Saudi Women Set Their Sights on the Right to Vote

"Equality." Image from Al-Watan.

Last March, Saudi authorities stated that half the seats in the municipal council in the next September 2011 run would be elected, rather than selected by the monarch himself as usual. But when they implemented elections, they neglected to include women’s votes. When asked why, the kingdom’s electoral commission mentioned it was because of logistic-related difficulties in sex-segregated election stations, the same reason that was previously used back in 2005. Almost six years have passed and nothing has changed, proving only that logistic-related difficulties are only an excuse for not making changes.

“Women will not participate in this session,” Abdul- Rahman al-Dahmash, director of the kingdom’s electoral commission, said referring to the municipal balloting. “There is a plan, though not with a definite time, to put in place a framework so that women can participate in upcoming elections.”

Saudi women are not shutting up this time! Activists decided to create their own municipal council to cast their votes, and a whole online campaign called “Baladi” (“My country”) has been lunched and widely spread—it’s gathered 2,000 members in a short period of time. The campaign is solely run by women from different parts of Saudi Arabia:

We will never give up, and we will not stop our campaigning,” said Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi whose is a human rights activist and a history lecturer at King Saud University in Riyadh. [sic]

Several Saudi women have recently challenged this ban by showing up at voter registration offices in different Saudi cities demanding voter identification cards. Saudi blogger Zaki Safar reports:

When two young women made attempts to register to vote, they were subjected by some locals to a broad spectrum of insults, ranging from “unoriginal/impure Saudis” to “attention seekers” to “whores”. They were told “to stay home and raise kids,” and in some cases thought to warrant legal prosecution.

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Wiam Wahhab’s Trash-Talking Politics

Wiam Wahhab is the leader of the Tawhid Movement in Lebanon. A former MP and journalist, he is also a close ally of Syria. In a rant against Syria’s rival, Saudi Arabia, Wahhab compared Saudi women to “garbage bags,” in reference to the black niqab that is common in the country. Sparking the anger of protesters, Wahhab eventually retracted his statements, clarifying that his comments were not meant to insult the veil, but rather the lack of human rights afforded to women in Saudi Arabia.

While a follower of the Druze sect, Wahhab is still supported by Hezbollah. Therefore, this really isn’t a case of religious hatred as much as it is a case about politics.  Wahhab has a reputation for being an unapologetic advocate for Syria.  Therefore, it is not surprising that within the same speech, he also made attacks on the Wahhabi way of life, which is mostly tied to Saudi Arabia. His comments were in reference to a major anti-Hezbollah rally organised by the March 14th coalition, a pro-Saudi group. Thus, in light of Wahhab’s relationship with Hezbollah and Syria, his comments were not actually a comment on Muslim women, but rather a part of his own political agenda.

On the other side, those opposed to Wahhab used this opportunity to be outraged in support of the right of to wear a veil.  Over 500 Sunni protesters in Tripoli gathered to express their outrage, and many organizations called for him to retract his statements. [Read more...]

More female Saudi TV stars this Ramadan

This originally appeared in the Saudi Gazette.

Saudi TV dramas are undergoing a revolution with more Saudi actresses than ever before appearing in television serials this Ramadan. While Saudi actresses were once marginalized and relegated to minor roles in Arab TV dramas, they are now appearing in major roles and receiving star billing, Al-Riyadh Arabic daily reported on Sunday.

Among those who have recently become famous are: Reem Al-Abdullah, Aghadeer Al-Saeed, Hind Muhammad and Qamar Turk.

The appearance of Saudi actresses in a variety of roles in TV series this Ramadan has highlighted the pool of female acting talent in the Kingdom and has prompted many satellite TV stations to rush to sign contracts with these young women. This, in itself, is proof of the existence of the talent of Saudi women who only required direction and faith in themselves in order to succeed.

Many predict that in the coming years, the presence of Saudi women in Saudi-produced TV dramas will grow stronger, thus allowing Saudi drama to more accurately reflect the society.

In the controversial Tash Ma Tash serial, Reem Al-Abdullah plays the role of a woman with four husbands who wants to divorce one so she can marry for the fifth time.

Hind Muhammad, the 25-year-old Saudi actress, starred in the Kingdom’s first feature film Keif Al-Hal?, which was well received at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. The film revolves around a young woman who finds herself torn between modernity and tradition.

“Hind was brave in taking on the role of Dunya – other actresses in Riyadh would have hesitated,” Ayman Halawani, the producer told the BBC in May. “She’s shown that a Saudi actress can both be attractive and dignified.”

Putting Texts in Context: Saudi Text Tagging

Earlier this month, CNN Expansión reported that the Saudi government aimed to prohibit the Blackberry Messenger service, since it is considered a threat to national security because the service doesn’t allow the government to intercept messages.

Blackberry has become very popular among single young people, who use it as a way to connect with men or women in a society where gender segregation is strictly imposed. Although negotiations continue between Blackberry and the government, the government itself is “modernizing” its control tactics.

The Global Voices Blog has recently reported that the Saudi government is currently using a system that informs male guardians whenever a woman, who is their dependant, has traveled outside the country. Wajeha Al Huwaider, a women’s rights activist, was the first one to alert the media about this system, on which the Saudi government has refused to comment.

Eman Al Nafjan, a female Saudi blogger whose husband received a text when she recently left the country, explains how the system works: with the new tracking system, men may sign up for an online service which allows them to receive SMS notifications that let them know once a woman has left the country. A third party related to the government provides the service. As Malik reports in her article, it is not clear what the exact purpose of this measure is, since women who leave the country have already gotten permission from their guardians.

Al Huwaider affirms that, in Saudi Arabia, technology is being misused to oppress women. In addition, Nadya Khalife and Reem Asaad comment, that in addition to the difficulties presented to women who want to travel, this new application represents a threat to women’s freedom of mobility.

It’s not just women who are being tracked, however. Arab News reports that the service allows sponsors to be informed if a worker, who is under their responsibility, has “escaped” or acquired another profession. While some people find it useful in terms of their legal responsibility, others affirm that this will prevent workers to receive help in cases of abuse, especially towards domestic workers, such as maids.

An interesting thing is the fact that some people neither support nor reject the initiative, but instead they complain about the lack of response from Muslim activist groups. A woman explains that if the West had done the same to Muslim women, Muslim activists would have been protesting and complaining about Islamophobia. Although the service is not strange for those who know that women normally depend on their male relatives to perform daily activities in Saudi Arabia, women around the globe mocked and complained about the Saudi system.

However, Dr. Edit Schalaffer, who has performed extensive research on gender issues in the Kingdom, thinks that even though many people are tired of such restrictions, international pressure won’t help. Instead, she suggests, Saudi society should be encouraged to allow change to happen.

In a country where Qur’anic interpretation follows a very strict path, where the clergy has great political power and the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice looks after “proper” gender segregation and “good” female behavior, the implementation of this system may seem not so bad. However, more than a few women, and men, are having more than enough of such a control from the government.

Nothing is worse for a Saudi man than imagining himself a woman

This post was written by Eman Al Nafjan and originally appeared at her blog Saudiwoman’s Weblog.

Every Ramadan for the past sixteen years a show called Tash Ma Tash, which means something in the literal lines of “splash what may,” is closely watched by almost every Saudi household. The show is a satire of Saudi society and it’s funny, to say the least. It’s also been prohibited by several sheikhs as un-Islamic, especially due to the actors’ portrayal of those very same sheikhs.

Yesterday’s episode was even more controversial than usual–an episode that had the majority of Saudi men, both conservative and liberal, shocked to their bone marrow. In it, a Saudi woman marries four men because she’s “financially and emotionally capable and therefore can’t see a reason why not.” Those very same words we hear over and over again from polygamist Saudi men. However, when it’s a woman talking, even the most rational Saudi man turns rabid.

The expressions of disgust and revulsion were all over the place. One commenter wrote that he lost all respect for them ever since one of the lead actors wore a woman’s dress last year. As if that was the most degrading thing a man could do. We are so inferior as a gender that wearing our clothes, even as part of a comedy show, will demean you as a person.

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68 Percent of Saudi Girls Drop Last Name on Facebook

This was written by Iman al Khaddaf and originally appeared in Asharq Alawsat.

Are you on Facebook under your real name? This is the question that continues to haunt a large number of Saudi Arabian women, despite the fact that internet social networking sites rely primarily on factual personal information. However, a recent study carried out in Saudi Arabia shows that 68% of Saudi girls prefer to withhold their family name due to the sensitivity of this information, in comparison to just 32% of girls who appear on Facebook under their own full names. The study revealed that 16% of girls polled were members of Facebook under aliases or false identities. As for the Saudi Arabian boys who use Facebook, the study showed that 60% of those questioned were members of Facebook under their own full name, with just 4% appearing under an alias or a false name.

This information was disclosed as part of a study entitled, “The Methodology of Saudi Youth When Utilizing Social Networking Sites,” which was carried out by a group of students at the School of Computer Science at the King Saud University in Riyadh. The group of students surveyed a number of Saudi students, half of whom were studying at the King Saud University, while the other half were studying at secondary schools in Riyadh.

Ahoud al-Shaheel, a Professor of Communication at King Saud University, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the latest statistics on the Facebook phenomenon indicate that membership of the site is experiencing an annual growth of 9% amongst the youth. According to these statistics, there is one Saudi female for every 5 Saudi males registered on Facebook as of the end of 2009.

Al-Shaheel confirmed that she wanted to shed light on the methods which the Saudi youth were utilizing social networking sites, as a response to these sites gaining popularity, and more people spending more time on them.

The study highlighted how young men and women in Saudi Arabia are utilizing the social networking website Facebook. The study revealed that of the university student polled, 60% of male students uploaded a real picture of themselves, in comparison to just 5% of female students. While 10% of male students used an image of a famous person, 10% of female students use an image of somebody from their family, their father, brother, or another family member, with the remaining 8% utilizing an “ineligible image” (such as a drawing or cartoon or close-up of an eye, etc).

As for secondary school students, the study revealed that around 30% of boys and 60% of girls did not upload a picture whatsoever, while 10% of boys and 24% of girls uploaded a picture of a famous person. Sixteen percent of girls in secondary school utilized a picture of a family member.

With regards to uploading pictures and allowing others to view these, the students who conducted the study wrote, “it is difficult to judge the character of a young Saudi Arabian through images, and the majority of Saudi Arabians [on Facebook] only allow their friends to view their pictures. We [also] discovered that 40% of [Saudi] Facebook members only upload their pictures in order to allow their friends to post comments on them.”

On the nature of the comments posted on Facebook by university students, the study revealed that 10% of male students posted inappropriate comments, while the majority of other comments – estimated to be around 80% – were posts contributing to discussions or cultural topics. As for the language that these comments are posted in, the study revealed that 45% of posts are in English, 40% are in Arabic, with around 12% being posted in Anglicized Arabic (i.e. Arabic language written in English letters).

As for the secondary school students, the study revealed that 70% of male students post responses that vary between positive and negative comments, while 15% posted inappropriate comments. As for the language that these posts are made in, the proportion of comments posted in English [in comparison to the university students polled] increased to 54%, in comparison to 40% who posted in Anglicized Arabic, with a minority of just 6% who posted comments in Arabic.

As for the concerns of the youth utilizing the Facebook social networking site, the study showed that university students were more interested in cultural issues, with the male students focusing on sports and music, while the female students were more interested in shopping, fashion, music, and movies. Seventy percent of the university students who were involved in the study said they were interested in “general” issues, while 56% said that their interests were limited to their studies and personal hobbies.

In comparison, a small proportion of the Saudi Arabian secondary school students who took part in the study said that were interested in cultural or educational issues. The majority of these students said they were interested in general issues, with 60% said they utilized Facebook for making friends, with just 20% using Facebook with regards to their personal hobbies.

For his part, Dr. Saud Katib, a new media and internet specialist, told Asharq Al-Awsat that internet social networking sites have attracted young people [in the Middle East] and freed them from certain restrictions, allowing them the opportunity to express themselves and communicate with others. He said “social networking sites have narrowed the gap between real society and the desired society that we are searching for and trying to bring about.”

Dr. Katib said that social networking sites attract a portion of Saudi youth as a form of escapism, saying “Some girls in reality are fully covered up however in the virtual community they upload their personal pictures or albums.” When asked to give his opinion for the reason of this contradiction, Katib told Asharq Al-Awsat that “this is an attempt to overcome many of the customs present in real life.” He also clarified that the behavior of the youth in real life is different from their behavior in this virtual community, and he described this virtual community as “the community that they desire.”

Dr. Saud al-Katib analyzed the findings of this study, and said that a proportion of Saudi female students do not use their true names, or upload pictures of themselves, but instead upload anonymous picture of themselves such as a close-up of an eye, hair, etc. He said that the majority of Facebook pictures (uploaded by female students) focus on personal property with sentimental value or holiday pictures. The study described this as part of “a desire to boast and brag.”

It is worth mentioning that the most recent study carried out by the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission revealed that internet access in Saudi Arabia had increased to 36% of Saudi society as of the end of 2008, which represented an increase of around 6% from the previous year. The Ash-Sharqiyah province of Saudi Arabia has the highest proportion with regards to internet access, with 39% of the total population, followed by Riyadh with 37%.