corresp.accross borders call for my release ,but no response.
Mr.Christopher Wilcke and Sarah Leah whitson in HRW have history of my story and problems that face me and my family.
When Ms.Naivi Bailly vist Saudi Arabia,I met here team members and gave them my observation on HR status in the Kingdom.
No good food ,no madical care and they put me with Criminals snme have deangrous deseads like Aids,phthisis and liver deseases.
I need urgent treatmdnt and psychotherapy assistance.
I wrote this E:mail using mobile phone i buy it from one presoner.
Kindly i requsted your honor to persuade my gov. to release me soon since i have not broken any law and protect my physical and mintal safty, and respect its promises to UN and international body. I need freedom of expression and safe inviroment to do my job to protect HR in my country,
I have critical situation ,please do not hisitate to act soon if you think i deserve your support, after you necessary invistegation.
Mukhlif bin Daham Al – shammary
The spokeperson for the Saudi ministry of Information, Mr. Abdulrahman al Haza’a today came out on AlArabiya news network and announced that a new bill of laws will be coming out soon to monitor what Saudis write on the internet. When I first listened to it, it kind of made sense since at the beginning he was saying that news websites have to register and apply for a license and in return the ministry would assist with logistics and access. However he then moved on to talking about forums and blogs, saying that these too have to register and apply for a license. What does that mean? He didn’t elaborate and kept repeating that soon a detailed and clear bill will come out. No matter what it means, it is extremely worrisome. Twitter has been going crazy with outrage, questions and rumours on the hashtag #Haza3 which is the spokesperson’s last name. Aren’t our freedoms curbed enough? Am I going to need written permission from my guardian to maintain this blog? Do I need a paper from work too? Do I have to run everything by the ministry before posting? How about if instead of blogging, bloggers wrote the exact same stuff in consecutive Tweets and on Facebook notes, what are they going to do about that? Are we supposed to register our Facebook and Twitter accounts too? Seems to me that instead of fixing the stuff citizens complain about on forums and blogs, someone took it into their head to fix the citizens instead. That’s a twentieth century tactic that just won’t get anyone anywhere anymore.
Update 25 September
In case you missed it in the news, AFP contacted the ministry the very next day and the ministry denied that it will there will be any form of registration required from bloggers and forum owners. They claim that the spokesperson Al Haza’a was misunderstood.
Getting to the Middle Ages is not about time machines, it’s a geographical issue. Why have dinner at a cheesy Medieval Times when you can get the authentic experience right here in Saudi Arabia. We got everything you want.
I came across this chastity belt at a museum and it got me thinking. A man that asks his wife to wear this is basically saying your morals and character are not enough; I have to dress you in something to protect you. And that is the same argument that is used in our modern times Middle Ages to get women to wear niqabs!
Then there’s the guardianship system over adult women, the sponsorship system, that’s not unlike a master/slave relationship, over guest workers and finally the cherry on top is the latest decision to limit religious ruling to a legislative body that is made up of ultra conservatives and their friends. Did I hear somebody say “medieval Vatican”?! No, no this is Saudi Arabia, we’re Muslims.
This new decree by the King is supposedly to protect Islam from embarrassing fatwas like the recent adult breastfeeding fatwa and the much more serious call to kill all satellite channel owners who broadcast sinful shows. But to the ultra-conservatives, it’s a miraculous bestowal of victory and return to power. Recently average Saudis got a glimpse of the inner workings of religious fatwas and how even seemingly conservative long bearded muttawas think it’s ok to enjoy music and that gender segregation is not Islamic. People (or what our religious establishment calls “commoners” العوام) started thinking and looking things up for themselves. And that’s where this new legislation comes in, a return to the status quo. However the optimist in me does not think it’s all bad. First of all it’s too little, too late. With internet and TV in almost every home, you can’t control who people listen to anymore. And secondly I’m hoping the whole thing is to appease the ultra conservatives in order to get them to pass something ultra liberal like …..fingers and toes crossed…..lifting the ban on women driving!?
Since the passing away of the two major sheikhs of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia, Shiekh Bin Othaimeen and Sheikh Bin Baz, no one has been able to take their place. Their extremely conservative interpretation of Islam has gone unquestioned throughout the 1990s and until now. They were the ones that issued the religious decree that women should be banned from driving cars. They also prohibited women from several things; showing their faces in public, wearing pants, prioritizing education and even the inane issue of shaping their eyebrows.
The vacuum that was left by their passing has never felt so empty until recently. With the numerous sheikh fatwa shows and the everyday emergence of new news websites and forums, all these sheikhs have come out of the woodwork scrambling for fame. In the beginning everyone was following the old worn extremist track that Shiekh Bin Othaimeen had set down long before. It almost seemed like a new Islamic sect under Bin Othaimeen’s teachings was emerging, especially in the Central region. His word was last and no one dared to refute a fatwa of his.
Then Ahmed Al Ghamdi came out with a fatwa stating that it was alright for men and women to mix together. and it was like a wall has broken down and every sheikh suddenly got the guts to say what they really think. We have all heard about Shiekh Al Obeikan’s breastfeeding fatwa and then Shiekh Al Kalabani came out with a fatwa stating that music is allowed. The traditional stance on music is that it is prohibited and that if you listen to it melted iron will forever be poured into your ears come judgment day. So when Al Kalabani revoked that, he too drew major criticism and even accusations of intentional decadence. With Al Kalbani, he seemed to have “I’ve nothing to lose” attitude, after being fired from his prestigious position as the Imam of the Makkah grand mosque. Why he was fired, there are no factual reports but the strongest rumor is that it’s due to him openly opposing King Abdullah’s plan to include Shia shiekhs in the Council Assembly of Senior Ulema. And now it’s rumored that he not only became less of a conservative but that he had also changed his position on the inclusion of Shia Shiekhs.
This trio, Al Obiekan, Al Ghamdi, and Al Kalbani are being attacked by the same people that made them. Members from the Council Assembly of Senior Ulema and other conservative sheikhs are doing everything in their power, short of a death fatwa, to shut these three up. I know it’s crazy but breastfeeding an adult man is on par with gender desegregation and listening to music.
And then of course, you have our charming Shiekh Al Arefe making a fool of himself when he couldn’t keep his promise that his next show will be filmed at the Jerusalem mosque, and the Al Najaimi scandal when he was caught on camera mingling with women at the Women’s day conference in Kuwait, despite his support for an extreme gender segregation fatwa by sheikh Al Barack.
All this squabbling and desperate thirst for fame from sheikhs has led more and more Saudis to the conclusion that yes, sheikhs do make mistakes and you can disregard them. And this has never been so evident as it was last Friday, after a member from the Council, sheikh Saleh Al Fowzan, issued a fatwa that it is prohibited to be led in prayer by sheikh Al Kalabani and yet five thousand men showed up to Al Kalabani’s mosque here in Riyadh. The people of Saudi Arabia are finally starting to make up their own minds!
There are no set rules or even boundaries for what could get a writer censored in Saudi Arabia. A person could be banned from writing for being too liberal, like what happened to Wajeha al Huwaider or a whole paper could be blocked from inside Saudi Arabia for being too conservative. The decision-making process of which writers, articles or whole websites get censored is also a mystery. A particular piece could be block and nothing more said, or an individual might be warned off publishing anything in a Saudi targeted medium. In the former case, it’s most likely that a big enough number of people called up the King Abdulazziz Technology City to complain and then a site is blocked. If then enough people complain about the unfairness of having it blocked, the KATC will claim that the whole thing was a mistake and unblock the site, this once happened to Amazon in 2006.
The most recent writer to get a government endorsed complete ban from writing is Mohammed al Rottayan. On the 14th of February, Al Watan newspaper published Rottayan’s satirical take on how different Obama’s aunt would have been received if she were a relative of a Saudi ruler or even a minister. Since then his popular daily column has disappeared and he has not been published elsewhere either. Badria al Bishr bravely wrote on al Hayat website an article asking where Rottayan is. She begins with the old proverbial story about Yousef. It goes that an Arab ruler meets with his people to listen to their complaints and concerns. So Yousef stands up and honestly speaks about his concerns. The next year the ruler meets again with his people and someone stands up and asks the ruler “where’s Yousef?”. She ends the article with a call to everyone to not be silent about what happened to al Rottayan.
Interestingly someone commented on Bishr’s article that they had seen al Rottayan at the Riyadh Book Fair and that he did indeed confirm that he is currently banned from publishing anything.
In Saudi, if you would like to be dismissed and have everything you write or say never taken seriously, all you have to do is to declare yourself a liberal or secularist. That’s it. You’re done. You might as well be screaming in a thunder storm.
However being called by someone else secularist or liberal is not as serious. People here throw these terms around like insults directed at others they disagree with. Liberal and secular are dirty seven letter words in Saudi Arabia. Youtube abounds with Arabic videos of extremist sheikhs stating that Muslims who adopt liberalism and secularism are infidels, donkeys, dogs, pigs…etc. My favourite is one in which a documentary showing beetles eating cattle dung is dubbed over and written commentary is added simply to say that liberals are like these beetles in infesting society with crappy morals.
There is no clear definition of liberalism and secularism in Saudi. However in a dichotomy they seem to be the opposite of being a God-fearing decent person. For example, Saudis who believe that sciences and math should be the focus of the school day and not Islamic studies get categorized as secular. If they think that the PVPV should be merged with the police then they most definitely have secularist tendencies. Any type of idea related to keeping up with the rest of the world is deemed secularism. Insinuating that the ban on women driving goes against basic human rights, will brand them liberal. Liberalism in particular, bubbles down to nonconformity to the version of Islam that had its rules set in stone in the 1980s by Shiekh bin Othaimeen. To many Saudis, whose only view of the outside world is Hollywood’s version on their TV screen, these terms equal society’s decadence and widespread uncontrollable immorality. The very word liberal in Arabic is actually a loanword from English. So you can just imagine how it puts Islamic fundamentalists off. One time I was having tea with a distant older cousin and she told me that she had never been to Al Faisaliah and Kingdom Tower (major hotels and shopping malls in Riyadh) because she was told that ‘liberals’ go there. She was under the impression that this meant it would be like being in Europe and that unrelated men and women would sit with each other and chat openly. That they would dress in a Saudi version of sleazy. She said she did not want that influence on her daughters. She also said that sometimes she would ask to be driven by just to see the fancy cars and women with their faces uncovered. This is her impression of what liberals do and there are many in Saudi like her.
However the concept itself is not foreign in Islamic history. The three basic principles of Liberalism, equal rights, freedom of speech and tolerance are the very essence of what the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) taught those who lived in his era. Sadly in modern times it has been buried deep by the same people who prohibit normal interaction between men and women in the name of “prevention of sin” (سد الذرائع ).