How we have come to be the society we are today is one thing and why change is slow in coming is another. Outsiders looking in think to themselves why do Saudi women put up with all this oppression. The guardianship system, the ban on driving and all our other societal peculiarities draw looks of pity, shock and for some a fixation. Why don’t we all just go out into the streets without abayas? Why don’t we just get behind a wheel and drive? Why don’t we run away? The short answer is we don’t want to. But that isn’t helpful. To bring it closer to non-Muslims and especially Christians, I would ask them to look into their own backyard at the polygamous offshoots of the Latter Day Saints, whether it’s a compound or a small town on the borders of Utah. Why don’t the women there run away, stand up for their rights or at the very least speak up? The vast majority of them believe in their lifestyle even though the country’s legal system does not support it and would back a woman who wants to get away. It isn’t much of a stretch from those dresses and bonnets to abayas, especially when considering that Saudi women don’t do much manual work and only wear the abaya in the presence of unrelated men. I personally think that being a “sister wife” in a plural marriage is a lot worse than how polygamy is practiced in Saudi because here wives are separate and no pretensions of love or saintliness are expected.
Mormon women in the USA do not stand up to their oppressors because they belong. They are part of a community that loves and cherishes them. If they were to leave they would have to face the harsh responsibilities and realities of life alone and detached. It is not cowardice. It’s about finding your place in the world and contributing by fixing it from within.
So before you judge us, relate to us. This is what we are born into and we would feel lost without our community’s approval and backing. And just like every individual in this world, Saudi women are just trying to find their way.
If you really care about women’s rights and you are in Saudi Arabia, then starting from the 13th of February 2010 and for two weeks boycott all lingerie shops that employ men. Get the word out and tell your friends to do the same. You’ll be helping more women get employed. You’ll break one of our main contradictions regarding interaction between men and women. And most of all, you’ll be supporting a Saudi women cause and helping them have a voice and impact.
This campaign was officially started in February 2009 by Reem Asaad, a Saudi lecturer at a college in Jeddah, and is now in its second phase. Its aim is to address a real contradictory issue here in Saudi Arabia concerning men selling women lingerie. The contradiction is in the fact that we are supposedly the most conservative nation in the world and yet women here divulge their bra and undie sizes and colors to strange men on a regular basis. I have been to many countries, European, Arab…etc and I have yet to come across a lingerie shop or even section of a department store where a man is employed to help customers. Why is this? Because common decency and personal comfort dictate that the majority of women would much rather discuss and buy their underwear from another woman. This very simple fact somehow flew over our muttawas’ heads or they just felt that the oppression of women is more important than preserving a woman’s modesty. The minister of Labour, Dr. Al Qusaibi, attempted to tackle this issue by issuing a new law that only women were to be employed at lingerie shops. This was supposed to be effective in 2006. However powerful people behind the scenes have been able to delay its implementation. Why would they do that? Well it’s due to a multiple number of reasons:
1- Many are muttawa and strongly believe that malls and shopping areas are tools of the devil. Hence if they could they would even ban women from shopping let alone working there.
2- It costs money to get lingerie shops run by women muttawa compliant, what with screens on the windows and a guard at the door…etc.
3- Women employees are more expensive. Saudi women are paid more and work shorter hours while men imported from poorer countries will work longer, for less.
4- They just hate Dr. Al Qusaibi and his “liberal” ways and want to oppose him in anything and everything.
To join the campaign’s official Facebook page and show your support click here.
Heavy rains in Jeddah the past couple of days have claimed 78 lives and still counting. Heavy rains led to flooding because of how the city is managed. Millions go into its infrastructure for digging sewers and putting in pipelines and paving roads but by the time the money finally trickles down to the purchase of material and hiring contractors, it doesn’t cover the costs anymore. For the past few years the people of Jeddah have been complaining and grumbling about it. This just might be a blessing in disguise with the Hajj spotlight on the area it might be enough of an embarrassment that something actually gets done. I propose that the king hand over the Jeddah municipality to ARAMCO as he did with KAUST when it became apparent that officials were skimming the budget.
A week ago, AlRiyadh newspaper interviewed the minister of higher education and he had some fascinating things to say. If you read Arabic it is really worth reading through the whole interview and if you don’t then you’ll just have to make do with my post about it.
Before getting to the interview, let me explain the context. Soon after King Abdullah came into power in 2005, he initiated the King Abdullah scholarship program wherein each year thousands of young Saudis are sent abroad for BAs, MAs and PhDs. This in itself is not a new concept in Saudi Arabia because in the seventies and early eighties, scholarships were given out freely. However since the mid-eighties they became a lot more restricted. The reason for this sudden pull back has never been openly explained or even acknowledged. And one of its consequences is that Saudi society became even more closed up within itself. So when King Abdullah came along and opened the door wide to all qualified Saudis, many took advantage of the opportunity. The importance of these scholarships to Saudi society is beyond just the educational. To have thousands of our own men and women experience life outside the muttawa ideology bubble will have a huge impact on our future as a people and a country. And it seems that the minister of higher education, Dr. Al Mousa, is of the same opinion. He views the scholarship program as a cultural, social, political and economical integration.
So far the program has wrapped up five phases, the last was this year in which they gave scholarships to 8223 postgraduate students. And that tallies up the number of students on scholarships since 2005 to about 80 thousand. And they are sent to many different countries such as China, France, Germany and Japan. The choice of countries and courses of study to include in the program is left to a committee of 30 professors and professionals. Recently they had considered the Ukraine, however after visiting the universities there, they decided against it. The best universities for medicine according to this ministry appointed committee are the University of London and the University of Maastricht in Holland in which they have reserved 80 places for Saudis. Also an unnamed Canadian university in which they have reserved 300 places. The countries with the highest number of Saudis in their universities are the UK and Australia, so much so that the ministry has decided to stop sending students there for the foreseeable future.
All students who are granted a scholarship must go through an intensive three month English language course and attend workshops and lectures on cultural differences and on how to conduct themselves abroad.
Out of the approximately 70 thousand sent in the past four years, 825 have graduated. 100 of them were given jobs at Al Qaseem University. This is just fantastic because Qaseem is a region notorious for its muttawa ideology and so to have 100 Saudi men and women who have seen and lived abroad work in one of the region’s most influential places can only be good. Others were employed by SABIC, the Saudi airlines and STC.
The minister was also asked about problematic students. According to the minister, 1573 scholarships, 3% of the total, in the past four years were revoked, out of which only 117 were due to moral or legal misconduct. The rest were mainly due to absenteeism and low grades. He comments that these statistics show that the program is a success.
For people who have never been to Saudi Arabia, the fact that we are one of the biggest producers of oil often gives the impression of affluence. And in major tourist attractions around the world, every Saudi tourist is thought to be a member of royalty. That’s why I believe it’s important to show that that privilege and extravagance is only true for a very small and shrinking faction of Saudi society. Some of the rest are well-off as a middle-class. And then we have the majority; people living from paycheck to paycheck or some who can’t find jobs. This is a link to an anonymous blogger who has taken it upon himself/herself to contrast the wealth of our highest-class up against the conditions of the poor and some run-down government facilities such as hospitals and schools.
The growing unemployment rate and the rising numbers of households who cannot make ends meet have been a throbbing headache for those in power. Dr. Al Qosaibi was called in to rescue the government once again as he had with the health sector but even he could not do much when up against the stubborn muttawa ideology. Every common sense proposal he tried to implement was shot down by the dogged fundamentalist.
It is depressing that in a country where there are nine million people brought in on worker contracts, many of whom are low-skill, our own Saudi youth go to waste from joblessness and idleness. Young women not being able to take jobs because they cannot afford a driver to transport them to work or they are told that their job goes against our religion and traditions. Banking jobs are believed to be unblessed by God. Hospital jobs and any other jobs that involve working with men can get in the way of a woman’s marriage prospects and are simply forbidden by many families.
Young men who have to compete in a market where a Saudi’s basic salary could get the employer three men from India, Sri Lanka or the Philippines. I know that some accuse Saudis of being pompous and lazy but I know for a fact that the majority are hardworking and hungry for opportunity. These imported workers are willing to work ten to twelve hour work days and even live at nearby cramped quarters assigned by the employer. And all at a salary that could barely sustain an individual in Saudi Arabia, never mind households. How could a Saudi compete with that?!
To read more about poverty in KSA, here’s a link to a previous post.
The assassination attempt on Prince Mohammed Thursday shocked everyone and exposed the new direction that Al Qaeda is taking. Fortunately the only fatality was the terrorist himself.
Since the news got out there has been this outpour at not only the political but also at the cultural and social level. On Facebook, one Saudi suggests that all men dressed like muttawa should be stopped and questioned. On a more serious level, major newspapers include articles that only begin with the assassination attempt and from there the authors and comment posters criticize the whole religious fundamentalist movement within the country concerning education, human rights and domestic tourism.
In Al-Watan today, Abdulla Al Fowzan, has an article in which he respectfully tells off the Grand Mofti, (the highest rank in sheikhdom) for saying in a speech he gave last month that the monarchy and sheikhs are in an exclusive partnership in leading the country. Al Fowzan basically analyzes the comment and rejects it. He criticizes the religious leaders for being stagnant in keeping up with the needs of the people and times. He ends the article with the opinion that sheikhs are only one small facet of our leadership and other facets should include all other factions of our society. I’m writing this at 8 am so the article has only been online a few hours and yet people are posting their comments. Two so far linked fundamentalists to the ban on women selling lingerie. And of course you have a few of sheikhs’ supporters who predictably accuse Al Fowzan of going against Islam.
Since March the religious puritans have been getting louder and more powerful; more muttawa raids in malls, cancellations of plays and festivals, and even statements by high-ranking officials that were obviously made only to appease these fundamentalists. The assassination attempt has empowered people to speak out. And so has apparently turned the tide in favor of the average Saudi, even if only temporarily.
We’ve all heard or read about the strict laws and forms of punishment in Saudi Arabia. The most notorious of which is cutting off the hands of thieves. But many people don’t dig deep enough to know that a thief has to steal a substantial amount to get that punishment. No one gets their hand cut for petty theft, but when you have a gang who goes around robbing houses, then that punishment comes onto the table. In all my years here, I’ve only heard about it happening once. A friend of mine had their apartment robbed. Jewelry, TVs, computers and everything of value was taken. Eventually the robber was caught and my friend’s father was asked if he would forgive the robber or not. His refusal to forgive him contributed to the judge’s decision to have the thief’s hand cut off. I don’t know the details such as whether or not the thief had a previous history of stealing. I do know that this type of punishment does not happen often. Another instance is one time my husband and I met a real estate agent to show us a house we were interested in. This guy was a young apparently healthy Saudi guy and one of his hands was cut right at the wrist. Both my husband and I did not say anything so I don’t know if it was cut off as punishment or due to an accident or illness but I bet lots of people wonder when they meet him.
The punishments that are most newsworthy when it comes to Saudi Arabia, are the ones given to people guilty of khilwa (unrelated man and woman alone together) and extramarital sex. A punishment for khilwa is common and we’ve all come across muttawas trolling coffee shops and restaurants searching for pairs who seem too happy to be related. But what happens after they are caught? I don’t know about expatriates but with Saudis, the man and woman are separated at the spot and questioned to see if their stories correspond. Questions like name, relatives’ names and even color of furniture, address, employment and all other things married couples naturally know. If they fail the test or refuse to cooperate, they are taken to the local muttawa center. The girl’s father is summoned and the guy is locked up usually after being given a few slaps and punches. The girl is handed over to her father (if he’ll take her) and the guy is later released after they put his information into the system. He is then required to show up in front of a judge, usually two weeks later to take his sentence. How he appears at the sentencing decides his fate more than anything else. The way he dresses and addresses the judge has more influence than the number of times he has been caught, how and where he was caught…etc. His best bet is to dress like a muttawa, start to grow a beard, hold his head down and look remorseful. He should also tell the judge that since the incident, he has become a born again Muslim. If he could get an established muttawa from a mosque to vouch for him, then he might be lucky enough to be let go with a warning. Otherwise he will most likely be sentenced a number of lashes across the back.
Extramarital sex on the other hand is extremely serious and at the same time very hard to get convicted for. In the Holy Quran, it states that four witnesses to the act have to be found for it to be punishable. Here, unless a person has confessed or made a tape it’s unlikely to be considered as extramarital sex. Even if an unrelated couple checks into a hotel together, they will only be convicted of khilwa. In cases where a confession is made, then other things come into play, such as was it consensual or rape and whether either of them was married at the time. Infidelity is an automatic death sentence. Singles are imprisoned and whipped.
Young Saudis have their ways to get around these laws. One that I heard of is that they go in groups. Another is that the guy takes his sister along and voila it is no longer a khilwa.
On April 23rd newspapers reported that 100,000 applicants applied within one week of first announcing vacancies in women government jobs. While a month before it took three weeks to get 50,000 applicants for men government jobs. And the report quietly disappeared without much fuss about its implications and the hopelessness that Saudi women are going through. Yes it’s true that education is free and the majority of these women never had to pay tuition fees on school or university, actually they were given a monthly allowance (stipend) for studying after high school. Saudis have been paid to study since higher education first opened in the country as a way to get more people literate faster. And it worked because just three generations ago literacy was less than 50%.
It worked so well that most people younger than forty have a college degree. And even though women studied and graduated in larger numbers than men, yet it seems like they are expected to think of the whole educational experience as a past-time or just something to make them more desirable as marriage material. Now that all the segregated fields (mostly education) are bursting at the seams with all that human resources, the rest of these women have nowhere to go and little money to spend.
To have a hundred thousand applicants in one week in a part of society with which mobility is an issue should be a matter of great concern, especially considering that there are over 5 million migrant workers taking up jobs like selling lingerie, waiters and chefs and even our hotel industry is mostly run by non Saudis. All the while, Saudi women wilt at home waiting for the government to employ them in jobs that are proper for them to take. Because if they don’t take up something proper they are very likely to have our society drag their reputation and that of their families in the mud. Society does this in its own quiet way without much word getting back to the women concerned. The only apparent sign is a dry up in the number of suitors to all the daughters of that family. Just this week a Saudi news website gave this cultural punishment to a group of Saudi women journalists in a much louder form. The website reported that these lady reporters slept with their editors, smoked pot, drank and had so-called red nights at vacation houses on the outskirts of the city. And I’m glad to say that these women are fighting back with a lawsuit against the website. A lawsuit that the ladies are highly likely to win because our courts tend to bring the hammer down hard when it comes to making outright false allegations that tarnish family honor.
Financial gain in the form of student stipends and later employment salaries has gotten women over the mountain of family consent to study and then teach. Even the most conservative daddies and hubbies just can’t resist that boost to the family income. With the economy slowing down and the rise in living costs, financial gain might again come to the rescue of women in the form of larger numbers of families no longer being able to afford drivers and in expanding society’s definition of proper jobs for women.
For more on the topic you can read an earlier post. And this post from the Susie of Arabia blog.
Today we had a really bad sandstorm. In the morning you would have never guessed. I left the house at 7:30 and the sky was blue and clear. Later in the day, I was going to pick up my son after a lecture and I had to drive (be driven) right into it. I took a few photos. You can actually see it approaching on the horizon. A trip that normally takes 45 minutes took twice that long. Cars were hardly moving and sirens were wailing. Firetrucks, ambulances and police cars were following the storm. It probably was a really bad day for people with asthma.
Today is definitely a happy day. Saudi Arabia has made a leap of progress. King Abdullah surprised everyone yesterday morning with major overhauls to the judicial and educational system. And the biggest bombshell of all was that a woman was appointed as head of girl’s education. This is a position that has always belonged to the longest bearded most conservative muttawa possible and now to have a woman in it is FANTASTIC, notwithstanding the fact that the woman who was chosen is a moderate Muslim, educated and a highly qualified woman. She has extensive experience in girl’s education. I doubt that that they could have found anyone more qualified.
What I found most surprising and I’m sure that someone out there wanted to send a message by publishing this on the first page of Al Eqtisadiya (Saudi version of Financial Times):
If you take a closer look at the left hand corner, you’ll see a photo of Mrs. Nora Al Fayez right underneath a photo of the new head of the muttawa vice police. Her face is uncovered.
Now there’s a lot of buzz that of course she wouldn’t be this progressive unless she was a non-tribal woman, probably originating from Jordan or Palestine and she definitely is divorced because no “real” Saudi in his right mind would allow his wife to appear publicly with her face uncovered. I am very proud to say that actually she belongs to one of the biggest tribes in Saudi, Bani Tameem from Al Nawayser part of it and she is from Al Washim here in Najd. Her husband very much supports her and is proud of her.