Monday, November 28, 2011

Foreign Policy: What Do Saudi Women Want?

Excellent essay by Saudi writer Eman Al Najfan about Saudi women and human rights. She mentions the driving issue a couple of times, putting it into the context of Saudi society. Well done, Ms. Al Najfan. A link to the story is here and text is pasted in below.

What Do Saudi Women Want? It's not as simple as driving, voting and property

by Eman Al Najfan

What do Saudi women want? I wish I could give you an easy answer. But Saudi Arabia is a diverse land -- spread out across a vast territory almost a fourth the size of the United States and divided by religious sects and among some 45 tribes. Divining the Saudi people's demands, never mind those of Saudi women, is no simple task.

By law, every Saudi woman has a male guardian. At birth, the guardianship is given to her father and then upon marriage to her husband. If a woman is a widow, her guardianship is given to her son -- meaning that she would need her own son's permission for the majority of her interactions with the government, including the right to travel abroad. Legal recourse is difficult to obtain, especially because abuse is only recognized when it's physical abuse. Even then, the Saudi justice system is patriarchal, bordering on the misogynistic. For example, to this day the Justice Ministry has not issued a law banning child marriage, leaving the decision at the discretion of the girl's father.

You would think that women living under these conditions would long for liberty, independence, and civil rights. Many do -- as this year's driving campaign makes clear. However, it's just not that simple. Millions of others are still not sure they are ready for change. Some explain their indecision as a fear that they might have to assume responsibilities they are incapable of undertaking. One fellow Saudi tells me that she sees what women have to put up with abroad: "I see how American women have to run around the city running errands, and I don't want to open that door. As long as women driving is banned, no one will have these expectations for me," she says.

In fact, Saudi Arabia may be even more conservative than most outsiders think. There are some who are not only passively happy with the status quo but also loud in their resistance to any form of change. In 2009, a Jeddah woman named Rawdah Al-Yousif, in collaboration with members of the royal family, organized a campaign to strengthen the guardianship system. It was called "My Guardian Knows What's Best for Me." They urged the king not to give in to local activists and international human rights organizations regarding the guardianship system. Another campaign gathered thousands of signatures from both men and women calling for the extension of gender segregation laws to hospitals -- the same segregation laws that have led to Saudi women only making up 15 percent of the national workforce and an unemployment rate for women so high that the government won't release the numbers. The only public places where these laws are not enforced are malls and hospitals. Yet there are Saudis who would like to see segregation even there.

None of this is a surprise, considering what is being taught in the public school system. In religion classes, students learn that the Saudi interpretation of Islam supersedes any worldly concepts of human rights. Women have the most to lose, yet these ideas are so ingrained that I defy you to find a report of a Saudi mother complaining about what her children are being taught.

Women in most countries may take their aspirations for freedom for granted, but for many of us, it is brand new. An exasperated expatriate in Riyadh once expressed to me how frustrated she was with the requirement to wear an abaya everywhere. She wondered: How do you all put up with having to cover your faces for your whole adult lives? What she didn't realize was that many Saudi women look at her and wonder: How can she walk around without an abaya? How is it that she doesn't feel exposed and naked?

Yet I am happy to say that I am one of many women hungry for self-determination -- women who have realized that though liberty and rights come with responsibility, it also gives them and their daughters the autonomy to pursue their happiness.

And yes, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Saudi women who are fighting for their rights -- and the well-covered driving campaign is just one of many battles, from fighting for the right to manage their own businesses to being allowed to freely leave and enter the country without their guardian's permission. Even something as simple as recognizing women lawyers in our judicial system could be transformational. And that, of course, is why it is so hard.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Female Driver Storms Crowded Saudi Beach

Emirates 24 reports the following story taken from the daily Sabq. A link to it is here, and the story is also pasted in below.

Female driver storms crowded Saudi beach
Defies driving ban to spark panic among visitors

By StaffPublished Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Saudi woman defying a ban on driving cars by females in the conservative Moslem Gulf Kingdom stormed a crowded beach at high speed, causing panic among the visitors and prompting many of them to flee.

The woman, who was accompanied by several girls, veered off the road with her Toyota land cruiser four-wheel vehicle and entered the long sandy “Half-Moon” beach in the eastern province.

"She caused panic among beach revelers and many of them screamed and ran away….she was driving in a reckless way, prompting some visitors to phone the police,” Sabq Arabic language daily said.

The paper recalled that a Saudi woman driving at high speed in a desert area last year lost control of her vehicle, causing it to overturn many times. The accident resulted in the death of the driver and four female passengers and the injury of six other women who were in the car.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Saudi Women Drive Change Despite Mixed Signals

Wonderful piece on NPR by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, that is based on interviews with Saudi women that Ms. Nelson conducted in Riyadh. I find this refreshing in that it actually has Saudi women speaking - their voices audible - stating their opinions. Well done Ms. Nelson.  You can link to the article (and listen to the story) here. The text is pasted below.

Saudi Women Drive Change Despite Mixed Signals - Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson

November 10, 2011 Saudi women are getting conflicting messages from their government about whether it intends to expand their rights.

They received a boost from King Abdullah, who pledged to give them more political power in the coming years. But new Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud is known for his opposition to women's rights.

Such mixed messages stir up hope, fear and frustration. Several Saudi women tell NPR they simply want a say in how they live.

Tug-Of-War: Women In The Middle
Even finding a public place where they can meet with a reporter is a struggle. They are kicked out of a Starbucks because it is prayer time, when shops must close. A nearby hotel lobby won't work, either, because there are men inside. Saudi women lingering in the same space as men could trigger a visit by the dreaded mutawa, or religious police, who enforce a strict segregation of the sexes in public spaces.

So the women decide to gather in the reporter's small hotel room. But even that proves a challenge, as they search for an elevator with no men inside.

Nuha al-Suleiman says such obstacles take the fun out of going anywhere.

"I feel just frustrated when I go out because I have to find my driver. I will have to stay in some places. I cannot walk in all streets," she says. "There are religious police everywhere, and they can complain about anything, so I just prefer staying home."

Middle East
After The Revolution, Arab Women Seek More RightsThe 28-year-old businesswoman and other Saudi women interviewed for this story say they are tired of waiting for rights most other women around the world take for granted.

The mixed signals especially bother them. In a historic speech in September, Abdullah pledged to add women to his all-male advisory council and allow them to take part in the next municipal elections. Two days later, a court in the port city of Jeddah sentenced a young mother to 10 lashes for driving a car.

The king later set the sentence aside. Even so, analysts say it was an unusually harsh punishment for violating a female-driving ban that isn't enshrined in law.

Ruba, a 21-year-old university student, calls the sentence shameful. She believes it was a backlash against the decision to offer women political rights. Ruba, like several women in this story, asked that only her first name be used to protect her family.

"Of course, it felt like a game of tug-of-war between the liberals and the conservatives," she says. "When the liberals pulled harder and won, the conservatives pulled even harder.

"So it just felt like women were that rope between the two parties."

'Society Is Ready'
Nevertheless, Saudi women these days are going after their rights like never before, says Fawzia al-Bakr, a 45-year-old Saudi columnist and college professor who defied the driving ban in 1990.

"I remember when I [went] to any gathering, or social gathering or the family, everybody [looked] at you as odd — totally odd — because you were asking for something that is against the religion and against the social ... code and all that," she says. "Now ... I can actually talk to my students about things. It's an interesting time."

Activist Manal Al-Sharif's Drive
Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif drives in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, while talking about the difficulties women face. She was later arrested for driving and spent 10 days in jail.

She credits greater educational and work opportunities for their empowerment — that, and the Internet, which has made it easier for women to network and draw attention to their efforts.

Activist Manal al-Sharif posted a video of herself driving in the city of Khobar in May, leading to her arrest. Supporters quickly created a Facebook page for her and demanded that she be released.

Public pressure and an apology by Sharif, who also signed a pledge that she wouldn't drive again, led authorities to release her 10 days later. Still, the news spurred other Saudi women to get behind the wheel, including Rasha Alduwisi.

Alduwisi, a 30-year-old banker, says she's tired of paying one-third of her salary to drivers to take her to and from work.

"The society is more accepting now, that's for sure," she says. "Like, you can see people waving to you and giving you the thumbs up and all that. ... That tells me society is ready."

It isn't as if Saudi women have any choice but to drive, adds Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani, who heads the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association in Riyadh. He says a growing number are working or going to school, and the kingdom has no public transit system, making cars the only viable option.

al-Qahtani explains that the ban is hard on men, too. They often have to play chauffeur, as he does for his wife and children.

"I drive my kids in the morning, and I drive her to work, too, and I collect them in the afternoon," he says. "Can you imagine this busy schedule, and sometimes I'm the family driver, too, at night?

"So when I travel — and I do, I travel a lot — she'll be alone standing in the street with her kids, flagging a taxi to take them, and they are not reliable."

Beyond Driving
Ending the driving ban is not the only change many Saudi women want. Some say it's more important for the Saudi government to establish an age of majority for women.

Under current Saudi law, a woman is the dependent of a male relative, be he her father, brother, husband or even her son. She always needs that male guardian's permission to do almost anything outside the home throughout her life.

She can even be married off without being told, says Sarah, a 23-year-old marketing specialist.

"When we get rid of that law, I will be able to tell you that Saudi Arabia is headed toward change," she says.