Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Unexpected Ripple From Egypt

I freely admit, I did not see this one coming. My friend and fellow NQ writer, Linda Anselmi, shared the following article with me, most appropos for bringing to an end Women's History Month.

And that would be this Bloomberg article, Saudi Women Inspired by Fall of Mubarak Step Up Equality Demand. Wow, right? Honestly, I did not see this as a potential change, primarily because of the influx of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the very likely scenario that women who enjoyed more freedoms in Egypt, will soon be losing them (if they haven't already). Sill, this is exciting:
Activists among Saudi Arabia’s women, who can’t drive or vote and need male approval to work and travel, are turning to the type of online organizing that helped topple Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to force change in a system they say treats them like children.

The “Baladi” or “My Country” campaign is focused on this year’s municipal elections, only the second nationwide ballot that the absolute monarchy has allowed. The election board yesterday said women will be excluded from the Sept. 22 vote. Another group, the Saudi Women’s Revolution, citing inspiration from the Arab activism that grew into revolts against Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is pressing for equal treatment and urging international support.

The wave of anti-regime protests that spread from Tunisia and Egypt into some of Saudi Arabia’s Persian Gulf neighbors, such as Bahrain and Oman, hasn’t translated into mass street demonstrations in the kingdom that holds the world’s biggest oil reserves. Saudi rulers have taken steps to ensure it won’t, pledging almost $100 billion of spending on homes, jobs and benefits. They also deployed thousands of police in Riyadh on March 11, when a protest was planned by Internet organizers -- a group that increasingly includes Saudi women.

“Women are raised to fear men and to fear speaking out,” said Mona al-Ahmed, a 25-year-old in the coastal city of Jeddah. She said she joined the Women’s Revolution campaign after her brother refused to let her take her dream job, as a biochemist, because it would involve working in a mixed-gender environment. “I opened my eyes one day and said, ‘This is not the life I want’,” al-Ahmed said in a phone interview.

Well, I suppose that is one way of keeping the people in place, right? Ahem.

But this is telling indeed of how women in Saudi Arabia, our ally, live. We may hear bits and pieces about it, but at this point, it seems we just take for granted women are treated like shit there.

Think I am being hyperbolic? Think again:
[snip] Like other opposition and protest groups in Saudi Arabia, the women’s movement faces a tough task. The kingdom ranked as the least democratic state in the Middle East, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy Index.

“Women will not participate in this session,” Abdul- Rahman al-Dahmash, director of the kingdom’s electoral commission, said at a press conference yesterday, 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.”

Baladi said on its Facebook page that Saudi women “are like other women in the world who have hopes and ambitions” and must be allowed to vote.

While Saudi Arabia was placed in the top one-third of nations in the United Nations 2010 Human Development Report -- higher than European Union member Bulgaria -- its score for gender equality was much lower. On that UN measure, which includes assessments of reproductive health and participation in politics and the labor market, the country ranked 128th of 138 nations, below Iran and Pakistan. [snip]

You know it is bad when you rank BELOW Iran and Pakistan on the treatment of women. Seriously. How bad must you be to be WORSE than Iran and Pakistan??

Let's just pause for a moment and see how women are treated in Iran (I warn you, this is a difficult video to watch, contains violent images):

Women are worth half as much as men. They are culpable at the age of 9 for "crimes," while boys aren't until they are 16. Women cannot divorce their husbands. Men can have many wives. And that is but a minute amount of with what these women live.

Well, how about Pakistan, then? This video gives a good overview (again, difficult to watch):

"Considered to be the property of men." Uh, yeah. Not allowed to leave the house. Infant girls killed. Slave girls trapped from other countries and sold every day. Education morally corrupts girls, thus they should not have it.

And Saudi Arabia is farther down the list than Pakistan in its treatment of women.

I'm sorry, I need a moment to compose myself.

Back to the reality facing women in Saudi Arabia:
[snip] Saudi Arabia enforces the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam and its clerics say that requires strict segregation of the sexes, including in government offices, workplaces and public spaces such as restaurants. Other areas of discontent highlighted by women writers and activists include family law. A Saudi man can end his marriage by telling his wife, “You are divorced,” while women must go to a court or an authorized cleric to get a dissolution. Custody of children above a certain age is usually granted to the father.

Saudi Arabia is also one of the few countries that has a high rate of executions for women, Amnesty International said in a 2008 report. (Emphasis mine.) Adultery is among the capital offenses.


Those are among the goals of the Women’s Revolution group, which began as an exchange of Twitter messages among likeminded women, and now has more than 2,000 Facebook supporters. “Women are treated like minors, except if they commit a crime,” the group said in a statement on Facebook. “Then they are equal.”

Alia al-Faqih, 19, said this year’s Arab revolts inspired her to join the group and demand change in her country.

“The protesters in Egypt and Tunisia did something that was almost impossible,” she said in a telephone interview from Jeddah. “If they could bring down two tough presidents, why can’t we demand our rights?”

Why, indeed? Women in Saudia Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and many countries around the world must do just that - demand their rights. Though as noted above, with the increased presence of the Sharia Law-loving Muslim Brotherhood rising up in Egypt, simply getting a change at the top does not mean a change throughout the country. And in the case of Egypt, it is a change for the worse for women.

And speaking of change, there has been some lip service paid to changing the plight of women in Saudi Arabia, but it is largely window dressing:
[snip] Saudi Arabia’s ruler, King Abdullah, who turns 87 this year, has pledged to improve the status of women. He opened the kingdom’s first co-educational university in 2009, appointed its first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, the same year, and has promised steps to improve access to jobs for women, who make up about 15 percent of the workforce. That would help improve productivity in the kingdom’s oil-dominated economy, say analysts including John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi.

A change of policy in 2008 allowed women to stay in hotels without male guardians, and an amendment to the Labor Law allowed women to work in all fields “suitable to their nature.” Women can now study law at university, without being allowed to practice as lawyers in courts.

At some companies, such as billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding Co. (KINGDOM), women are permitted to work alongside men. That isn’t typical, though. Most companies that hire women must provide a women-only section that is off- limits to the male staff.

Human Rights Watch concluded in January that “reforms to date have involved largely symbolic steps to improve the visibility of women.” [snip] (Click here to read the rest.)

Yes, superficial reforms at best in Saudi Arabia, not the systemic changes in attitude and treatment of women that need to change.

I know I have asked this before, but how, how, in the Twenty-first century, are women around the globe still being treated as less than human, as chattel, as property, as worthless, as animals, as dirt? How do we, as a nation, not demand that the countries with whom we do business treat women as full human beings?

Lest anyone think this is a problem "over there," I assure you, what happens to women there affects women here. When an 11 year old girl can be gang raped, by adult men, numerous times, right here in Texas, as well as California, we must acknowledge that what happens to women and girls here, in Saudi Arabia, around the world, matters.

It matters a lot. Just after I finished writing this, I received an email from MADRE about the kidnapping and torture of a youth activist in Iraq. This kind of treatment of women is happening day in and day out, sadly.

And so, for those women in Saudi Arabia, may the ripples continue to widen. May they change the way women are treated, at home and abroad, may the treatment of women matter as much as the oil beneath the sands, and may women be treated as fully human around the globe. That is my prayer...

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