Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Close-to-Home Politics of Sports

Tuesday, 29 January 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar

A few years ago I bought something I thought I would never need: A pair of cross-trainer walking shoes. Yes, it was time for me to take long walks to keep in shape. As anyone with a new idea, I was very enthusiastic, putting on my shoes in the early evening after work and heading for the local women's college in my neighborhood to join dozens of other women making the walk around the wall. This was pretty good for an hour or so to keep myself in shape.
I quickly noticed, though, that there weren't many places for women to exercise. Yes, we can buy a membership at an exercise club, but that is too expensive for many young ladies. So options for women are limited to neighborhoods that have sidewalks in good shape or around the walls surrounding Saudi Aramco or one of the women's college campuses.
It got me to thinking about my years in secondary school and I realized that I never once thought about the fact that I never had physical education or played in any organized school sport. That was for boys and it didn't occur to the girls ever to question our need for physical activity. We've been told often enough that it is not appropriate for girls to engage in strenuous activity. It is not ladylike, and well, we could get just plain too excited. And who wants budding teenage girls to get too excited?
My time for enjoying the exhilaration of playing school sports. Lost in my youth was the ability to learn about team unity, team support and building relationships with my girl classmates through a shared activity. Not to mention that it's healthy and keeps one fit. Maybe if we were afforded these opportunities, the obesity rate among Saudi women today would not be so high. Maybe we would be better businesswomen because we would understand better the concept of team-building and teamwork.
So I am happy to hear one report that says the General Presidency of Youth Welfare wants to establish a department for women's sports clubs. The proposal, according to some news reports, will be forwarded to King Abdullah for approval. This follows a recommendation from the youth and family affairs committee of the Shoura Council.
For as long as I can remember there has been pressure from some Saudis to resist the temptation to establish girls' sports clubs and physical education programs. But according to this plan, the proposed clubs will abide by Shariah and will be closely supervised to ensure that the programs are compliant with the Shariah rules.
It's one thing to establish a program, but another to fund it adequately. Apparently the Youth Welfare department will make sure that these new clubs will have all the necessary equipment and are managed by women. The clubs are to operate first in Jeddah, Dammam, Buraida and in Riyadh.
While the motives of establishing women's sports clubs are innocent, I must admit that there is probably a political motive as well. It's obvious to me that Saudi Arabia is doing everything possible under the direction of King Abdullah to become a leading member of the international community. We certainly have the economic resources and we have the will to think progressively in matters of business. But to be taken seriously by Europeans and Americans who want to do business with us, we must examine our domestic policies. And that means addressing women's rights.
Establishing women's sports clubs is not necessarily a women's rights issue as we usually define it, like driving a car. But sometimes perception is everything, and our business partners may perceive us as petty when it comes to not allowing women to have their own sports clubs. If we are perceived as unfair to someone based on gender, then how do we expect to be taken seriously in the business world.
And part of our standing in the international community comes with our participation in sports, such as our men's soccer clubs. In the case of women, the International Olympic Committee is requiring all of its member states to establish women's sports clubs by 2010 or risk having its membership frozen or revoked.
It appears that we have received the message and are responding appropriately.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Aren’t Women “Saudi Society”?

Tuesday, 22 January 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar

Sometimes I wonder even if we, Saudis, know what Saudi society is. We speak of our society as if it includes men and women, but recent events tell me that when we speak of our society we are really talking only about men. It seems to me that some government officials need a crash course in what constitutes the Saudi society. The other day I read two news articles. The first one reported that women will be part of a new community police effort.
Soon afterward a second article appeared that said women won't participate in community policing because they are not qualified to handle weapons. Yet this same government official wants to develop a partnership with the community.
What now? Does he mean a partnership with the male community, because he just excluded the female population from his so-called partnership.
Saudis are under immense international pressure to give women equal rights, but we automatically take a defensive position on these matters and rarely think things through. There is nothing that would prevent this government official from developing his community policing plan to establish a weapons training program for women.
And if he can't bring himself to arm women (and honestly, after his comments he should be afraid of arming them), then find a role for them that is acceptable to his male sensibilities.
One obvious example of our defensive posture is the recent United Nations committee hearing on women's rights held earlier this week in Geneva. Rather than acknowledge our shortcomings and our plans to bring greater equality to women, we tell the skeptical committee members that women have many rights in Saudi Arabia
I don't think the UN committee members are stupid. They know the difference between men and women and surely noticed that three-quarters of the Saudi delegation were men and that one-third were women who were supposed to represent me but I don't know based on what.
Any woman who tells an international body of human rights experts that she has total freedom because her husband lets her should have her head examined. Believe it or not, some people don't think that's freedom.
Didn't we learn from the criticism we received three years ago for excluding women from voting in municipal elections? Shouldn't that have taught us something about equal rights, or did we fall in love with the idea of being the international media's whipping boy for our human rights record?
Which brings me back to our concept of Saudi society. It almost seems that Saudi officials are possessed with the idea of creating an unseen enemy called the Saudi society to delay or deny women their rights.
Which society are we talking about? The entire society of men and women or just men. I suggest devoting a portion of the upcoming National Dialogue forum to discussing what we mean by Saudi society.
What are the factors that determine the ideology in introducing new concepts that lead to rapid social change? These issues are crucial if we want to have a healthy and compatible society.
Let me put it this way. We are in the habit of sending up test balloons to determine what is acceptable in Saudi society and what is not.
Remember when the Ministry of Labor announced that women would be allowed to work in lingerie shops? Well, apparently, Saudi society didn't approve of that announcement so the order has since been stalled.
But you'll also remember the announcement concerning the permissibility of camera phones. No outrage there, so they became legal.
Feelers are sent out by the government about women's right to drive. Ouf! Outrage (from male members of our society). So women still can't drive. Remember when it was announced that Saudi citizens may vote in municipal elections? But someone forgot that Saudi women are citizens.
More outrage (from men). So we didn't vote. Apparently we are not full citizens. Here's where a society based on codified laws with a strong sense of what our society is comes into play.
Khadija Bint Khuwailed, the Businesswomen's Center at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, announced recently that a study by IPSOS Center for Public Opinion found that 58 percent of private businesses complained about some government establishments objecting to women working in the private sector. One such government entity is the Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
The study found that members of the commission repeatedly visit private businesses in what is perceived as threat to their female employees. The commission apparently represents Saudi society, or at least a portion of it because it doesn't represent me when it comes to that.
Saleh Al-Turki, head of the members board of the JCC, said that women play a vital role in boosting economic competition and growth since 70 percent of the unemployed men in the Saudi Arabia are under-qualified while 66 percent of the unemployed women are highly qualified but have few job opportunities.
Al-Turki said that women make up 14 percent of the Saudi workforce, putting it at the bottom of all Arab countries in employing women. In Kuwait, women make up 50 percent of the workforce.
We need to re-examine our priorities of what Saudi society is and we should make up our minds whether women are part of that society.
I think I am part of the society but the people who control my life and the lives of other women apparently don't feel the same way. I want to know who they are and where they stand when they are determining my future.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bush Arrives with Too Little, Too Late

Tuesday, 15 January 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar

I hope that President Bush collects a lot of ceremonial swords and Ouda on his trip to the Middle East, because that's all he is getting if he thinks he is gathering support for his war of words against Iran. His trip to the Middle East is nothing more than a "farewell" tour of countries he has never been to and less productive than any of the trips US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took to the region.
Let's take stock of his accomplishments so far.
He started off by visiting Israel, where the first words out of his mouth were directed at Iran. As an afterthought, he mentioned as he was leaving that he had a Middle East peace plan that would give the Palestinians statehood.Well, that's fine and I appreciate his sentiments that the Palestinians deserve statehood and he wants to do something about it.
He says the Palestinians' "time has come," seven years after he entered office.
He never mentioned the touchy issues, like the division of Jerusalem or the 2002 Arab peace plan that would give Israel recognition from the Arab countries in exchange for returning to pre-1967 borders.
That would make things too complicated. I'm not sure why any Arab leader would take Bush's talk of Palestinian statehood seriously when it lacks the necessary details.But that's not why he is here. He is here to gather support for his tough talk on Iran.
He is warning us that Iran is a significant threat to not only the security of the United States but to the Gulf countries too.
He is even reaching out to the average Iranian, hoping to gain support from within Iran's borders.It does us no good to turn on the rhetoric and bad mouth our neighbor. As much I find some of Iran's stances alarming, nothing will be accomplished by making threats.
King Abdullah, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is taking the right path by initiating dialogue with Iranian leaders. Other regional leaders are taking the same path and I applaud them for using sound judgement and patience to stabilize the region.Bush says on his trip that Iran funds terrorists. But didn't he create many of those terrorists when his invasion of Iraq spiraled out of control? He says that Iran undermines the stability of Lebanon. But didn't he stand by and watch Israel invade Lebanon and rain bombs on civilian targets?
He says that Iran sends weapons to the Taleban. But didn't he underestimate the appropriate troop strength in Afghanistan to defeat the Taleban in the first place?Bush says governments can never build trust by harassing or imprisoning candidates and protesters.
But doesn't he hold prisoners without trial and spy on his own people, especially those who oppose his policies?Iran may or may not be responsible for many of these problems, but the US has culpability in this whole affair and is whitewashing it by pointing fingers.It's unfortunate, indeed a tragedy, that Bush decided to visit us in his final year in office.
Imagine what could have been accomplished if he had visited us in 2002, the year before the Iraq invasion. Or even in 2004 when there still was some lingering support here for his foreign policies. But he ignored us, ignored the Palestinians' terrible situation, and ignored the thousands of innocent people who died at the hands of insurgents and US troops in Iraq.Now he wants us to join the battle to contain Iran.
Sorry, I just don't have the enthusiasm to join him.

Sarkozy’s Success

Sarkozy’s Success
Tuesday, 15 January 2008

It would be difficult to argue that French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to the Kingdom was not in almost every way a success. Before embarking, Sarkozy told Al Hayat, "The interest of this trip is political, economic, cultural and military." And he has come away with agreements that involve education, vocational training, oil and gas and political cooperation and outlines for infrastructure and bilateral contracts.
In return, Sarkozy proposed the nearly unthinkable given the rhetoric flying around the region these days: he will send a team from the French Atomic Energy Commission to Saudi Arabia in the near future to work on the question of civilian nuclear energy.
"I have often said that the Muslim world is no less reasonable than the rest of the world in seeking civilian nuclear power for its energy needs," Sarkozy said in an interview prior to his visit. And he's putting his money where his mouth is.
Sarkozy has said that France is a friend who will not lecture but will tell the absolute truth, and he seems to have followed up on that. He praised advances in the Kingdom in terms of freedom of speech and the treatment of women. And he, again, pledged solidarity with the Arab League's proposals to end the strife in Lebanon.
It's refreshing to see a Western leader come to the Kingdom speaking of peace rather than just issuing warnings on the state of affairs in the region. His emphasis, was on issues that would serve to strengthen the Kingdom's economy and lend it the tools to integrate itself more fully in the world economy and culture.
It feels as if the Kingdom has a true ally in France.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Shut up!’ OK, but for How Long?

Tuesday, 08 January 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar

THE National Society for Human Rights conducted a workshop the other day in Riyadh on how human rights issues should be included in school curriculum, especially higher education. This is a noble effort by the organization, although I am skeptical if it will make much of an impression on the people who develop the guidelines for educational curriculum. My skepticism may not be based on sound reason, but I must say that I'm getting impatient with these tiny steps taken to make sure that all of us enjoy the rights we are entitled to and that are granted by Islam.
I remember a couple of years ago Karen Hughes, at the urging of President Bush, came to Dar Al-Hekma College in Jeddah and lectured Saudi women about their right to drive a car, get any job they wanted and to "spread our wings." I felt insulted by the lecture as were most of the Saudi women in the audience. Who was this Westerner to come to Saudi Arabia and lecture us about equal rights for women?
Since Hughes' visit, many Western women's advocacy groups have attempted to speak to us about our rights. And an alleged honor killing by a Pakistani father of his 16-year-old daughter last month in Canada has only heightened the criticism against "Muslims oppressing their women."
Now some readers will say that since I am studying in the United Kingdom, the West has somehow corrupted me, as some of the e-mails I received indicated. But the fact is that for a couple of years now and some recent conversations with my friends in Madina and Jeddah have convinced me that Saudi women need and are entitled to more freedom. There are too many restrictions and the reforms we are entitled to are coming too slowly.
Let me give you some examples other than the obvious about the right to drive a car and have a respectable job.
A middle-aged university-educated woman I know told me her husband deserted her for an empty-headed 19-year-old girl. His family pressured him to get a second wife to provide him with babies she couldn't give him.
He took his new wife on honeymoon to Turkey and has been very much the attentive husband. They have spoken little and are separated.
But can she go to Turkey with her family for a little vacation or even her father? No, since the ownership of this woman was transferred to her estranged husband, she can't go without permission. Can she get a passport on her own? No, not without permission from her husband while she is still married to him. So what if she divorces him? This 40-something woman will have to seek permission from her 70-year-old father to apply for a passport and leave the country. Or worse, her videogame-obsessed 21-year-old brother.
Where is justice in that? What about individual, but equal, rights as written in the Qur'an? Why would a woman twice as old as her brother need his permission for anything. He should be asking her permission for whatever he needs.
Our society demands that we follow these arbitrary laws for our own protection. Saudi Arabia's national treasure, our honor, our capability to have children and provide a home to men, needs to be protected. Well, that's a nice thought and might have been valid 100 years ago. But, Wallahi, we are not children. We are just as wise as men. There is no reason on earth why we need anybody's permission to apply for a passport, get a job, marry the man we want or drive a car across town.
I see a lot of girls around Jeddah. Half of them run around town without a mahram (male member of the immediate family). I remember seeing one woman dressed in a thobe and gutra covering her face like some gangster and speeding along the Corniche in a Mustang convertible. She wasn't too careful about it since her jewelry and painted nails gave her away. If anything, this is a good example of how we as a society need to implement equal rights in a methodical but time-bound manner or more women will be taking these rights on their own terms and in a way that we might not approve of as a Muslim society.
Lastly, I had a conversation last week with a 19-year-old girl who just finished a semester at college and went to a friend's house to celebrate with a breakfast. She came home one hour late. At the door were her brothers who followed her to her room then beat her because they suspected she was on a date with a boy. When she told the brothers where she had been, they forced her to accompany them to the friend's house, then lied to the friend by telling they were looking for her sister when she was actually in the car in front of the house.
The friend replied the sister had breakfast at her house then she walked her home. When the girl confronted her brothers and demanded an explanation for the beating, they told her to shut up. They didn't have the good manners to apologize. Is this justice and equal rights for woman as written in the Qur'an? Of course not. It's injustice in a male-dominated society. It happens because men can do it without facing consequences.
The ‘Qatif Girl' case should teach us many things about our society. I know many people are sickened about what happened to her, but there are thousands of smaller dramas played out daily in homes throughout Saudi Arabia that really say the same thing to women: Shut up!

Friday, January 4, 2008

A Pleasant Surprise

Tuesday, 01 January 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar

ALTHOUGH I am the daughter of the holy city of Madina, the cradle of Islam, it's been sometime since my last visit. Usually when I visit the city, I rarely move around or go beyond my family's home or the Prophet's Mosque, simply because of its religious nature and the limited number of places to go for entertainment. I just wrapped up my last visit to Madina over the two-week holiday break from the university to visit my mother and brothers and sisters. Each and every visit is special to me. Not only do I have all the time for my mother but it's the peaceful city of my childhood.
During my 10-day visit, I accompanied my mother three times for her dialysis sessions at the Saudi German Hospital (SGH). The first day I entered the hospital, I was surprised at the number of Saudi women at the reception area. For a moment I thought that they were only visitors to the hospital so I passed by and went to the upper floor where the dialysis department is located. Two days later, I was at the hospital again, but this time I had to stop at the reception to pay the bill.
This time I found a surprise.
I discovered that those young ladies at the reception desk were all new graduates who have been hired recently by the hospital's administration.
They were responsible for the reception desk, which is the front-line to greet the public not only at hospitals but any business establishment.
So what if there are female employees at the reception desk in a hospital? This might be true at government or private hospitals in Jeddah, or even in Riyadh, but it's virtually unheard of in Madina.
For those not familiar with the nature of Madina, people must remember that the religious nature of the city has made its people more conservative than any other place in the Kingdom, especially when it comes to women's appearance at public places.
Unlike Jeddah, unveiled Saudi women are not seen in Madina. In fact, this is considered a source of shame for most of the families. It is almost impossible to see men and women mingling at a public place or sharing the same office, especially in private establishments.
The strictly-enforced conditions of segregation at workplace can be seen in Madina more than at any other place in the Kingdom, with the exception of Qassim region.
For the administration of a private hospital like the SGH to take such a courageous step and recognize the talent of those young women by hiring them to deal with the public should be highly appreciated. By taking such a bold step, the SGH has proved to this small but closed society that women are capable of dealing professionally with the most difficult customers.
At the same time they adhere to the Islamic regulations, Saudi customs and traditions. These young women are setting an example for the rest. They are taking the risk of confronting the old but deeply-rooted traditions that have prohibited women from doing such jobs. They are simply sending the message that, "We Saudi women are skilled and responsible and should be treated accordingly. We can be real partners in the government's development plans and in pushing the economic growth wheel forward by bringing in knowledge, accountability and responsibility if we are given more trust."
"Those young ladies are extremely disciplined and highly motivated, the thing that most of their male counterparts lack," said Hisham Natheer, director of Customer Service at Madina's SGH.
For natives of this holy land, I urge those who care for future of this nation to follow in the SGH's footsteps. Saudi women's talent should be highly respected. It is time to stop wasting the intellect and skills of women for nothing more than devastating traditions. Our country's ambitious economic development plans will be more successful if we trust Saudi women and ease restrictions that control their hiring and movements. We must create a more secure atmosphere for them to show their skills. This secure atmosphere, though, won't be created unless we protect them by law from being abused even by their relatives and guardians.