Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Saudi women's empowerment can be found at the bank

Saudi businesswomen have found themselves in a position that may make a lot of people uncomfortable.

What’s hardly news to Saudi women but may come as a surprise to the West is that Saudi businesswomen carry tremendous influence in the Kingdom despite the disadvantages they face. Equally important is that this influence allows women to work around the obstacles that have
become symbols of our so-called oppression.

Indeed, Saudi women must navigate the slippery slope of Saudi society. The obvious issues of driving, male guardianship and the challenges of running our own businesses remain, but it’s by no means a cultural prison.

The reason is simple: Money talks.

John Esposito, who wrote last year “Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” has come up with some useful information that busts the stereotypes that are stated so often that many people now take as the truth.

Esposito, an Islamic affairs professor at Georgetown University and a rare Western scholar who can write about Islam with a clear head, estimates that 70 percent of the savings in Saudi banks are owned by women. Time magazine last year pegged the value to be at about $11 billion. That ought to wake up those who feel Saudi women are under men’s thumb. In addition, a great deal of the real estate in Jeddah and Riyadh are owned by women, while 61 percent of Kingdom’s private businesses are owned by females.

Give or take the 5 percent or so for margin of error in Esposito’s study, his findings nevertheless place women in a position of calling the shots both at home and in the workplace. This doesn’t open the floodgates for women to do as they please and reward or punish their husbands by withholding the pocketbook when he wants that new Ferrari.

It’s true that many businesswomen have given up operating business because the climate is often unfriendly. Part of the problem is finding a trustful male agent to represent a female-owned business while dealing with various Saudi agencies.

And two years ago more than 200 Saudi businesswomen complained that the Ministry of Labor continued to place obstacles in their path that hinders progress. They urged an overhaul of the system to ease those hurdles.

Many Saudi businesswomen find a way around these obstacles. And one way is to take their business elsewhere, such as another Gulf country that appreciates the impact Saudi-owned businesses can have on their own economy.

It’s perhaps that Saudi women have managed to work the system so well that the interest in women’s equal rights doesn’t rise to the level that activist organizations so desperately hope for. This is not to say that Saudi women do not want equal rights. To the contrary, but when women have worked so long and have become so adept to manipulating the Saudi system, the response often is, “Well, yes, but I have work to do …”

But consider Esposito’s other findings: Sixty-one percent of Saudi women want the same legal rights men. A majority opinion that was unheard of 10 years ago. Not surprisingly, 69 percent of the Saudi women want the right to work outside the home.

Money has empowered the Saudi female to a degree that had not been considered until recently. The difference today is that Saudi businesswomen have the tools necessary to grow their businesses and hire more women to help run them. The fact that nearly three-quarters
of the female population want the opportunity to work outside the home is not only indicative of their desire, but also the potential to accomplish their goals in the business community.

If the growing numbers of Saudi women who want to work outside the home join business female owners willing to give them jobs, then there is no limit to the kind of influence Saudi women can wield. But then again maybe that’s why the Ministry of Labor can’t find its way to easing the regulations regarding male agents. Too much influence makes the establishment nervous. But Saudi businesswomen still have the upper hand. They can take their money out of the bank and invest it elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Okay! Don't let me go to cinemas, but how about the gym?

One of the puzzling aspects about being a Saudi woman is the pressure from family, peers and even society to be a good Muslim woman. Be modest in public. Show your charms to your husband at home. We have an obligation to look our best.

Equally puzzling are the obstacles thrown in our way at every turn to be that good Muslim woman, not to mention the hypocrisy. For generations the Saudi female has been denied the right to physical exercise, this mundane yet vitally healthy aspect of living an active and happy life that benefits not only the woman but her entire family.

The absence of female physical education in Saudi schools has been for so long that few of us even consider the impact it has had on our society. I never participated in physical education as a child and it was only five years ago that I gave exercise any serious thought when I bought my first pair of walking shoes. For many young women outside of Saudi Arabia, jogging or walking is a part of their lifestyle and the day’s routine. For us in Saudi Arabia, the mere thought of venturing outside for a jog or walk is laughable because it’s considered eccentric. It has nothing to do with the heat.

Just a few months ago, Saudi women discovered that unlicensed women’s gyms were to be shut down. The irony is that the gyms are unlicensed because there is no government authority willing to assume the responsibility of issuing them.

Now comes Dr. Ali Abbas Al-Hakami, who belongs to the Board of Senior Ulema. Dr. Hakami offers women a glimmer of hope that may turn the tide of how Saudi society views the concept of female exercise. Dr. Hakami asserts that not only is exercise for women permitted under Sharia, but is a necessity.

“There is nothing stopping setting up women’s sports clubs provided nothing forbidden by Sharia occurs, such as mixing with men, exposing what should not be exposed, and other issues forbidden by Sharia,” Hakami told a Gulf reporter.

Makes sense. Of course, we have heard that before about women driving. But I still haven’t received my Saudi driver’s license in the mail.

The difference here is that Saudi Arabia is faced with some real urgent health issues. Thirty-five percent of the adult Saudi population is obese. One in four Saudi children has diabetes. Satellite television has brought pressure to Saudi women to look like models. This has led to Lina Almaeena, the founder of the Kingdom’s Jaguars, a women’s Jeddah United Sports basketball team, to point out that many Saudi women suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD, in which women have a skewed idea of what their bodies should look like.

This is the first I have heard such a thing, but it makes sense. The global community has gotten considerably smaller in the past decade thanks to television and the Internet and the image we have of ourselves has changed dramatically. How can a Saudi woman not compare herself to Tyra Banks or empathize with Oprah Winfrey’s fluctuating weight?

Almaeena, in an interview with a Gulf newspaper, argued that women’s sports are a necessity and no longer an option.

The benefits of physical exercise aside – really, that’s a given – it’s a matter of self-esteem. For all the times Saudi women are told that they are respected and must show respect in return, the Saudi woman must respect herself first. And that is severely lacking, which leads to depression. Consider the fact that Saudi women in general can’t drive, can’t travel alone and must answer to just about everybody in the household before blowing their noses. Then mix in all those helpful critiques from mom, dad, sisters and brothers about your less than perfect body. Suddenly, mental health becomes a real problem.

If our society decides that cinemas are not in the best interest of Saudis and that it’s better to have unannounced inspections of resorts to ensure we are living moral lives, then perhaps we should consider other activities that allow women an outlet other than going to Chili’s on Thursday night.

Licensing women’s sports clubs seems to be a reasonable, although partial, answer to this issues. Saudi women’s options are few these days. If it doesn’t conflict with Sharia, what are we waiting for?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Demonizing hijab-wearing Muslim women for politics

The battle against religious extremism is getting stranger by the day.Seemingly running out of ideas, new catchphrases and the energy it takes to root out terrorists cells, Western governments have discovered a novel way to attack the apparent root of all evil: the hijab.

I can’t think of a single item of clothing that has gotten government leaders so up in arms that they feel the urge to pass laws banning it from being worn in public places. Religious conservatives and Western lawmakers alike are responsible for turning the hijab into a potent political weapon.

The conservatives are calling Marwa Al-Sherbini, the Egyptian pharmacist murdered in a German courtroom, as the “headscarf martyr” because she died wearing the hijab. She had sued and won a judgment against a man who was convicted of attempting to remove Sherbini’s hijab and calling her a terrorist.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is now leading the charge to ban the burqa in France, equating it as a symbol of oppression against women. France already banned the hijab in public institutions in 2004. Even Sarkozy’s urban policies secretary, Fadela Amara, a Muslim who should know better, is on board to ban the burqa! “I am for the banning of this coffin which kills basic freedoms,” she said.

The hijab, the burqa, or the niqab that a Muslim woman wears, is not a political weapon to be used by governments to wage their battles of ideology. And I, for one, want my hijab back. Wearing it is my choice and nobody’s business but my own. As a Muslim woman I wonder why I must listen to a stranger, a man who probably never had a conversation with a hijabi, tell me what I should and should not wear.

There is a real, although not completely rational, fear among European conservatives of the so-called creeping Islamification. British tabloids raised a stink a few weeks ago that “85 Shariah courts” were operating in the United Kingdom, apparently forgetting that about 80 were simply arbitration panels to settle business and domestic disputes. But the message was clear that Islam was slowly taking over government.

To counter these fears, government leaders are targeting the hijab and burqa as the most obvious symbols of Islam. If law enforcement is seen as incapable of finding basement terrorists or existing laws can’t prevent the migration of Muslims to urban centers because it conflicts with democratic ideals, then banning the burqa and further suppression of the hijab will help placate a jittery public. I suppose the logic here is that if one can’t see symbols of Islam then the threat of violence by Al-Qaeda doesn’t exist.

This Band-Aid approach to a complex issue is kind of like the US government’s habit of passing stiff drug sentencing laws without addressing the root causes of drug abuse. It gives the appearance of action by putting people away for decades without solving a single thing.Worse, Sarkozy’s misguided attempts to “free” Muslim women from “oppression” by making wearing the burqa illegal shines an unnecessary spotlight on these women.

The burqa ban, if indeed passed by French lawmakers, will further victimize Muslim women. Sarkozy’s supporters seem to say that they apparently know better than Muslim women what they should wear or not wear.These proposed laws generate negative attitudes towards the burqa and hijab. Women today already struggle for equity in society, whether it’s in the East or West, but now they will be subjected to further scrutiny for what they wear. I don’t envy the hijab-wearing black woman who inevitably will have three strikes against her while she attends a parent-teacher conference at her child’s school in a predominately white neighborhood.

For all of the West’s insistence that Muslims assimilate into their society, governments have a tendency to set minorities up for failure by throwing enough obstacles in their path that makes integration almost impossible.

I was in California this month and visited a Catholic Church in Los Angeles while wearing my hijab. The earth didn’t shake and the sky didn’t fall. I was treated warmly by the parishioners. During my visit throughout the state I attracted the usual stares from non-Muslims, but I also received a compliment or two. Not once did I feel threatened or treated in a hostile manner.

Yet I wonder whether that friendly climate will change if the US or another Western nation restricted my choice to wear the hijab or banned my sisters from wearing the burqa. Regulating clothing suggests that there is something wrong with it and instantly places the wearer on the wrong side of society’s rules.The rules change depending on the whims of lawmakers who feel the urge to demonize a segment of society.

The West has a long history of demonizing minorities. The Jews, Poles, Irish, Italians and Mexicans can attest to that. Even today there is a movement in the US to deny US citizenship to US-born children of Mexican nationals despite a Constitutional amendment protecting them. Yet California streets and cities bear Spanish names, supermarket shelves are stocked with Mexican foods and virtually every restaurant serves Mexican food. Clearly assimilation has taken place.

But for now demonization seems to be necessary to fight ideological battles. That demon today appears to be the Muslim woman.