Saturday, April 27, 2013

Saudi women victims of 'restriction for protection'

Interesting opinion piece in the English language daily, the Saudi Gazette. A link to the story is here, and the text is below.

Last updated: Saturday, April 27, 2013 12:11 PM

Badria Al-Bishr

I arrived at Dubai airport last week with my daughter. It was around midnight and I waited in line for a taxi, like I would do in any other country. When my turn came, I was surprised to see a lady standing near the cab, wearing a uniform, similar to the one worn by flight attendants, with Dubai's Road and Transport Authority badge on it. After checking that I've put my luggage in the trunk, she sat behind the wheel and drove.

This of course was not the first time I saw a female taxi driver, however, I was surprised because I had just arrived from Riyadh where I had just read a statement from a sheikh confirming that prohibiting women from driving in Saudi Arabia aims to “preserve their chastity, morals and safety.”

The statement added that they — women — are more likely to make mistakes and violations while driving the car, but most of all, the sheikh said that “men verbally harass women on the streets and markets, even when they are accompanied by guardians.” He then asked: “What will happen once they drive a car?”

I thought to myself, if the sheikh could see us now, all the three of us in the taxi, on our way home, which is located half an hour from the airport, without any car bothering us or a reckless man blocking the road; we were truly safe. I have lived these peaceful moments during my stay in Dubai, and I saw women around me driving their cars — among them unveiled foreign women, veiled Gulf women, women who cover their entire face with a black veil — and no one dares to mistreat them or assault them. People behave on the streets by virtue of an Islamic law that forbids any assault on men or women. So how can women be safe even in the late hours of the night in Dubai, while women in Saudi Arabia are not safe, even when guardians accompany them?

Where is the Islamic responsibility that was revealed in the words of Islam’s Umar ibn Al-Khattaab when he said: “If a mule stumbled, I would be afraid that Allah would ask me, why did you not pave the road for it?” Would he pave the way for mules and not for women? What if someone in these societies came out and told them that women should sit at home and should not go out on the streets, so they can preserve their chastity and manners? What if someone added that when a woman goes out and falls victim to verbal or physical harassment, this is her punishment for daring to leave her house? In which human civilizations or religion is this logic found correct?!

How can Muslims defend this logic? How could women go out, 1,400 years ago, five times a day to the mosque to pray with men without barriers or dividers, only protected by the saying of the Prophet (pbuh): “Do not stop Allah's [Islam’s] women from going to Allah's mosques.” Today, women do not go to mosques, but are rather warned by sheikhs that that they might be harassed even if their guardians accompany them. So the solution is to prohibit them from going out in order to protect them and preserve their chastity according to a logic that is closer to the logic of the desert rather than the country, civil society and religion’s logic.

Women staying inside their own houses will not fix the dilapidated traffic infrastructure, it will rather make us more tolerant to its deterioration; this will not fix the fragile ethics educational system. If the violators do not find women on the streets to harass, they will mistreat other vulnerable employees and animals; they will ruin public places and go astray. Detaining women inside their houses will not make a better community, but instead it will sanctify its mistakes, as it will treat it through temporary hiding it under the rug. — Al-Arabiya

— Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a Saudi columnist and novelist. She can be found on Twitter: @BadryahAlbeshr

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Saudi women don't want to drive

This Saudi justice minister made some statements about women driving while testifying at a hearing of the European Parliament in Brussels. A link to the story is here,  and the story is pasted in below. He says that if Saudi women really wanted to drive, no one would stop them.

(ANSAmed) - BRUSSELS, APRIL 23 - Saudi Arabian Justice Minister Mohammed al-Isa defended the kingdom's human rights record at a hearing on Tuesday before the European Parliament's foreign affairs commission.

''We respect freedom of opinion and human rights, so long as they don't infringe on public order and the rights of others'', the minister explained. Other faiths are banned from building churches and temples in Saudi Arabia because it is ''a land sacred to Islam. Other uses would be unacceptable. It would be like building a mosque in the Vatican: it's a question of principle'', the minister said. ''But this does not mean people aren't allowed to profess other religions''.

The minister went on to explain why Saudi women don't drive.

''There are no laws or religious texts banning Saudi Arabian women from driving, but they abstain because they have no desire to do so. This is a model based on our social culture. It is up to them to accept or refuse. If the majority of women were to decide they want to drive, no one would stop them'', the minister alleged. (ANSAmed).

Saudi women's right to drive

This op-ed appeared in the English language daily the Saudi Gazette. The article is by Dr. Ali al-Ghamdi. He is commenting on an interview printed by the Arabic paper, Okaz, with one of the new female members of the Saudi Shura Council, Dr. Thoraya Obaid, about Saudi women driving. You can link to his op-ed here, and the text is pasted in below.

Last updated: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 12:05 PM

Written by - Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi

A recent interview with Dr. Thoraya Obaid, a woman member of the Shoura Council, drew my attention. The interview, which appeared in Okaz newspaper, was about the right of Saudi woman to drive. The very title of the interview epitomized the content of her statement about women’s driving — “The dangers surrounding us are our prime concern than the issue of driving cars by women.”

I was surprised to read such a statement from the doctor at a time when we are looking forward to her and her fellow members in the Shoura Council with a hope that they would take up the issue of women’s driving as one of their priorities in the Kingdom’s consultative body. This is especially significant because Saudi women are the only women in the world who are deprived of this right despite the fact that Islamic Shariah does not forbid women from driving, as endorsed by a large number of Islamic scholars, including members of the Council of Senior Scholars. This topic has become a communal issue because of the fact that the society still remains a stumbling block in allowing a women to drive. But nobody explains to us as to why the community stands in the way of a woman from driving if she owns a car? There are certain situations where a woman is not in a position to hire a foreign driver either because of financial or social or religious reasons. Also, some scholars ruled that it is not permissible for a woman to travel along with a foreign driver in the absence of a mahram (close relative). In such cases, the ideal way for a woman is to drive by herself.

Coming back to the expression of Obaid about the dangers that were linked to allowing women to drive, I want to ask: What is the potential danger if we allow a woman to drive? Would the delay in granting a woman her right to drive or help to secure any other rights avert any danger or reduce its impact? Then what are the dangers about which the Shoura Council is discussing. We were following the Council’s deliberations through the electronic and print media but did not find any discussions that involve dangers to our country.

If we go down memory lane and review the issue of opening schools for girls, we can see that we had to meet with similar hurdles. In the beginning, it was said that girls’ education was a "taboo." Then, it was told that though Islamic Shariah permits it, the community won’t allow it. When King Faisal took a firm decision to open schools for girls, delegations from some regions came to meet him and asked him not to open schools for girls in their respective region. But he told them unequivocally that schools will be opened but there won’t be any compulsion on anybody to send his daughter to school.

However, after some time, there was not a single Saudi girl who stayed at home without going to school. When King Faisal took the decision to open schools for girls, there were “dangers surrounding us” as if fighter planes and bombs were striking parts of our country. But that did not deter King Faisal from giving girls their right to education.

Truly speaking, Obaid mentioned in her detailed interview that driving is a symbol for the right of women that enables a woman to reach her destination without any dangers. She also indicated that ours is the lone country in the world that does not allow women to drive. Our religion does not forbid women from driving but our customs do so as they control the situation. I wish to demand or at least poise to demand for taking a decision to allow women to drive following the example of King Faisal related to girls’ education.

I disagree with Obaid with regard to her linking of the women’s right to drive to the “surrounding dangers” because there should not be any question of bargaining while allowing one’s rights to him. All of us should avail of our rights, whether we used them or not. The demand to grant women their right to drive does not mean that all women would come out to streets with a car to ride.

As far as men are concerned, many of them are not used to drive for different reasons. Some of them are afraid of driving while some others have more than one driver to pick them up. As for some, they prefer public transport or limousine.

I won’t agree with those who oppose granting women their right to drive in the name of risks involved while driving, such as getting stuck on the road due to engine failure or such other problems. Some people ask what a woman would do in tackling such situations. It was a great surprise for me while listening to such arguments. I lived in a number of countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Yemen, and Turkey where I saw women driving, and some of them wearing veil or niqab while sitting behind the wheel. I never saw or heard about any woman faced any problem or subjected to dangers while driving. Hence why are we scared of something that would never happen? I do not rule out that there would be some problems in the beginning for those who practice driving but these will disappear with the passage of time. Stringent punitive measures could be taken against those who try to disturb women while driving.

I believe that even if women are allowed to drive, we cannot see a large number of women come out to sit behind the wheel in the beginning. This is because some of them are afraid of driving while some others need more time to learn driving. In the beginning, let the Saudi women, who learned driving and used to ride vehicles abroad, as well as expatriate women drive their cars. Granting women the right to drive would be helpful to a great extent to stop the campaign unleashed against us outside the Kingdom with regard to human rights, especially the rights of women.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Saudi Prince Backs Letting Women Drive

Prince Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz, the billionaire chairman of Kingdom Holding Company, is a champion of Saudi women driving and Saudi women's rights. He has recently been quoted widely in the western media about his view on the subject. Below is the report from Time Magazine, and a link to the story is here.

(RIYADH, Saudi Arabia) — Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has indicated support of allowing women there to drive.

He says that would help the kingdom’s campaign to cut down on the number of foreign workers.
Saudi Arabia follows an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam and bans women from driving.

“The question of allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia will save more than 500,000 jobs in addition to the social and economic benefits,” the prince wrote Sunday on his Twitter account.
Thousands of foreign workers have been fired from their jobs and then deported, part of a government campaign against foreigners who illegally reside and work in the kingdom.

Last week King Abdullah gave workers three months to try to legalize their presence. There are more than 8 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Saudi women "Not Quite Ready" for Sexist Article on Driving Ban

Great blog post in Muftah by Bayan Perazzo about the controversial article that appeared in the UK Magazine "Your Middle East" recently. You can link to Bayan's blog post here, and it's pasted in below. I never got to see the controversial article before it disappeared and therefore appreciate Ms. Perazzo's analysis.

A few days ago a controversy arose on Twitter over an article published by Your Middle East arguing that Saudi women were “not quite ready” for the right to drive. A number of bloggers, activists, and journalists quickly condemned the piece as sexist and racist.

Just hours after the article’s publication, Your Middle East editors removed it from the site. The magazine also issued a statement reassuring readers that despite the article’s message, Your Middle East was still working to promote “equal rights for all citizens” in the MENA region.

The article’s author was 21-year-old UK national Phillip Harrison, a young man who has visited Lebanon and Egypt, but has never actually been to Saudi Arabia. It was Harrison’s first ever publication.

In his own defense, Harrison insisted that his argument that Saudi women were not ready to drive was not sexist and that he merely “got his opinion from KSA people.”  Harrison responded to his critics on Twitter by asserting that their criticism of his article was only “proving his point more and more” and “nobody had any valid arguments.”

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with some of the world’s tightest restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. A lack of transparency mixed with government manipulation of information makes it difficult even for Saudi nationals to truly understand what is actually taking place inside the country. As such, the complexities within Saudi Arabia are essentially impossible to understand from the outside.

Since the Kingdom’s establishment, many of those critical of the regime and the Saudi system have been imprisoned, tortured, exiled, and in some cases even killed.

To make things even more complicated, Saudi Arabia is among the few countries in the world where “religion” (or the government’s version of it) controls nearly every aspect of public life. Though a number of Islamic schools of thought exist; the interpretation adopted by the Saudi government and forced upon the population is one of the least tolerant.

Amid these complexities, it should be no surprise that the article triggered disgust from many Saudi women who have been working to lift the Kingdom’s ban on women drivers. While many are accustomed to hearing such arguments from the Saudi government’s clerics and news agencies, it was a shock to find similar claims coming from a male British national (who has never been to Saudi Arabia) on a site that typically stood for equal rights in the region.

Harrison’s makes two main points in his article.
He begins by arguing that, with one of the highest car accident death tolls in the world, Saudi Arabia’s roads are just too dangerous for women drivers.

Of course, because of the current ban, none of these drivers are women. Logically speaking, the people who make the road a dangerous place should be stripped of their right to drive, not the ones who do not even factor into this frightening statistic.

Research done around the world has consistently shown that women are significantly less likely to get into fatal accidents than men, and, ultimately, are safer drivers.

By grounding the driving ban in claims that the roads are too dangerous for women, Harrison ultimately implies that women are incapable of making decisions about their safety on their own. It is a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her own life and to discern whether or not something is too dangerous for her.

While he claims to have “got[ten] his opinions from Saudi women,” Harrison obviously only spoke with women who had no desire to drive. Lifting the ban on women drivers does not mean all women would suddenly be forced to take to the road. All it would do is make the option available for those who wish to exercise their right.

A significant number of Saudi women already have driver’s licenses from other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council and around the world. Every day, plenty of new drivers take to Saudi Arabia’s streets. Why not allow some of them to be women? Statistically speaking it would be much safer.

As his second argument (which he describes as more “complicated’), Harrison contends that due to Saudi women’s social “status,” they cannot be expected to “interact with men” if problems arise on the road. He says:
If a lady crashes into a man’s car is she going to happily exchange insurance information with him? Is she going to go to the police station with all of the male police officers? Is she in the social environment to be able to hold her own and say it wasn’t her fault?
Harrison would have been able to easily answer these ridiculous questions if he had taken one simple trip to the country.

As part of living in a male-dominated society, women in Saudi Arabia often have to interact with men. From small service positions all the way to the very top of the corporate ladder, men still dominate the majority of occupations in Saudi Arabia.

Though certain aspects of Saudi society are segregated by gender, many are not, and interactions between men and women are rather common. Women work alongside men and “hold their own” in a number of companies, banks, schools, hospitals, businesses, and other work environments.

Harrison ends his article by insisting that small steps must be taken before women will be able to drive, and urging Saudi society to make these change. Based on Harrison’s logic, Rosa Parks should have just stayed in the back of the bus, and African-Americans should have accepted their fate as second-class citizens until white America was ready to give them what was rightfully theirs. Such a strategy would obviously have been a blow to civil rights in the United States. It is equally destructive in the case of Saudi Arabia.

*Bayan Perazzo is editor of Muftah’s Yemen and Gulf States pages. You can follow her on Twitter @BintBattuta87

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Saudi youth should be motivated to help others

This story is from the Saudi English language daily, the Saudi Gazette. It's an interview with entrepreneur/author/humanitarian Abdullah Al Alami. He is also a proponent of Saudi women driving, and discusses the issue. The article is posted below and a link to it is here.
Abdullah Al Alami
Story by Saman Ali

DHAHRAN — The name Abdullah Al Alami resonates human rights. An avid fan of the famous American writer E.E. Cummings, Al Alami believes in respecting everyone and sharing his knowledge with those around him and afar.

As Cummings once said, “Deeds cannot dream what dreams can do.” Al Alami dreams of a time when there will be no discrimination, no racism and prejudice, which is prevailing in many parts of the world.

Born and raised in Makkah and Jeddah, Al Alami later graduated with a GPA of 3.01 from the Chapman University of California. He was associated with Aramco for 21 years.

Now he writes a weekly column in a local Arabic newspaper. He was the president of Arabian Natural History Association, co-founder of Gulf Venture Capital Association, co-founder of Saudi Cancer Foundation and is the board member of Saudi Society for Promoting Organ Donation.

The list doesn’t end here — he is an advocate for the campaign of women driving. All the tension that this pressing issue has brought, he sheds it by listening to Luciano Pavarotti and reading poetry by Nizar Qabbani.

When asked about what motivated him to lay the foundation of the Saudi Cancer Foundation, Al Alami replied that after the Kuwait-Iraq war the number of cancer cases increased in the Eastern Province.

“People needed guidance and both mental and financial support. With the help of Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd, we assembled a team of doctors, educators, philanthropists and psychiatrists to create awareness about this disease and to help those who cannot afford the expensive treatment. We also provide assistance in pre- and post-treatment trauma. We even have two mobile mammogram vans,” he said.

Al Alami thinks that the younger generation needs to be motivated to help others. “The process should start at the grassroots level. Our youth is capable of doing wonders. During Jeddah floods, young people helped save lives. They even cleaned streets and provided food and shelter to those in need.”

The issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia has been enhanced by Al Alami as he feels that there are times when women are stuck in situations when they need to steer the wheel. For example there is a sick child at home and the family does not have a male member and unfortunately, they cannot afford a driver. There have been road accidents when the woman was unable to drive and save her husband or father. The guilt of not helping a family member when she could is unbearable.

Al Alami says he witnessed many incidents and being a "Good Samaritan," he decided to raise this issue. His book on women driving has received positive response.

“There are few women who are against it too; they have their own reasons for doing so,” he said.

Now with 3,000 signatures presented to the Shoura Council and 30 women in the Shoura, Al Alami feels that “there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

When asked about the problems arising if women are allowed to drive, Al Alami says that he traveled and observed all over GCC to see how they are handling this issue and gave his suggestions along with the petition. "There should be proper driving schools for women with female instructors. Traffic department already employs female staff and hiring more women will also show a decline in the graph of women unemployment. Our people have to be trained to let women on the roads."

He thinks road accidents would reduce as internationally women are safe drivers than men. “Hiring of drivers from foreign countries will decrease which costs families and government a fortune every year,” he added.

Another humanitarian work that has been associated with Al Alami is the Saudi Organ Donation Society, of which he is a board member. “It is not easy to convince people for organ donation. We have two Islamic scholars’ fatwas to make people understand that it is not against the religion to donate your organs to save some one’s life. We arrange annual conferences for our cancer and organ donation societies. He also proposed to the Secretary General of the Arab League the establishment of an ‘Arab Center for the Elimination of Violence against Women.’”

His weekly columns, his comments on television channels about different social issues and his humanitarian work have made Al Alami a household name in the Arab world. With a cap full of so many feathers, this polite and kind man is not deterred by challenges coming his way.

Monday, April 1, 2013

On your bike! Saudi women allowed to ride bicycles, buggies in public

When I first read this story earlier today, I was sure it was an April Fool's joke. But it is real. This may seem like it's insignificant and silly, but it's a big deal. Women (and girls) are given permission to have some mobility...on bicycles or 'dune buggies'. One small step along the way. The story is pasted in below and a link to it is here.

The religious authority advised women on their bikes to steer clear from areas with youth rallies, to avoid confrontation with protest groups. — Al Arabiya

JEDDAH — Steering away from the debate over women driving in Saudi Arabia, a religious authority announced this week that Saudi women are allowed to cruise on bikes and buggies.

But women will be free to drive under one condition: a male relative or guardian (Mahram) has to be present with them while they ride a bike, Saudi daily Al-Yaum reported on Monday.

“Women are free to ride bikes in parks, seafronts, among other areas, providing that they are wearing fully modest dress and a male guardian has to be present in case of falls or accidents,” the newspaper reported, quoting an unnamed source from the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

The Committee said that it never barred foreign women from riding buggies or bicycles.

The source also suggested that riding the bikes should be for recreational purposes but should not be used as a means of permanent transport.

“Our concern is the positive traffic culture and full compliance with traffic rules and regulations by all drivers and riders,” Ali Al-Zahrani, the spokesman for the eastern province traffic department, told the daily.

The religious authority advised women on their bikes to steer clear from areas with youth rallies, to avoid confrontation with protest groups.

Samia Al-Bawardi, the head of an NGO for the victims of car accidents, warned women about riding bicycles and buggies.

“Wearing abayas and erratic driving could result in terrible accidents,” she told the daily.

The news comes after the award-winning Saudi film “Wajda” had been screened and won awards and critical praise abroad. The film, which was written and directed by Saudi female director Haifaa Al-Mansour, tells the story of an 11-year-old girl in the suburbs of Riyadh. She does everything she can to make her one dream come true: owning a bicycle, which she's not allowed to have.

Women in Saudi Arabia have not been allowed to drive since a formal banning in 1990.

An ongoing debate over the matter and a petition has recently been presented to the country’s Shoura Consultative Council, with the hope from Saudi activists to review the case for women driving. — Al Arabiya