Posts Tagged Saudi Arabia
Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy has a piece in this month’s Foreign Policy on the problems faced by women in the Arab world. This is a very important article and I would encourage you all to read it, but I want to highlight the central point in her thesis — which has been proven overwhelmingly by the response that has exploded literally hours since her article went online (the print edition is not even out yet).
Eltahawy begins her essay with the point that when anyone normally brings up the issue of Arab women, they are shouted-down with problems women face in the West. As if this is a reason not to speak about something far, far worse.
This is the third-worldist cultural relativism that I have highlighted a few times. It is the insipid prejudice of low expectations — using “cultural differences” to justify holding others to a lower standard. It’s hard to even imagine the outcry that would follow a white, American pastor coming out in support of female genital mutilation — yet one of the leading clerical celebrities in the Arab world does so unashamedly and no one blinks. He even gets invited to hang out with London Mayoral candidate and career antisemite Ken Livingstone.
If no one says anything, nothing will ever get done about this. Good on Eltahawy for standing up to the cultural pressures trying to crush her into silence. Elections in Egypt will not bring democracy so long as female candidates cannot even have their faces on electoral material.
So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many “Western” countries (I live in one of them). That’s where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women.
But let’s put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to women. Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either. …
First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our “culture” and “religion” to do X, Y, or Z to women.
Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man — Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in desperation — but they will be finished by Arab women.
Saudi women are slowly starting to fight back. This is great to see!
Women who have driving licences obtained abroad are urged to get behind the wheel and use their cars themselves, without relying on male drivers as required by Saudi fatwa.
The campaign’s Facebook page, Women2Drive, said the action was due to start yesterday and would keep going “until a royal decree allowing women to drive is issued”.
There is no secular law banning women from driving in the oil-rich kingdom, but the Interior Ministry imposes regulations based on fatwa, or religious edict, that women should not be permitted to drive.
Note the last sentence there. That is why there needs to be a separation of mosque and state…
Arab News gave us some Saudi women’s perspectives on driving.
I don’t even know where to start…
“When we want to go to a shopping center or to the hospital, the driver drops us at the main entrance and drives away. We don’t have to care about remembering where we parked our car or parking far away from the door,” said Zaina Al-Salem, a 29-year-old banker. When I travel to a country where I can drive, I’m usually burdened about the part when I get to park my car and walk all the way to the store.”
“We always complain about Saudi men’s driving. What makes women better than them? At least men have been practicing this for a while, and if it happened for women then they would have zero experience,” she said. Even the streets are not built well for driving. The streets are damaged and bumpy and most women will not be able to handle them.”
At least it ends on a kind of high note:
“I know for sure that day will come when Saudi women can drive, and when that happens people will not accept it and fathers will forbid their daughters from driving. In fact they might get recruit a female driver instead of a male.”
So it seems that while the West sit here twiddling our thumbs on Libya, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have decided to intervene militarily in Bahrain.
For the first time since the eruption of popular protests in the Middle East last December, Arab military forces are being deployed in a neighboring state, as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) forces entered Bahrain on Monday at the invitation of the government.
But analysts and activists said the 1,200 Saudi troops and 800 police personnel from the UAE are being used not to stabilize Bahrain but to reverse the drive for reform and democracy. The move came two days after US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain and pressed its rulers to implement political reforms to defuse tensions with the Shi’ite Muslim majority.
Bahrain may be tiny and poor, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. It’s a Sunni-ruled Shiite-majority country, it sits on the Saudi side of the Persian Gulf, right next to Saudi’s oil-rich region, which also has a Shiite majority. Saudi is terrified that unrest in Bahrain could spread to this region, as you should be, because that would cause petrol prices to soar higher than you have ever seen.
Of course, this puts it right across the water from Iran – the centre of the Shiite world, amongst other (less savoury) things. There has been speculation that Iran is secretly behind the Bahraini protests, but regardless of the truth of this, the toppling of the Bahraini regime would almost definitely see Iran gaining a foothold right next to Saudi Arabia.
Naturally, Iran has strongly been denouncing any intervention in the situation (and I feel like reform and democracy are not its top priorities):
Iran, which has forecfully cracked down on anti-regime protesters in its own county in recent weeks, denounced the arrival of Saudi troops in Bahrain on Tuesday, arguing, in the words of an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, that foreign “interference and increasing suppression and violent confrontation is not the solution to the legitimate demands of the [Bahraini] people.
Of course they care more about the legitimate demands of the Bahraini people than the legitimate demands of the Iranian people, when they are more than happy to endorse increasing suppression and violent confrontation in order to hold onto their power.
This Saudi intervention, therefore, may be more likely to save Bahrain from becoming a theocracy/Iranian puppet with a worse human rights situation than currently exists. Then again, the Bahraini rebels could be resistant to the Iranian influence and their proximity to Saudi Arabia may help them establish an anti-Iran Shiite country, with a little support and shielding.
Women could be the saviours of the Arab World
The Australian media this week has been intently focussed on how many women we have on corporate boards, why there aren’t enough and how to solve this. There was even an odd slip-up from shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, who in a complete break from the Liberal Party’s usual position, promoted the idea of gender quotas for corporate boards on ABC’s Q and A (this was subsequently rejected by Tony Abbot).
For the record, I am completely against the idea of quotas – I believe that it is dangerous and counter-productive. People promoted in order to fill a quota know that this is why they were chosen for the position and so do their colleagues. Not only is it extremely patronising to be told “we’d like to bump you up to management because we’re trying to put more [minority] there”, but the person will likely struggle with a position that they are not qualified for and they will be resented by their colleagues who had to work harder to get to the same place.
So now that I’ve finished that little rant, here’s a more interesting point. I was sent this article ages ago, but only just got round to reading it – it’s an interview with veteran Middle East analyst Bernard Lewis by David Horovitz for the Jerusalem Post. Lewis reaffirms a lot of what I’ve been saying about democracy in the Middle East, particularly the Western fixation on elections, but he adds some great insights. One thing worth reading the article for is his idea of consultative rather than electoral democracy as a model that would work in the Middle East.
The other thing that stuck out was what he said about women:
There’s one other group of people that I think one should bear in mind when considering the future of the Middle East, and that is women. The case has been made, and I think there is some force in it, that the main reason for the relative backwardness of the Islamic world compared to the West is the treatment of women. As far as I know, it was first made by a Turkish writer called Namik Kemal in about 1880. At that time an agonizing debate had been going on for more than a century: What went wrong? Why did we fall behind the West?
He said, “The answer is very clear. We fell behind the West because of the way we treat our women. By the way we treat our women we deprive ourselves of the talents and services of half the population. And we submit the early education of the other half to ignorant and downtrodden mothers.”
It goes further than that. A child who grows up in a traditional Muslim household is accustomed to authoritarian, autocratic rule from the start. I think the position of women is of crucial importance.
I’ve heard this argument before and it makes a lot of sense. The Middle East is being run by men who were raised by uneducated and subjugated women, in households where their fathers were unquestionably in charge. It does not require a huge amount of imagination to see how this would result in an autocratic culture.
The exclusion of women in the work force also leads to the extremely high fertility rate that is really the cause of all this Arab unrest – there are constantly more and more youth reaching working age and less and less jobs to acommodate them; this led to the anger that we saw exploding so vividly.
Growth rates are consistently too slow to keep pace with the population, and little space remains for private entrepreneurship. In its 2009 Arab Human Development Report, the United Nations found that, as of 2007, the Arab states as a whole were less industrialised than they were in 1970, with governments using revenue from oil, gas and other outside receipts to maintain the large public workforce and cheap goods.
It feels really ironic that there has been such an outcry in a country with a female prime minister and a number of women in very high-profile positions. Obviously Australia has a lot to work on, but really we’re lightyears ahead of some parts of the world. Consider the problems we’ve been debating in our newspapers with the debate in Saudi Arabia. For example, Samar Fatani for the Arab News:
Economists stress that the high cost of living and inflation make it difficult for single-income families to provide the basic needs of the average family living in Saudi Arabia today. The participation of women in the work force is no longer a luxury; it has become an economic necessity. Therefore, it is crucial now to mobilize a more effective national program to tap women’s talent, enhance their skills and provide them with career opportunities so they may contribute equally in our nation’s social and economic development.
Women have every right to be provided with a healthy, civilized lifestyle more in tune with the 21st century way of life. We need to see women in the council of senior scholars or as advisers to the grand mufti to address their needs and grievances and have a say in decisions that affect their lives and their families. Women face injustice and discrimination because many judges and senior ulemas are unaware of the suffering.
Cultural limitations and tribal laws rather than religious rulings are the impediments that are strangling our country. It is time for the educated to boldly counter the vicious campaign of the extremists — men and women — who continue to attack progress. It is ironic how these “medievalists” so resistant to change adopt the Internet and modern media to attack the educated calling for the empowerment of women in Saudi society.
Of course, this isn’t absolutely true across the Middle East. Lewis points to Tunisia as the notable exception and Fatani also praises several of the smaller Gulf states, such as the UAE and Kuwait. Nevertheless, there are not only tribal regions and societies, but entire countries in the Middle East where a 7th century view on human rights, as well as women’s rights, is seen as the ideal – with social norms and legislation reflecting this. This attitude is detrimental to the whole society and is one of the key reasons for the backwardness of the region in relation to the rest of the world. If women take a leading role in these revolutions that are happening everywhere, there may be a chance of genuine progress in the Middle East.
Chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Saed Erekat came out today and said that peace talks are now over. As if this were actually news:
“The talks [with Israel] have ended,” Erekat declared. “The government of Binyamin Netanyahu is trying to scrap all what was agreed upon in previous sessions of negotiations. They want to take us back to point zero.”
He added that the Netanyahu government’s platform was based on settlements, dictates, walls, incursions, assassinations, sieges and closures.
The talks have ended and it’s time for the Palestinians to make decisions, he said without elaborating.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu himself seems to disagree with Mr Erekat – coming out and saying that actually, Israel would have committed to another settlement freeze, but the US wouldn’t promise not to ask for more when (and this is definitely not “if”) the peace talks failed again. He re-iterated that he wants peace and it’s actually Erekat’s camp that’s holding everyone up:
Israel was willing to extend the settlement freeze for another three months but decided not to “because the US said that what would happen is that we’d end up spending a lot of political capital, and on the 91st day, they [the Palestinians] would ask for more,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday during a speech to foreign journalists.
Netanyahu reiterated that “no coalition will prevent me from pursuing a peace that I believe in. If I move forward with a peace agreement, it means I believe in it, and I can get the support of the Israeli public.”
Speaking about the Palestinians, the prime minister said, “I hate to use cliches, but this is a cliche I have to use. The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
He added, “There is no shortcut for negotiations, the only way to get to peace is negotiations.”
On the other side of things, an Iranian newspaper has called Wahhabism, the Saudi Arabian brand of Islam, the “dark side of Islam“. They even had that awesome picture above with the half Saudi and half Israeli keffiyeh, just to show how Saudi Arabia is in league with the Jews. Makes sense, right?
Well probably not for close Saudi ally Egypt. See, Egyptian sensors have stalled their decision on whether to classify upcoming Hollywood flick Fair Game because there is an Israeli actress in the movie, which apparently doesn’t sit well with Israel’s closest ally in the Arab world and one of only two Arab countries to recognise Israel. Seems fair enough to me, those Israelis can’t really act.