Monday, December 19, 2011

“What Do Saudi Women Want?"

“What Do Saudi Women Want?"

CDHR’s Comment: Saudi women want the most basic rights: recognition as full human beings, full citizenship, financial independence and the right to move freely. With gargantuan respect and admiration for Ms. Eman Al Nafjan’s intelligence, courage and struggle, I beg to differ with some of her insinuations that the majority of Saudi women prefers to live under what amounts to a modern slavery system. I agree with Ms. Al Nafjan that many women (and men) in the motherland remain nostalgic for their past and fearful of what’s denied to them. I disagree that the majority of the severely disenfranchised population, especially women, would not appreciate something better than living under institutionalized discriminatory and intimidating policies, harshly enforced by a system whose hegemonic survival depends on dividing, conquering and ensuring the population's dependence on handouts and omnipresent fear of God, whipping sticks and the sword. Like any people, if Saudi women and men have free choices based on facts and knowledge of better alternatives, the overwhelming majority is more likely to denounce every aspect of their rasping culture, distorted religious teachings and suffocating social and political arrangements.
The Saudi people can learn, think for themselves and distinguish between the good, the bad and everything in between. They can change and in due time embrace values that are the antithesis of what they have been programmed into believing are supreme to all other values, especially those of the “infidels," which most educated Saudi men and women strive to attain. This is evidenced by traveling Saudis, most of whom cannot wait to board a plane and strip off their suffocating and unsightly attire and to slip into the outfits people they have been told are dirty, unethical sinners and hell-bound blasphemous unbelievers.
I agree with Ms. Al Nafjan and millions of Saudis and other Muslims that religion has been used as a tool of oppression, discrimination, segregation and intolerance against those who think out of the box, as well as non-Muslims and Muslim minorities. This is why many Muslims are not only questioning the authenticity of their faith, but severely criticizing it and many are leaving it altogether. The quandary is not that Saudi women and men cannot labor for, embrace and appreciate independence, self-reliance and liberation from the yoke of political, social, sexual and religious totalitarianism, it’s the system under which they are forced to live and coercively obey. All the people need is freedom of choices to venture into the unknown, explore their untapped potential and put them in good use for themselves and for their influential country.
What needs to be done to alter for the people of the motherland, including those who rule, is a re-interpretation of Muslim textbooks, leaving religion to the individual, transforming all institutions to meet people’s needs now and installing an accountable and transparent mechanism whereby the people are in charge of their country’s safety, prosperity and destiny. This will take time to blossom, but the time to start is now before violence becomes the only hope for people to realize their dreams and become the authors of their fate.
Finally and based on first hand experiences, I found Saudi women to be the most resilient people I have ever met, worked with, befriended and watched since I was a child in the oppressed southern region of the vast land of Arabia. Sadly and inexplicably, the theocratic and autocratic iron-fisted ruling men are not taking notice of the people's aspirations and based on their history and state of mind they are not likely going to change until they have no choice. By then it will be too late for everyone.

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What Do Saudi Women Want?
It's not as simple as driving, voting, and property.

What do Saudi women want? I wish I could give you an easy answer. But Saudi Arabia is a diverse land -- spread out across a vast territory almost a fourth the size of the United States and divided by religious sects and among some 45 tribes. Divining the Saudi people's demands, never mind those of Saudi women, is no simple task.
By law, every Saudi woman has a male guardian. At birth, the guardianship is given to her father and then upon marriage to her husband. If a woman is a widow, her guardianship is given to her son -- meaning that she would need her own son's permission for the majority of her interactions with the government, including the right to travel abroad. Legal recourse is difficult to obtain, especially because abuse is only recognized when it's physical abuse. Even then, the Saudi justice system is patriarchal, bordering on the misogynistic. For example, to this day the Justice Ministry has not issued a law banning child marriage, leaving the decision at the discretion of the girl's father.
You would think that women living under these conditions would long for liberty, independence, and civil rights. Many do -- as this year's driving campaign makes clear. However, it's just not that simple. Millions of others are still not sure they are ready for change. Some explain their indecision as a fear that they might have to assume responsibilities they are incapable of undertaking. One fellow Saudi tells me that she sees what women have to put up with abroad: "I see how American women have to run around the city running errands, and I don't want to open that door. As long as women driving is banned, no one will have these expectations for me," she says.
In fact, Saudi Arabia may be even more conservative than most outsiders think. There are some who are not only passively happy with the status quo but also loud in their resistance to any form of change. In 2009, a Jeddah woman named Rawdah Al-Yousif, in collaboration with members of the royal family, organized a campaign to strengthen the guardianship system. It was called "My Guardian Knows What's Best for Me." They urged the king not to give in to local activists and international human rights organizations regarding the guardianship system. Another campaign gathered thousands of signatures from both men and women calling for the extension of gender segregation laws to hospitals -- the same segregation laws that have led to Saudi women only making up 15 percent of the national workforce and an unemployment rate for women so high that the government won't release the numbers. The only public places where these laws are not enforced are malls and hospitals. Yet there are Saudis who would like to see segregation even there.
None of this is a surprise, considering what is being taught in the public school system. In religion classes, students learn that the Saudi interpretation of Islam supersedes any worldly concepts of human rights. Women have the most to lose, yet these ideas are so ingrained that I defy you to find a report of a Saudi mother complaining about what her children are being taught.
Women in most countries may take their aspirations for freedom for granted, but for many of us, it is brand new. An exasperated expatriate in Riyadh once expressed to me how frustrated she was with the requirement to wear an abaya everywhere. She wondered: How do you all put up with having to cover your faces for your whole adult lives? What she didn't realize was that many Saudi women look at her and wonder: How can she walk around without an abaya? How is it that she doesn't feel exposed and naked?
Yet I am happy to say that I am one of many women hungry for self-determination -- women who have realized that though liberty and rights come with responsibility, it also gives them and their daughters the autonomy to pursue their happiness.
And yes, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Saudi women who are fighting for their rights -- and the well-covered driving campaign is just one of many battles, from fighting for the right to manage their own businesses to being allowed to freely leave and enter the country without their guardian's permission. Even something as simple as recognizing women lawyers in our judicial system could be transformational. And that, of course, is why it is so hard.

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