CITC blocking games

There is no denying that Saudis are tech savvy. About 50% of the population are under the age of 25. Computers and smart phones are relatively affordable. Add to that the confining and conformist society that makes up Saudi and you get a country where on average, every person has 1.8 mobile phones. One of the highest averages in the world. Everyone and their grandmother is online whether they use their real names or not.

Then you have the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) trying to regulate, monitor and/or monopolize Saudis online. First it was with the Blackberry Messenger service a couple of years ago. CITC threatened Blackberry that it would block their services in the country and so Blackberry complied and granted CITC access to its instant messaging service.

Now Viber, Whatsapp and Skype are the focus of the CITC. Viber was blocked a few days ago and there are sporadic reports from some that their Viber account wasn’t blocked. I tried it today and couldn’t even download the application ont my iphone. Whatsapp has reportedly rejected CITC requirements and will be blocked in the upcoming weeks. No news yet if Skype had been contacted directly or how it responded.

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Why is the CITC doing this? It’s probably a combination of factors. First to monitor (more bluntly spy) on Saudi citizens. This is supported by reports that Blackberry had to place some of its communication servers in Saudi in order to avoid suspension of its services. But the monitoring argument contradicts that Viber CEO Talmon Marco states that his company was not contacted by CITC to request access before blocking it. So another additional, not necessarily alternative, reason is commercial interests. These applications are free alternatives to services provided by telecom companies in Saudi. Since government accountability is more of a foreign concept than an applicable one, it’ll be hard to get CITC to be more forthcoming on its reasons. I was literally laughed at when I suggested that citizens have a right to directly question CITC on its reasons.

In the long term it doesn’t really matter how many applications are blocked or what reason they’re blocked for. Early on, Saudi persistence and desperation has broken down all blocks. When some websites were blocked, they found a loophole through the cache and translated versions on Google search. When those were blocked, they found a way through the secure http. Right now there are Saudi produced Youtube videos on how to circumvent the Viber block and others on how to download alternatives to Whatsapp. The Japanese Line application is a free alternative to Whatsapp and so far has not been threatened with suspension. As long as there are internet services available in Saudi, these blocks will only have an effect on the short term and to many Saudis are just an inconvenience. 

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On the 100th anniversary of Emily Davison’s sacrifice

Dr Helen Pankhurst and I were interviewed on BBC radio on women’s rights in Britain and Saudi Arabia. You can listen by clicking play here:

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Wadjda

Thanks to friends, I finally got a chance to see the movie Wadjda. It is supposed to be the first Saudi movie but I’ve heard that at least twice before; once with Rotana’s movie Kaif Al Haal and another time with a movie based on a Saudi TV show called Manahi. So technically it’s not really the first but I would say that it’s probably the first good Saudi movie. Finally a movie that gives you an authentic flavor of a country where 70% don’t own their own houses, and where women are educated to work in hospitals and schools but then shackled with guardianship laws and a driving ban. And it does it with just the right amount of subtlety that you end up rooting for the stars, rather than feeling sorry for them.

Wadjda is a spunky 11 year old girl who goes to a neighboring public school and as part of growing up as a Saudi has to watch her mother struggle with the threat of her father becoming polygamous. She gets it into her head that she needs a bicycle but she doesn’t have the money to buy one. So she enters into a Quran recitation contest at school. Yet there are a few things I would change about the movie. First of all it’s made out that it’s normal to punish students in public schools by making them stand outside in the sun. I have never heard of that happening except in the military as a punishment for soldiers. We’re Arabs, we know what the sun does. That’s why long before sunscreen, we cloak ourselves and cover our heads and face when out in the sun. We would never leave a child outside in it. Another thing is the school uniforms. The uniforms are now two piece and have been for at least the past three years. Finally I would get a better translator. The current English subtitles missed parts and mistranslated others.

Otherwise I was completely floored by the movie. Even the parts of the Quran that were recited during Wadja’s practice and contest were just the right ones. It was definitely made by a Saudi woman. This won’t be a spoiler post. Instead I’m going to write about two incidents that I’ve experienced personally which the movie had reminded me of. The first is when it’s hinted that the principal of Wadjda’s school might be living a double life. I remember when I was in high school there was a particularly fundamentalist fellow student. She would get upset when we snuck in magazines at school and talked about our latest celebrity crush. A friend and I took the school-bus back then and there weren’t many within my age group that did. So we were surprised to see the fundamentalist putting on her abaya to leave by the bus gate. She didn’t go on the bus! We followed her and saw her sneak into a car with a young man and take a present from him. At the time her insincerity was extremely shocking to me.

Another incident that the Wadjda movie drudged up for me is listening to my mother try to convince her friend to not take her 10 year old daughter’s beloved skating shoes from her. The woman was telling my mother how she was constantly worried that her daughter might compromise her virginity in a fall.

If you get a chance to see the movie, I highly recommend it.

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Kuwait shows respect for Saudi women driving ban

Last Thursday, Brig. Saleh Al-Najim, the head of a Kuwaiti delegation, stated that out of respect for the Saudi ban on women driving, his country will make the exception of not issuing driving licenses to Saudi women until they provide proof of their male guardian’s permission. I’m shocked and disappointed that the Kuwaiti government would exploit how politically weak Saudi women are to gain favor. But that isn’t why I’m writing this post. I’m writing it because this particular tactic of expressing an opinion about a sovereign nation’s internal laws by altering yours is something that has occurred to me before. A few years back I either dreamed or read somewhere that a politician proposed to the European Union that Saudi men not be allowed to drive in the EU until they end the ban on women driving in Saudi. Judging by the last Olympics, that type of restriction on Saudi men could actually work in making a change. How weird would it be for those banning people from driving their hard-earned cars because of their gender to have a taste of their own medicine? 

 

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Opposition to a Saudi White Ribbon Campaign

Late April, Abullah Al Alami and Samar Fatany announced that they would be starting a local White Ribbon campaign. Since then, bringing them down has become the personal mission of many ultra-conservative sheikhs. The White Ribbon campaign originally was started in Canada as a reaction to a massacre committed by Marc Lepine (born Gamil Gharbi). Lepine had gone into an engineering college that had rejected his application and shot dead fourteen women and wounded ten women and four men. Two years later, Canadian activists started a campaign to raise awareness about violence against women. This is the campaign’s actual statement from their website:

White Ribbon is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls, promote gender equity, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity.Starting in 1991, we asked men to wear white ribbons as a pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and girls. Since then the White Ribbon has spread to over 60 countries around the world.We work to examine the root causes of gender-based violence and create a cultural shift that helps bring us to a future without violence.Our vision is for a masculinity that embodies the best qualities of being human. We believe that men are part of the solution and part of a future that is safe and equitable for all people.Through education, awareness-raising, outreach, technical assistance, capacity building, partnerships and creative campaigns, White Ribbon is helping create tools, strategies and models that challenge negative, outdated concepts of manhood and inspire men to understand and embrace the incredible potential they have to be a part of positive change.

As you can see, it is not affiliated with any particular religion or political body but rather it’s a humane movement for something positive. International campaigns and wearing ribbons to signify awareness-raising are not new to Saudis. We have government approved international campaigns for breast cancer, Alzheimer’s and even hand washing. Somehow those and others do not get the “it’s unIslamic to follow the infidels” argument but raising awareness about violence against women does.

The most influential sheikh to lash out against the White Ribbon campaign is Sheikh Nasser Al Omar. In a video-taped sermon he instructs all Muslims to reject Abdullah Al Alami and Samar Fatani’s campaign. He refers to them collectively as advocates of immorality. He says that the White Ribbon campaign compromises the very foundation of the pact between the Saudi Royal family and Mohammad bin Abdul Wahab’s followers. He also mentions national security three times in the 24 minute long video. He objects to the “advocates of immorality” campaign’s mission statement mentioning of ending child marriages. Another issue he takes up with the mission statement is that it calls for laws against harassment at work. He says that that is a call for not segregating the genders. Since women will feel safe to work in a non-segregated environment if there are laws to protect them. Sheikh Al Omar actually says “they want to extract women from their subordination” and “they want women to be presidents” as if it were satanic to want that. And then he goes on about how CEDAW is evil and a westernizing plot to demoralize Muslim societies. The sheikh denies that violence against women even exists in Saudi except for a few exceptions. He ends the sermon with a call to action particularly to Muslim women to reject the White Ribbon campaign on social media. But he does note that these women have to reject it by only written means because their voices should not be heard in public.

In Saudi the male guardianship system and absence of family law ensure that, just like what the poster produced by the King Khalid Foundation states, “what is not visible is much worse.” Let’s take for example a hypothetical situation where I know that a friend of mine is being abused by her father. There are no means in Saudi through which I could help her. If I report the situation to the police and they take it seriously enough to go to my friend’s house, her father as her legal guardian could simply dismiss them at the door. Even if like Samar Badawi, my friend gathers the courage to go to the police station herself, she is more likely to be sent to prison than her father is. Her charge would be disobeying her father.

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In a system like this, you would think that religious clerics would welcome an anti-violence campaign. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Just last Sunday dozens of clerics went to the ministry of labour yet again to oppose women being allowed to work openly in the malls. The White Ribbon campaign is about men and boys going public with a declaration of rejecting violence against women. Saudi ultra-conservatives do go public about women issues but it’s more about confining women than protecting them.

Recommended Reading:

If you read Arabic, I highly recommend the Islamic scholar Suhaila Zain Al Abideen’s four part series of articles on whether or not UN’s campaign to end violence against women is unIslamic.

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Saudi Women and Inheritance Seminar

After a couple of years sitting on the sidelines, mostly just reporting and commenting on what’s going on in Saudi, I’ve decided to roll up my sleeves and be proactive again. Inheritance is a topic I’ve never written about on my blog, but it’s safe to say that it is, just like many areas in Saudi, an issue where women tend to get the short end of the stick. In courtrooms where women can be arbitrarily banned from attending, and only this month has a woman been allowed to register as a trainee lawyer with the Saudi Ministry of Justice, it’s no surprise that inheritance is an issue.

Abdulaziz Al Qasim

Abdulaziz Al Qasim

That’s why I’ve volunteered my time and resources to help with a non-profit seminar that aims at educating Saudi women on how to obtain their full inheritance. The seminar was initiated jointly by the Business Women’s Forum of the Eastern Province and AbdulAziz Al Qasim and Associates Law Firm. The speakers are Abdulaziz Al Qasim himself, two professor from King Abdulaziz University, Dr. Hanan Al Qahtani and Dr. Ahlam Al Ouadhi and an Islamic scholar all the way from Tunisia, Prof. Amaal Grami. This is a translation of the ambitious proposal and paper titles:

Objectives of the seminar

  • Educate women about family laws in Islam with emphasis on inheritance law.
  • Educate women about the tools and legal means at their disposal.
  • Raise awareness about women’s financial, commercial and economic rights in Islam.
  • Integrate women’s economic issues within national economic strategies.
  • Achieve social justice and stop illegal gender discrimination.
  • Highlight how family businesses in the commercial sector can successfully apply these laws without disrupting the business or undermining a female family member’s rights.

Seminar program

Each one-day seminar is divided into two sessions. The morning session will consist of four guest speakers with considerable experience and expertise on the subject. The afternoon session will consist of a panel discussion with our guest speaker and will explore themes related to the morning sessions.

  • Commercial inheritance law and women in the Kingdom, and how to best apply this knowledge.

Speaker: Prof. Abdul Aziz al-Qasim, Abdul Aziz Al Qasim and Associates Law Firm.

  • The legitimate right of women to inheritance versus the current practices and outcomes.

Speaker: Prof. Hanan Al Qahtani, King Abdulaziz University

Prof. Amaal Grami

Prof. Amaal Grami

  • Different approaches taken by other Arab countries with regards to Sharia inheritance laws.

Speaker: Prof. Amaal Grami, Faculty of Literature, Arts and Humanities, University of Manouba

  • Achieving social justice through Sharia compliance and application, and stopping illegal discrimination

Speaker : Prof. Ahlam Al Awadhi, King Abdul Aziz University

For this seminar, I’ve created my first ever website: www.Saudiwomeninheritance.com through which women can register. And we also have a twitter account: @Saudinheritance. And of course a Facebook page.

The first seminar will be in Riyadh on Saturday May 4th, then in Jeddah on May 6th and finally in Khobar on May 9th. It will be completely in Arabic and only women are allowed to register.

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Public reaction to ACPRA trial

The morning of March 9th turned dark for many Saudis when the judge in Mohammed F. Al Qahtani and Abdullah Al Hamid’s trial ruled that they be sentenced for about ten years each and be banned from travelling for years after they are released. All this because they were active in the Arabian Civil and Political Rights Association, ACPRA. Even though they have both started serving their sentences, there is still hope in the appeal. It is disheartening and frightening to be a citizen of a country where people can be legally charged and punished for talking to foreign press or starting a government independent human rights association. Background on the case can be read on Riyadh Bureau or in this CNN piece by Mohammed Jamjoom. Mohammed Al Qahtani’s interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour a couple of weeks back is also worth watching.

Here, I thought I would cover a bit on how the court’s ruling was received by influential Saudis online.
Essam Al Zamil, an economist and blogger, created an online poll to get a feel of how the public took the judge’s ruling. As of writing this post, about 10,000 have taken part and 85% state that the ruling was unjust.

Tawfeeq Al Saif, a political analyst and civil rights activist, tweets apparently addressing the government: Consider the course of events? Did former prison sentences result in killing hope for reforms? Have Saudis become more determined to reform or more afraid of you?

Hala Al Dosari, a writer and human rights activist, tweets that this trial sends a message to Saudis that a peaceful solution is unacceptable and punishable by law and that judges have the powers to go beyond regulations and that the judiciary is politicized.

Ahmed Baaboud, a fellow blogger, tweets that he will tell his daughter Jori about Abdullah Al Hamid; that he will tell her that Al Hamid sacrificed for her without knowing her, only so that she might have a better tomorrow, just so that the sun may shine some day.

Ahmed Adnan, a journalist and author, tweets he is against the judge’s ruling and doesn’t respect it, and also  against ACPRA and doesn’t respect them. (Presumably because ACPRA did not speak out on Kashgari’s case and they were slow to respond in Turki Al Hamad’s case, both of whom were arrested for writing what some consider blasphemous in Islam).

Mohammed Al Ajamie, a Twitter activist, tweets that he feels the frustration that the families of the political prisoners feel at the imprisonment of Al Hamid and Al-Qahtani because of how secure they felt with their presence after the elites abandoned these families.

Ibraheem Al Modamigh, an attorney, tweets that today’s ruling leaves no room for doubt that the judiciary is politicized and is not independent and that any neutral careful reading of the ruling will reach this disappointing and unfortunate result.

Fouad Al Farhan, a human rights activist and blogger, tweets that the judge’s decision to dissolve ACPRA and confiscate their property is an invitation to the public to work in secret and shows that they hate clarity, openness and peaceful public action.

Abdulla Al Maliki, a political activist eloquently tweets that glory, pride and history is for Al-Hamid and Al-Qahtani and that we now lost the shade of their roofs but the roof will always remain high as long as there are souls hungry for freedom and justice ..

Badr Al Jaafri, a lawyer, tweets that Rights .. freedom .. dignity .. justice .. are what ACPRA is made of and that these well-established values cannot be dissolved and confiscated even if some believe otherwise.

Dr. Salman Al Oudah, famous sheikh, tweets that imprisonments and sacrifices only ingrain ideas, draw people together, and make media substance for those near and far.

Fayed Al Olaiwi, a columnist and author, tweets that the secret to the rise of Malaysia is in Mahathir’s success in the abolition of the royal veto and lifting the immunity of the royal family and entourage and thus the judiciary became independent and eliminated corruption!

Mohammed Al Dugalaibi, a public relations specialist, tweets to whom it may concern to not let it occur to them, even for a moment, that the eagerness to arrest reformers and the feeble attempts to obscure facts will discourage the resolve of the free.

Dr. Kassab Al Otabi, a political activist, tweets that our generation is aware and they will remember these scenes of injustice and tyranny and systematic attempts at indoctrination but we will not kneel nor will we forget and forgive.

Ahmed Abu Dahman, a novelist and poet, tweets that a government that arrests its peaceful opponents will also arrest its supporters and its relatives; it will die alone. Qaddafi is an example.

Ibraheem Al Qahtani, a blogger and comedian, wonders that now that Al Hamid and Al Qahtani have been imprisoned, will development in the country suddenly grow a six pack. (This is in reference to one of the charges against them that they obstructed development).

Sultan Al Fifi, an activist, tweets how much of the country’s resources have Al Hamid and Al Qahtani stolen, how much land have they fenced up, how many corrupt arms deals have they dealt? What have they done to deserve such a ruling?

Abdullah Al Alami, an author, columnist and economist, tweets that we must all know the truth that if these rulings were in a poverty stricken country we would have seen Mr. John Kerry on TV denouncing that country’s human rights violations.

Saeed Al Wahabi, an author, tweets that it would be to the government’s benefit that they confront open and public civil associations in the light of day rather than resorting to dark tactics and wonders if they’ve forgotten the years of terrorism.

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Wilson Center’s Challenges to Women’s Security in the MENA Region.

I’m one of the women who were invited, on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2013, by the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center to give their views on the challenges women face to their security. In about 300 words we were all asked to write on the topic: Challenges to Women’s Security in the MENA Region. This is what I wrote:

Things are looking up for women in Saudi Arabia. While they are still second-class citizens required to have a male guardian to grant them permission to travel and are banned from driving cars, women now make up 20 percent of the appointed advisory council and are allowed to fully participate in municipal elections. Women are also finally allowed to work openly in malls as sales clerks. Moreover, any day now, the Ministry of Justice plans to grant licenses to women lawyers and maybe even implement child protection laws. Thus, generally we’re on the right path. Yet that path could be derailed with the slightest sign of upheaval or war. When attempting to pacify or recruit ultra-conservatives on a particular cause, the first issue to be put on the negotiation table is women’s rights. To get Islamist sheikhs to endorse (or at least be silent over) arbitrary political detentions, a possible outbreak of war between Israel and Iran, or the use of drones by American forces in neighboring Muslim countries, all that has to be promised is the status quo on women’s issues such as maintaining the ban on women driving or agreeing that a legal age for marriage will not be assigned. In any national turmoil, women are usually the first to be sacrificed. Nowhere is that more true than in Saudi Arabia. Independent civil societies are outlawed. The only organizations outside of the government are those of Islamists who abuse their religious power, calling on men to attend a literary club meeting just to protest women being allowed to attend in the same hall. They also went in scores to the royal court to protest women being allowed on the advisory council. These incidents were at a time of relative stability; can you imagine what would happen to women’s rights if this stability were to be shaken?

Two other Saudi women, Muna Abu Sulayman and Hala Al Dosari, also wrote a piece for the publication. You can check theirs out HERE.

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Omaima Al Najjar, a Saudi woman, was “caught” driving a car by the police in Khobar city in the Eastern Region of Saudi. Read what ensued:

Omaima Al Najjar

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After I was inspired by Manal Al Shirf campaign I asked my brother to teach me how to drive. Back then I was living in Riyadh city. Our teaching sessions have always started on Friday or Thursday mornings that’s when the streets are less busy. After making a good progress my brother started letting me drive to my hometown, the Eastern province, which is about 450 kms away. After we pass the check points we would swap the seats and I would sit behind the wheels and drive. I traveled to China but I came back to Saudi to visit my family 5 weeks ago and I wanted to continue learning.

Every time I drive my brother would sit next to me to give me instructions. I have been driving in the streets of Al Khobar for the last 5 weeks and I never had a problem. I even once…

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The Shura Council and Flirting in Saudi Arabia

To listen to an ABC Australia radio interview I took part in on the above topic with Anthony Bubalo, Director of the West Asia Program at the Lowy Institute For International Policy,  CLICK HERE. The interview was broadcast today, is about 13 minutes long and I come in at minute 4:30.

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