Wednesday, January 27, 2016

An Argument Demanding a Second Look

This opinion piece on the English language daily the Saudi Gazette of January 27, 2016 was written by Tareq A. Al-Maeena. A link to his article is here, and the text is pasted in below.

Many Saudi visitors to the UAE on their return to the Kingdom are heard to mutter: Why them and why not us?  The country has in recent times become a draw for Saudis wanting to escape abroad for a short holiday. Tourists have been flocking to the UAE by the hundreds of thousands.  And they don’t visit only once. Families make up the bulk of visitors, but there are also a sizable number of single males and females who venture to the Emirates on their own.
What is it that attracts these visitors from a nearby country?  It is certainly not the weather as there are no significant climatic differences between the two countries.  Nor is there a dramatic change in topography that might induce some to visit.  Shops and restaurants are not much different in both countries.  Yet in the balance of travel, visitors from the Saudi side most likely outnumber their UAE counterparts by 10 to 1.
There are significant reasons why Saudis would make the trip from the Kingdom to the UAE.  The first is that they find the UAE more similar than different from their own culture.  And besides a host of other reasons such as world class entertainment, there is the compelling draw of a country that places no unjustified restrictions on its women.
A resident of Jeddah explained her own reasons why she chooses the UAE during the holidays rather than spending her time in the Kingdom.  She says: “It’s all about personal freedom.  The UAE is an Islamic country which follows a similar code to Saudi Arabia, yet allows women choices that we find denied here.  And the number one irritant and nuisance to all women here is not allowing them to drive their own cars.  Perhaps we can attempt to get a discussion going in the Shoura Council pertaining to this matter by using a different logic; perhaps the argument of conservation?”
Her novel argument went as follows: “The fastest and least expensive way to conserve water and other resources in Saudi Arabia and save some of our outbound tourist dollars would be to allow women to drive! Where is the connection? Allow me to give an explanation in a very rough estimate of figures:  If women were given the right to drive, approximately one million drivers could eventually be sent back to their home countries. Each one of these men uses about 300 liters of water a day, (about 1/3 cubic meter).
That’s 300,000,000 liters per day for a million drivers. That’s 90,000,000,000 liters per year, with allowances made for their vacation time. That’ 90,000,000 cubic meters per year of water consumed by drivers alone.
“The desalination plant in Saudi Arabia produces 1,000,000 cubic meters of water per day. That’s 365,000,000 cubic meters a year. If we had a million less drivers we would only need 275,000,000 cubic meters. The Shuaiba desalination plant would thus have 25 percent surplus water for people to use if women could drive their own cars. Double check the math.
“The same approximate figures would hold true for electricity consumption.
Even if drivers were to be slowly phased out, this would amount to an enormous saving for the country in terms of water, energy, and of course finances as well. The employment of drivers is becoming an increasing financial burden. Some women’s salaries are spent solely on a driver. Should women  then not receive  government  subsidies for  each household, as compensation for the expenses of having to pay recruiting agencies, visas, air fare, medical check-ups, driver’s licenses, traffic tickets, extra living quarters, furniture, insurance, meals, medical bills and medication, and of course water and electricity, etc., in addition to drivers’ salaries?
“What a huge financial burden for a country with a shrinking middle class, and with minimum wages not much higher than that paid to a driver brought in from a developing country, many of whom have never driven a car before coming to work in Saudi Arabia. That brings up the safety issue as well: safety on the road, safety allowing one’s children day in and day out in the presence of a stranger.
“Which leads me to my next point. The burden of women being banned from driving is also of a psychological and social nature. How has a conservative society such as Saudi Arabia ever allowed itself to bring total strangers into their homes, not knowing the slightest thing about their past, or their moral conduct? It’s a mystery. The whole issue of the ban on women driving is a mystery and a paradox.  And you wonder why we all escape to the UAE?  Perhaps it’s because they have got it right!”
And thus the woman concludes her argument with new reasoning.  The fact that she has chosen an original slant to a social issue indicates that this issue will simply not go away.  Nor will those marginalized by these restrictions remain silent. The issue should not be blanketed by the traditions and beliefs of some. One must not be dismissive of her arguments but look at the overall impact through the eyes of this woman.
– The author can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena

Friday, January 22, 2016

Driving Change: UO grad sees change arrive for women in Saudi Arabia

Article from University of Oregon (USA) about Aisha Almana, one of the original women drivers in 1991 in Riyadh. A link to the story is here,  and it's pasted in below. The article is by Melody Ward Leslie.

At a time when most Saudi women received little or no formal education, one future Duck set out on a quest that eventually led to a PhD. Then she returned home to become her country’s leading activist for justice, equality, and respect for women.
Aisha Almana
Aisha Almana, BS ’70, thought she was at the airport to see her father off. Instead, he led her to the plane and explained that he was bringing her to Egypt because their own country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, had no schools for girls.

She was eight years old. Bursting into tears, she asked, “Where is my mother?”
Sheikh Mohammed Abdulla Almana knelt to be eye-to-eye with his daughter. “I don’t want you to be like your mother or your grandmother,” he told her. “That’s why I am taking you to be educated. I want you to come back and help the women of your country.”
With these words, he launched Almana toward a place in history as the mother of Saudi feminism.
Four years later, armed with a sixth-grade certificate of completion, she returned home to Khobar just as Saudi Arabia was opening its first schools for girls. All the teachers were wives of workers from non-Arab countries because most Saudi women were illiterate. Sheikh Almana wanted to set a precedent, so he installed his now-13-year-old daughter as the region’s first female school principal and gave her behind-the-scenes daily advice on how to run the school.
“All of the students were in the first grade, even though many were my age or older,” she says, noting that she worked as principal for one school year and then went to Lebanon to continue her education.
She has since achieved a series of firsts in a wealthy country that still denies women basic rights. To the outside world, she’s best known as a leader of the historic 1990 protest against Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. The protest was Almana’s idea, and it grew out of her experiences as an undergraduate sociology major at the UO.
“The University of Oregon gave me the opportunity to recognize that I am a human being equal to anyone else,” she says. “I am a free soul, and I am my own driver.”
Going to college in the United States was also Almana’s idea. When her father refused to pay for it—but didn’t forbid her from going—she made her own way by winning a scholarship. She arrived in Eugene in September 1968 and found a campus bubbling with antiwar protests and demonstrations for women’s rights.
For a young woman from a kingdom where freedom of speech was unheard of, the notion of civil disobedience as a tool for social change represented an entirely new way of thinking.
“It was an eye-opener, this idea that you have the right to express yourself and you can differ with others, but it doesn’t mean you are enemies,” she says.
"I am a human being equal to anyone else. I am a free soul, and I am my own driver."
However, she credits her awakening as an activist to a demonstration of a different sort. On her first day of classes, a professor greeted students by placing a jar of pebbles on a table and pronouncing it full. Then, he closed the door and started taking off his clothes.
“I was shocked,” she says, her eyes still widening at the thought of it 45 years later.
She hardly had time to absorb that it was a trick (he was wearing another layer of clothing) when the professor dumped sand into the jar. Was it full now? he asked. Almana thought so, but next he poured in water, which settled into crannies hiding between the rocks and grains of sand.
“This affected me tremendously,” she says. “He showed how what you see is not the reality, and things can change.”
Things can change.
In that spirit, Almana and 46 other women summoned their courage and met at a Safeway parking lot in Riyadh 25 years ago this November 6. They piled into 14 cars, formed a convoy, and drove sedately through the busiest part of the city. On their second lap, members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice reported them, and came with the police to arrest them.
All the women—drivers and passengers alike—were thrown in jail. In mosques across the kingdom, imams denounced each woman, by name, as immoral. Their passports were confiscated. Those with government jobs were fired. Fortunately, Prince Salman, who became king in 2015, intervened so they wouldn’t fall into the hands of religious extremists. Eventually, their passports and jobs were reinstated.
“It was worth it,” Almana says. “We made a statement about the right to drive our own lives.”
Nevertheless, the driving ban still holds, along with a host of other restrictions. Women cannot interact with men. They must obtain written permission from their male guardians—and a chaperone must accompany them—every time they want to go anywhere or do anything outside their homes or workplaces.
The endless taboos range from financial (women can’t open bank accounts without their husbands’ approval) to impractical (they can’t try on clothes while shopping).
Almana says research indicates the exceptional mistreatment of Saudi women stems from misinterpretation of Islam, cultural differences between nomads and city dwellers, and US foreign policy decisions that backfired. “They thought they were fighting communism and they ended up with Al-Qaeda, bin Laden, and Khomeini,” she says.
A devout Muslim, Almana began reading the Koran as a child, and she says it teaches that women and men are equal.
“At least two clergymen have come forward to say their research found nothing in the Koran to require guardianship, yet hundreds of regulations require a guardian’s permission,” she says. “We discovered that most were created by civil servants, based on their personal or tribal traditions or beliefs, without having any basis in Islam.”
Change is slow, but Almana sees signs of progress. More than 56 percent of Saudi college students are now women. Polls show a majority of Saudi men favor letting women drive. In August, for the first time in history, Saudi women began registering to vote.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that she directs the largest group of hospitals in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, which borders the Persian Gulf, the authorities arrest Almana at least once a year. “My poor husband always has the burden of being told to try to control his wife,” she says with a gentle laugh. “They don’t know that he married a woman who cannot be controlled and cannot be owned.”
Suddenly tears well up in her warm brown eyes. None fall, but her voice becomes heavy with grief.
“Do you know,” she asks, “that in Saudi Arabia, a husband or a guardian is not punished if he intentionally kills his wife or his daughter? A father beat his five-year-old daughter to death because he suspected her of sexual activity.
“He could kill her because he owned her. This is what we want to change.”

Melody Ward Leslie, BA ’79, is a UO staff writer.
You can watch Almana speak at an event sponsored by the UO's Global Studies Initiative here.