Dr. Badria Al Bishr

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 Al Huwaidar

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.


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The final leap of making physical education for girls a reality

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.


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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.


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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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.


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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