Tag Archives: human rights

a free and open society in the Arabian peninsula … mirage or reality?

We took a road trip to Doha last week for a short holiday. Doha is the capital of Qatar, which is a small Gulf state whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia. It has a population of 1.8 million, of which only 300,000 are Qatari citizens. Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar is also a petroleum-rich state and is ruled by a monarchy. Qatar and Saudi Arabia also follow the same version of Islam (Wahhabism). In addition, many Qataris are actually descendents from tribes originating from regions in Saudi Arabia, including the Najd region (central Saudi). For example, the Tamim tribe, to which Camelman belongs, gave rise to the Al-Thani family, which rules Qatar.

Same tribal roots, same religion, both petroleum-rich, both ruled by a monarchy .. but Qatar is no Saudi Arabia. The contrast between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was apparent as soon as we crossed the border. For example, when we passed the road sign saying “Welcome to the State of Qatar”, the car ride suddenly got much smoother as the pavement evened out. Even when we arrived at the actual border crossing, we were all a bit tongue-tied at first – because we were greeted by a female Qatari border guard! It might sound strange that this was noteworthy to us, but contrast it to Saudi Arabia where you would never encounter Saudi women working in situations where they need to interact with the general public. But pictures might be the most telling of all – here is the Qatar side of the border crossing:

And here is the Saudi side of the border:

Beyond just the border crossing, Qatar has significant differences from Saudi Arabia in several ways, both politically and socially. Qatar is a constitutional monarchy with a 45-seat parliament (currently appointed but will have two-thirds elected seats by 2013). Qatar is also playing a leading supporting role for the Arab Spring. Qatar has a free and open media – indeed, Al-Jazeera is broadcast from Qatar. Qatar allows for non-Muslims to practice their religion. For example, there are already two Catholic churches and soon a third one for Maronite Christians will open. Men and women can mix freely in society, like in the West. Qatari women are not required to wear an abaya or cover their face in Qatar. They can if they want to, but they don’t have to. Indeed, there is no dress code for any women (Qatari or expats). Also, women can drive in Qatar and they can hold jobs where they might have to deal with the public. In fact, the president of Qatar University (which is co-ed) is a woman.

So it IS possible to have a free, open, and progressive society in the Arabian peninsula!

Saudi Sister Suffragette

Well it wasn’t exactly the scores of sister suffragettes parading through the streets (à la Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins), but a major step forward towards women’s equality was announced today. King Abdullah has declared that women can vote in the next round of municipal elections and can even run as candidates to sit on the municipal boards. Further, he proclaimed that he will appoint some women to serve on the Shoura advisory council. The last major announcement that boosted public participation for women was two years ago, when King Abdullah appointed a woman to be the deputy minister of education.

You have to realize, though, that Saudi Arabia only had its first elections in 2005. These were for seats on the municipal councils and only males over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. Only half of the seats on these councils were up for grabs too (the other half were appointed by the government). Voter turn-out then was just 30%, so it’s not like the men were clamoring to participate in these elections either.

The next round of municipal elections were supposed to be held in 2009, but were ostensibly postponed to “study the previous election” and consider the issue of allowing women to participate. It was evidently considered v-e-r-y carefully as now, two years later, this announcement comes out. The timing of this announcement is very interesting too. The new date for these delayed elections is this Thursday – too late for the women to participate this time around. They’ll have to wait another 4 years to participate (assuming they keep to their schedule).

Now don’t get me wrong – I do think that this is a significant step forward for Saudi Arabia. But I also think that this is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ for the government to grab onto, riding on the back of the increasing presence of women in the media. Given the pervasiveness of internet and satellite TV across Saudi Arabia, Saudi women (especially the younger generation) have already been expressing their opinions and voices – through social media, commentaries, blogs (e.g. saudiwoman’s weblog or a saudi woman’s voice). Marching over to the local electoral station (I wouldn’t be surprised to see separate ‘bachelor’ and ‘family’ sections anyway) to stand in an enclosed ballot booth to cast your vote is a no-brainer in terms of implementing the election. (It’s not like the election will increase the opportunity for men and women to mingle, heaven forbid.) The significance is that now Saudi society will encounter the voice of millions of Saudi women (assuming they all vote) … on municipal issues.

It’s a start.

camelman: AKA donkeyman

When we’re in Saudi, camelman thinks he’s a donkey. Consider this: since I cannot drive myself or even go out for a walk around the neighbourhood by myself, I am completely dependent on camelman to cart me around. Whatever my whim, camelman is at my beck and call.

courtesy of papillontravels.net

When I need to renew my exit-re-entry visa (so I can return to Saudi the next time), who goes to the visa office to line up for hours on my behalf? Camelman. When we tried to get a 1-year multiple re-entry visa (difficult to get, unless you have wasta), who went to the majlis to speak on my behalf? Camelman (but it was all for naught). When I have a craving for Mama Noura shawarma, who goes out to fetch the take-out to satisfy my appetite? Camelman. When I need to get out of the house for some exercise, who takes me out for some air? Camelman. When I have an appointment at the university, who delivers me? You betcha – camelman! All this while he has to juggle his own work schedule and social engagements.

Life of a Saudi guy = donkey work.

How much more efficient Saudi life could be if only they allowed women to drive!

Speaking of donkeys … beware the ‘meat’ option next time you are on a Saudi Airlines flight: http://www.emirates247.com/business/donkey-meat-on-saudi-arabian-airline-2011-06-13-1.402522

Women2Drive

Hats off to the reported 30-40 Saudi women who just needed to run some errands today and got into a car to drive themselves: “Saudi women defy ban to take driver’s seat” and “Saudi Arabia women test driving ban”This article also nicely highlights the huge disconnect between many brave, forward-thinking members of the Saudi population and the way of life imposed on them by the nebulous and paranoid authorities.

June 17 was a planned day of protest against the ban on women driving. What I liked about this action was that they just encouraged women to do their thing; if they needed to get groceries or go to an appointment, just drive themselves (if they know how to drive and have an international driver’s license). No need to parade around and shout slogans. Just live your life like any other woman in the world!

As you’ll glean from these articles, it’s not as if there have never been any women to take to the wheel in the history of Saudi Arabia. There was a protest in the early ’90s, which was quickly quashed. Nevertheless, women commonly drive in rural areas, where the practicalities of farm life simply over-ride any societal expectations of ‘appropriate’ behavior expected of females. Indeed, common sense does sometimes overcome the baffling contradictions of this country. I consider one of camelman’s female relatives a pioneer in shaking away the constraints of the country. It was, perhaps, in the late ’80s or early ’90s. One night, her husband phoned her; he was driving home from another town and was about 50 kilometers away when his car broke down. It was late at night and there was no tow truck he could call. It also happened that the family driver was on vacation. So she went to his closet and put on one of his thobes (a man’s robe) and shemagh (a man’s head gear) and got into the family car to go rescue her husband. Although she wasn’t trying to make a statement about women driving (she was disguised as a man, after all), I think her actions were very brave. If she had gotten caught, it would have been an embarrassment for the family in front of their relatives and friends (although I also think many would have applauded her creative and logical solution).

I am optimistic it will not be too long before a woman won’t have to disguise herself as a man just to be able to drive a car.

riding in cars with boys

It is generally well known that women don’t drive in Saudi Arabia. While it’s not technically against the law for women to drive, it is impossible for a women to get a driver’s license in Saudi. This is the Saudi government’s neat way of banning women from driving.

Why? Some of the reasoning I have heard include: How would she be able to drive safely and do the requisite shoulder checks while wearing the niqab? What if a woman gets into a traffic accident and would have to interact with a male stranger (e.g. policeman, other driver)? First of all, the men are evidently not doing much better with those shoulder checks – Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest incidences of traffic fatalities. Second, why not remove the niqab? (This, of course, brings up a whole other issue.) And as for the problem of interacting with male strangers, well let’s just say the work-around is laughable.

Since women can’t drive, many families need to hire drivers. Indeed, there are hundreds of thousands of expat men working in the Kingdom as drivers. By my estimation, most of these men are from southeast Asia, and therefore are probably male strangers. If you’ve read my post about lingerie shopping, you’re probably starting to see a pattern.

So let me get this straight. You don’t allow women to drive because you don’t want them exposed to male strangers. So the solution is to bring in someone from overseas to serve as a driver for your family. They probably come with minimal/no background check, so you need to take a big risk bringing in a driver. The driver may live on the premises and at the very least, will have access to your house and car(s). His job is to drive your wife/daughter/mother/sister/aunt wherever they need to go, and he’s to be available any time of day or night, any day of the week. For this, he might get paid about the equivalent of $400/month (apparently the price varies depending on the driver’s nationality).

Are there alternatives? The public transportation system in Saudi might as well be non-existent, and in any case doesn’t allow access to women. Taxi cabs are iffy, but could be all right if absolutely necessary. Therefore, the only other solution, besides hiring an expat driver, is for the male members of the family to serve as chauffeur. Clearly not a practical, long-term solution. Think of your own family situation and daily routine, and then imagine what it would be like if, on top of your own schedule, you had to juggle the arrival and departure schedules of all the female members of your family as they go to and from school, work, grocery shopping, leisure activities, etc. Not fun.

So I say let us drive! In any case, the traffic can’t get any nuttier than this:

On a more serious note, there is an important protest gaining international attention, led by one brave Saudi woman named Manal Al-Sherif. Hopefully it will lead to some real change.

gents not welcome

When in Saudi, you have to get used to the idea that there are certain places you shouldn’t go, depending on whether you are a man or a woman. Of course, there are restricted areas everywhere in the world. Even in North America, I shouldn’t go into the men’s locker room, for instance. But in Saudi, the separation of men and women is everywhere and took some getting used to. You have to be constantly aware of where you can go, which entrance to use, or which line to queue up in. For instance:Here, the “Men Section” is strictly for men; that’s easy enough. However, the “Ladies Section” is not only just for ladies, but could also be used by any men who are accompanied by a female. Heaven forbid that a Saudi woman might actually have to stand next to a strange man at the MacDonald’s! But really – as if that sign dividing the line-ups is going to make a difference here.

There are some public places where men are definitely not welcome and the barriers much more defined, such as the ladies’ branch of a local bank:

or the shopping mall, depending on the time:In the old days, according to camelman, the muttawa (religious police) were quite enthusiastic about enforcing these bachelor admission hours. I have never witnessed the muttawa in action, although I have seen mall security guards turn away or escort unaccompanied males out of the shopping centre. I don’t know too many men who are at their best after half an hour or so in the mall, so it’s just as well, I suppose (I’m kidding).

But for all this effort in keeping the bachelors separated from the women, only men are allowed to work in the mall, including lingerie and cosmetics shops. Can you imagine? There would nothing more peculiar than having to ask a fellow if they have any more of the pink lace push-up bras in size 42C.It’s enough to get anyone in a tizzy!