Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Are women protected?

When I was a university student in Makkah, I was often homesick since it was the first time I was away from my family.

The rules then, which still remain today, ensured that my loneliness didn’t count much. On weekends, university officials were charged to ensure girls like me were protected at all costs.

We couldn’t be trusted to leave the dormitory because girls could get into a lot of trouble when left to themselves.

So on Thursday nights, we would be locked up in our dormitories as prisoners until classes resumed on Saturday morning. The steel doors at the bottom of the stairwell that led outdoors were padlocked and an elderly man would guard it in case a crook wanted to break in and attack us.

If my brother would come to take me out to dinner or show me how the world looked like on weekends, his name had better be printed on the university’s approved list of guardians or I wasn’t going anywhere. And of course the guard should be at his post or my brother would have made his trip for nothing.We would be locked up for 48 hours assuming that we were safe.

I later realized that we were anything but safe.The old buildings lacked basic fire safety equipment and sprinkler systems. If a fire had broken out due to a girl’s sloppy cooking, we would have all burned down to death at the foot of those steel doors.

When 14 girls died in the March 2002 fire at an intermediate school in Makkah, I shuddered to think what could have happened if the fire had broken out in my dorm.Recently Okaz reported that a fire broke out at a private girls school in the Eastern Province.

The fire was started by an electrical malfunction. Fortunately the 250 girls were evacuated without any reported injuries. This was the sixth incident at the same school in just two weeks time.

So what did the government agencies learn from the 2002 Makkah school fire?

Apparently nothing.

Lt. Hamad Al-Juaid, chief of the Civil Defense Department in the Eastern Province, said the school demonstrated “gross neglect” of basic safety measures, and risked the lives of young students.

Further, Civil Defense authorities said they have not been allowed to conduct safety inspections at girls schools to check if the schools complied with safety laws.Our society insists that females must be protected, but fails to adhere to basic safety measures to guarantee their well-being.

Isn’t this hypocrisy?What is the logic behind denying Civil Defense authorities the access to school buildings? What is the logic of locking up girls in their dorms as if they were cattle. It’s as if Saudi females are an investment to be protected.Certainly the Makkah school tragedy was a result of over-zealousness displayed by a group of guardians.

A pathological desire to raise obstacles and stem progress, even when human lives are at risk, make a mockery of the male guardianship issue. We are failing to look at the big picture. If we as a society wish to preserve the guardianship requirement of women as originally intended, then it means much more than having my brother accompany me to malls or having written permission from my father to leave the country.

It means all forms of protection.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Organ Donation

By Sabria S. Jawhar
The Saudi Gazette

Having sat next to my mother on many occasions in hospitals while she receives dialysis I tend to pay close attention to whatever Dr. Faisal Shaheen, director of the Saudi Center of Organ Transplantation, has to say about his campaign to increase awareness of organ donations.
As part of the center's awareness campaign, Saudi television Channel 3 Al-Riyadh hosted a discussion with Dr. Shaheen and a father who donated the organs of his brain-dead 8-year-old daughter.

I think what was most gratifying about the program was the discussion from both a scientific and religious point of view regarding organ donations and its impact on families of both the donor and the recipient. And I give thanks to God that the campaign is responsible for an 80 percent increase in awareness among Saudis about the vital need for transplants.

But at the end of this program a father, whose son was declared brain dead, called in and accused organ donation officials of being criminals and that the act of removing organs from brain dead victims is a "killing." He cited some Qur'anic verses to support his argument.

I empathize with the caller and don't blame him for his anger. We all would just about do and say anything to protect a love one, especially in a time of grief.
But as Muslims we must look at the bigger picture and see the benefit that the entire society stands to gain with organ transplants.

We should not judge such sensitive issues based on our at-the-moment emotions. Dr. Shaheen stated that transplant programs will help save the lives of more than 11,000 kidney, liver and other patients. In 2006, more than 5,000 potential transplant recipients remained on waiting lists.

An organ donation will spare Muslim patients the daily pain of dialysis and water drainage. And it will save the country billions of riyals that are spent on medication, money that should go to prevention and research.

We all have a responsibility towards our society, which should never be separated from our religious duty. I am aware of the fact that some Muslim scholars are somewhat conservative on the issue of organ donations, especially when we arrive at the point where we must declare a person dead.

But we can't take Qur'anic verses literally and base our judgment on them especially when it comes to science. A team of scholars from both science and religion should sit together and discuss the issue before a fatwa is issued. This is exactly what the Supreme Council of Senior Ulama did. In 1981, the Ulama allowed both organ donation and organ transplantation in the case of necessity, by determining that the organ can be taken from the body of a living person with his/her consent and also from the body of a dead person.

The Fiqh Academy of the Muslim World League in Makkah also allowed organ donation and transplantation in its 8th session in 1984. And in 1987, the Fiqh Academy of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Jeddah and the Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Sayyed At-Tantawi, also allowed the use of the body organs of a person who has died in an accident.

It is important to note that most of the jurists have only allowed the donation of the organs. They do not allow the sale of human organs. Their position is that the sale of human organs violates the rules of the dignity and honor of the human being, and so it would be haram in that case.

If we consider organ donations from an Islamic point of view, though I am not a religion scholar, we should take into consideration the Qur'anic verse that says, "Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind." (Qur'an, 5:32)

I recognize that much of these religious issues boils down to the definition of death. The People's Assembly in Egypt this month is struggling with this very issue.
Akram Al-Shaer, an Egyptian MP and member of the health committee studying the issue for the People's Assembly, told the Egyptian press last week that he opposes a proposed organ donation law.

Al-Shaer told a television interviewer that, "I will only approve the new law if it was issued based on a correct definition of death; which is the permanent and definite stop of both the heart and the brain, which should be declared by a professional physician based on an extremely accurate and scientific analysis."

He said the proposed law makes no mention of the stopping of the heart to be an indication of death, leaving only brain failure as the only indication.
Whether one agrees with Al-Shaer, he has a point: Death should be declared by a professional physician based on science.

And as far as I am concerned that statement makes his point irrelevant. A person who is declared brain dead by a qualified doctor will never rejoin his family no matter how long the heart remains beating or how strong our emotions are for our loved ones. Death is a messy thing. Rarely does death accommodate us by having brain and heart functions cease at the same time. But having one or the other stop functioning is indeed death in my opinion. At some point we must rely on the professional physician to tell us when a loved one is dead and to be ready to save another's life

Why do we leave the strong evidence that supports donations, including the fatwa from the Council of Senior Ulama, and instead follow extreme conservatives or the ignorant when it comes to religion?

By having such organ transplant centers and systematizing the process of donations and transplants under the supervision of a competent and compassionate authority, we spare society the trap of commercial abuse. By moving beyond the borders of our selfishness and limited thinking, we help promote healthy programs.
***The painting is by Pat Zeunik, 10th Grade, Age: 15, Central Catholic High School Bloomington, IL, a winner of life goes on 2005 Organ Donor Poster Contest.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Some Saudis don’t get it

If the needs of Saudi women were written in tall letters on billboards in all major highways from Riyadh to Madina to Jeddah and on all major streets, I’m sure Saudi men would not understand a word of it.

Some men in positions of authority in government and private sectors would feign blindness or play the fool. “What?,” the typical Saudi male would ask. “The needs of Saudi women are simple. Feed them, clothe them, give them a driver, and money to spend at malls. What else do they need?”

I recently spent about two and a half months traveling to and fro between Madina and Jeddah before returning to UK for my studies. If I didn’t know better, I would think that half the Saudi male population is stupid by choice.

I sound a little angry because logic seems to be totally absent from public discussion in Saudi society about Saudi women, who are fast becoming the most important labor resource in the Kingdom.Some ministries do understand and appreciate the value of Saudi women.

There are forward thinking men who want to see women advance in education and the workplace. But for some reason once women reach a point to best use their education, they are told to stay at home, get married and produce enough children to make the family proud.Let’s address the education issue first.

The Ministry of Higher Education reported recently that more women than men are getting selected for scholarships. This year alone, 2,585 women were selected for master’s degree scholarships out of the total 4,779 candidates. Some 86 students out of the total 127 chosen for doctoral degree programs were women. In all, more than 50,000 Saudi men and women are studying abroad in about two dozen countries.

Year in and year out, Saudi women have proved that they are more motivated, more studious and more ambitious to earn a post-graduate degree than Saudi men. At Newcastle University, both Saudi men and women students are dedicated to their studies, but women are more organized and more willing to form study groups with other students of different nationalities and gender.

They are more open-minded about how to best utilize the resources the university has in offer.But what happens after Saudi women successfully obtain post-graduate degrees?She has two options: One, put the degree in the closet and start looking for a husband to raise a family.

If she earns a math degree perhaps it will serve her better when she calculates the grocery bill in her head at the Danube hypermarket or when she buys that Prada bag and the smart jacket that goes with it.

The second option is to teach. I’m sure teaching in a high school or a women’s college will be fulfilling for some, but for many women their eyes would glaze over with boredom at the mere thought of classroom instruction.Both of these options remind me of Victorian era America and England.

If a woman insists on getting a university education it’s only to serve the men in the family by being a gracious host and intelligent conversationalist or because teaching is the only “appropriate” vocation for women.

So here we are at the end of the first decade of the 21st century embracing 19th century Victorian ideals, yet we want to be taken seriously by the international community.All this reminds me of Saudi society’s continuing failure in keeping up its promises to Saudi women.

I’m not talking about the right to drive because that promise is dangled in front of us like a carrot on a stick. Behave, and maybe we will be able to drive a car “some day.”No, I’m talking about the comedy of women not being allowed to work in lingerie shops despite an order passed by the Ministry of Labor two years ago.

For all the trembling fears we Saudis have about gender mixing, we insist on foreign male drivers carting us from one mall to another, we insist on foreign men talking to us about our underwear. If a Saudi male stranger asked a woman her bra size, I’m guessing the sky would fall and the earth would split open. Her brothers would fly into a tizzy and demand the stranger’s head.

Me? I don’t care one way or another, but for the majority of women they rather have females working at lingerie shops. But more importantly, Saudi women want jobs. For those who don’t think that a university education is an option, why not give them the most logical and appropriate job available?Why is it that despite Saudi women continuing to demonstrate their intelligence, our society refuses to employ them in meaningful jobs.

The bottom line is, there is a segment in our society that is blind to progress and equates progress with Western values. We as a society lack the courage to confront these ignorant people to allow us to grow and mature as a country. I wonder just what will it take to for our society to stop tolerating this nonsense.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Satan's foot soldiers

When I was a kid growing up I watched a lot of Tom and Jerry cartoons. I didn’t like Jerry much. It wasn’t because he was a mouse but because he was so mean to Tom. I thought his attacks on the cat were unjustified.

So I perked up a little when I read that Sheikh Mohammed Al-Munajid told Al Majd TV recently that a mouse is “one of Satan’s soldiers.” Tom, I think, would sympathize.

Sheikh Al-Munajid went on to say, “How do you think children view mice today – after Tom and Jerry? Even creatures that are repulsive by nature, by logic, and according to Islamic law have become wonderful and are loved by children. Even mice. Mickey Mouse has become an awesome character, even though according to Islamic law, Mickey Mouse should be killed in all cases.”
It’s not surprising that Sheikh Al-Munajid’s remarks gained worldwide attention and much criticism from the usual Saudi-bashers and Islamophobes. What better target than a sheikh who attacks the beloved Mickey Mouse, the symbol to Americans that humanity can be found in a rodent.

There are several problems with the criticisms heaped on Al-Munajid. For one, it was described as a fatwa by the Western press. These were remarks during a television appearance and at most he was expressing his own opinion and not issuing any formal religious edict.

For another, his comments were widely circulated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a pro-Israeli Arabic translation website. Western media routinely use MEMRI to obtain Arabic news. What are lost in these translations are attempts at dry humour and sarcasm. A look at the interview on YouTube one can detect that Al-Munajid was probably attempting to make a little joke about Mickey Mouse.

In their zeal to publish another story about crazy Arabs issuing crazy fatwas, journalists missed the nuance of the interview. Now we are put in the same position we often find ourselves, which is being the object of ridicule and contempt. This doesn’t bother me since I am comfortable in being a Saudi and with my relationship with God. I only answer to God, not to Western contempt.

But there is another aspect from the fallout of this television appearance that should be considered. It should be clear from the beginning of a televised appearance the distinction between opinion, discussion and a fatwa. Providing answers to an interviewer’s questions or questions from a television audience doesn’t necessarily mean that a fatwa has been issued. How can it be without the proper research and deliberation?

Perhaps a more fundamental issue is just who is entitled to issue a fatwa. Honestly, over the years I have heard from clerics I never heard of issue fatwas that were just plain ridiculous. Issuing fatwas should a job for the Council of Senior Ulama, which spends the time, research and deliberations to make proper judgments. This would go a long way towards eliminating confusion of what is a fatwa and what is merely discussion and opinion.

In the cold light of the transcript, Sheikh Al-Munajid’s comments, taken out of context, present an image of backwardness. But what many non-Muslims fail to appreciate is that televised discussions of our religion are very popular and instructional to Saudis. It doesn’t mean that we view cartoon mice as Satan’s foot soldiers. It just means we are enjoying and responding to religious dialogue and perhaps the occasional humour that comes with it.

I kind of view the Western media the same why I view Jerry. Jerry commits illogical violence and trickery apparently for the pleasure and delight of provoking Tom to react. Western cable pundits are not much different.