Friday, April 11, 2014

An uncertain future for women lawyers

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 15/4/2013

Arwa Al-Hujaili's hiring as the first Saudi woman trainee lawyer is a major step toward equality for female professionals in the legal field. But it is far from an ideal situation and the future for other women in the same field remains clouded with uncertainty.

The Ministry of Justice has shown insight and forward thinking by granting Al-Hujaili permission to work as an attorney. The Justice Ministry opened the door a tiny crack that eventually will pave the way for more women to practice law. But let’s not forget the torturous path women took to get here. 
After years of begging to get inside the courtroom and being rebuffed at every turn, women law degree holders began a concerted campaign in 2011 to be allowed to practice law in their own country. 
Last October, the ministry unexpectedly decided that Saudi women lawyers could argue cases in the court. But it took us until April to get our first trainee.
Whether Al-Hujaili actually gets inside the courtroom is the mystery.
According to the rules and regulations governing such things, the trainee lawyer must work for another attorney who has been practicing law in Saudi Arabia for five years. 
The training period could last up to three years. In theory, she is allowed to practice law, but in reality we really don’t know what Al-Hujaili will do once she steps inside a courtroom. Even if the Justice Ministry signed off on courtroom appearances will her male colleagues and the judge agree? What obstacles will she face?
The government’s motives appear to be sincere. In February, we saw the Shoura Council receives its first women members. Already they are making an impact on the decision-making process. And unsurprisingly some of the major issues female Shoura Council members are tackling are in the domestic courts. 
The domestic court system has historically behaved unfavorably to women in matters of divorce, alimony and child support. That is slowly changing, and the addition of women lawyers in the domestic courts can help better balance the scales of justice for women in general.
Yet there is no clear indication from any government sector just what women lawyers will be permitted to do. Frankly, actually practicing law before a judge seems remote at best. 
And let’s not kid ourselves that women will actually have equal footing to their male counterparts. Let’s also remember that men and women are usually segregated in court. Other issues include whether a woman who specializes in criminal law will be able to represent criminal defendants. 
The courts may adopt the Ministry of Labor’s policy that women can work as long as the job is suitable for her gender. It then may open the possibility of systemic abuses of banning women from practicing criminal law because a male-dominated oversight committee may determine that type of legal work does not suit her. 
Imagine the obstacles a female criminal defense lawyer will face if she represents a man accused of child molestation or a gruesome homicide. Whether she is free to defend whom she pleases has not been outlined by the government.
But Saudi Arabia is a country that takes its progress in tiny increments. The issue of what kind of law women may practice is far down the line. 
Getting women to practice domestic law is more practical. Here, a real change is possible. For the first time women navigating the mysteries of domestic court can rely on a woman lawyer to help them understand the system. 
Female clients uncertain about facing a legal system with a reputation of favoring husbands and fathers also face the burden of telling their story to a male lawyer, who is also likely a stranger. Having a woman hear a female client’s story can ease the trauma and indignity of domestic court.
The move by the Justice Ministry is encouraging. This should be recognized as a tentative step by the ministry to test the waters. 
There will undoubtedly be resistance from lawyers and judges. Even potential clients. But since the door is indeed open to allow at least some women practice law, then transparent guidelines must be available to provide a clear picture of what female law graduates can expect. 

Keeping ourselves occupied

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 11/4/2013
So let me count the ways Saudi families can find entertainment in our beloved country. There’s eating. And then there’s…
OK, let’s not count the ways. I considered my family’s limited options the other day when we decided to go to a mall for a bit of entertainment shopping and entertainment eating. We stumbled upon a bowling alley tucked away in a corner on the bottom floor and decided to give it a try. So my husband and I, and my two nieces and nephew threw gutter balls and hit the occasional pin. I might have scored 35 out of a possible 300, but my day had been made.
There were not many people bowling and there was plenty of lanes open. Behind the alley were billiard tables where a couple of young girls were playing. On the other side in the bachelor’s section there was no bowling but plenty of billiard tables. They had the added bonus of a go-kart track, but Saudi Arabia being what it is, girls were not permitted behind the wheel.
The occasional amusement park in Jeddah and children’s arcade at the mall are off-limits to single guys. Between the restrictions enforced at the bowling alley, arcade and go-kart track there are very few options for entire families to enjoy.
And although I am Saudi and I am supposed to have insider knowledge about the inner workings of Saudi government and policy (at least according to my expat friends), I am completely baffled about the contradictions in our society. We emphasize family unity, but fail to provide venues for family entertainment. When we do find available entertainment, we exclude single guys or women altogether. We wage awareness campaigns to combat obesity and diabetes, yet eating rich food is our primary form of pleasure away from home. Saudis are sinking in credit card debt, but mall shopping is second only to eating as a way to occupy our free time.
At the bowling alley, the family next to us was a religious guy in his short thobe, and what looked to be a couple of black-gloved, black-socked fully covered daughters. He didn’t bowl, but he happily watched the girls have fun. He defied the stereotypes of religious conservatives wishing to inflict misery on the Saudi population by having us sit alone at home 24/7 with only our thoughts to entertain us.
But with any stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in our perception of the so-called experts on religion. When I was a kid in Madinah, families used to go to the desert and rent horses for a day of horseback riding. Those horses, however, disappeared on the pretense they were abused, when in fact it was an exhilarating activity that kept families engaged with one another for hours at a time. But like the recent closing of children’s arcades in Madinah malls, someone thought that too much fun was somehow haram.
These so-called experts define for Saudi society what is acceptable and what is not, conveniently forgetting that the Prophet (peace be upon him) enjoyed playing with children, socializing with other families and enjoying recreation. Didn’t the Prophet (pbuh) compete against Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) in running games and didn’t he encourage sports?
There are plenty of Hadiths that point to the importance of recreation because it helps us regain our vitality and increase our productivity at work. In fact, Islam encourages us to alternate our schedules that include worship, recreation, managing our affairs, having rest and being attentive to our spouse and children.
The dearth of entertainment venues contradicts the fundamental principles of Islam. Our religion encourages us to recharge our batteries to regain that vitality and become more productive at work, which in essence is another form of worship.
Finding no place to go bowling, play billiards or table tennis, or waiting for the day that a cinema opens, is not acceptable in a society that puts a premium on family.

Humility, compassion in the land of the Two Holy Mosques

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 8/4/2013

King Abdullah's instructions to the Ministries of Interior and Labor to give employers and expatriate workers a 90-day grace period to get their house in order is a welcome decision.
Although some expats and Saudi businesses say that three months is not long enough to straighten out sponsorship issues, the orders pretty much eases the tensions between expats, their employers and the ministries until cooler heads can prevail. This cooling off period allows expats in particular to assess their future.
If expats decide to leave the country, the reprieve allows them time to serve notice of termination and to receive their end of service benefits. Hopefully, for those workers who want to stay in Saudi Arabia, the grace period gives them time to return to the sponsors, move their sponsorship to the appropriate employer, or at least start the paperwork that allows them to stay in the country and continue to earn a living.
Although the king warned expat workers that “action will be taken in accordance with the law against those expatriates who fail to correct their status within this grace period,” there also was another message: Saudi Arabia is the land of the Two Holy Mosques and no person should be frightened in this land, even if it means carrying out the law of the land.
This should serve as a message to employers to fear Allah and to stop frightening their workers. If employers need workers, then by all means bring that person in to work, but don’t do it just to make another SR 500 profit.
Workers should be employed to give them a living wage and keep the company profitable, but to allow employers to get greedy.
The recent Ministry of Labor raids on businesses should also serve as a reminder that recruiting agencies and expats coming to Saudi Arabia should be aware of the rights of workers before they arrive. Admittedly, some Saudis are not the best in handling domestic workers, which has led to thousands of cases of runaways. But the recent law that establishes eight private companies to be directly responsible for all domestic workers should go a long way to protect workers, and to protect employers who are victimized by maids and drivers who run away for higher salaries or to join their families already living in the Kingdom.
Many Saudis have had experience of paying up to SR 8,000 for maids’ visas only to have a maid run away to join her family or to use a broker to find her a better paying job.
Then there are the maids who fall victim to scams because of their illegal status. They lose their legal status and medical benefits and have no where to turn. They are the perfect target for exploitation. I know of one illegal maid who was kidnapped by a taxi driver and forced into an illegal marriage with a man 30 years her senior.
He exploited her illegal status by threatening to turn her in if she didn’t submit to the marriage.
The grace periods allows maids such as the one I know to think about their status and decide whether return to her native country or finding a way to become legal again. It’s a fix-it period without fear and pressure.
Yet, having said that, and given the realities of just how much — or how little — can be accomplished in just 90 days, the ministries and employers should consider that because we do indeed live in the land of the Two Holy Mosques that we proceed with the sponsorship issues with humility and compassion.

Reduce our dependence on expatriates, but also avoid frightening them 

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 4/4/2013
There is a guy I know who wanted to work in Saudi Arabia because he would be close to Makkah and Madinah.
He’s Pakistani and a certified accountant educated in London. Last December, he received an open visa from Pakistan, and after arriving in the Kingdom he obtained his iqama two months later. His father gave up his pension to pay SR 31,000 for the open visa. He started work as a supervisor at the King Abdullah Sports City. On March 30, he lost his job because he was not working for his sponsor.
“Everybody knows that no one can work with his sponsor,” he told me.
My expat friend is like thousands, if not millions, of others who have legal residency with a valid iqama and work for companies that do not sponsor them. They live in Saudi Arabia legally and are simply following the customs and traditions of our country when it comes to employment. They follow the rules that we have laid down for them. They obtain that all-important iqama and are granted permission from their sponsors to work for someone else.
The accountant is now out of a job and stranded in the Kingdom. He doesn’t have the ability to pay his expenses here, let alone airfare for the trip home.
I’m all for having Saudi Arabia become less dependent on expatriate labor. Yes, I want Saudis employed. I want to see them in high-level management positions, but I also want to see them as mid-level managers and low-level supervisors. I want them drawing blood at hospitals, selling cars and working at Hardee’s and McDonald’s. Saudis digging ditches is fine by me as well.
We have become so dependent on expats, and at the same time so arrogant that we don’t want certain jobs. Now that has come back to bite us as tens of thousands of Saudi men and women remain unemployed. And it will get worse as Saudi scholarship students return from abroad with degrees in hand but not jobs.
But I wonder whether it is worth it to make the expat community fearful to live in our country. The streets of Jeddah have been deserted the last few days because everyone is afraid to venture out. School administrators, fearful of raids to seize iqamas and detain employees, have closed campuses on a forced holiday. Hundreds of major employers have sent employees home without pay to stay out of harm’s way until things have cooled down.
Our current sponsorship system has created this monster that is full of abuses. We have demonized and penalized workers who are legal residents and have followed the rules. If anything, the sponsors should be held accountable for allowing workers to be employed elsewhere without regard to the consequences. It’s the sponsors, not expat workers, who have ignored Saudization and Nitaqat requirements and government pleas to employ more Saudis. It’s the government that permits recruiting agencies to hire foreigners for jobs.
The Saudi government has encouraged, or at least turned a blind eye to the abuses of the system. Although the government is right to finally clamp down on the abuses, targeting expats only creates tension between foreigners and Saudis and leads to instability in the country. They are plenty of people in the region that want turmoil in Saudi Arabia and the recent raids on workplaces only feed into desire for instability.
My friend the accountant wants to see the visa rules changed to prevent people coming to Saudi Arabia with false hopes and false promises only to find themselves stranded without a job, money or a decent place to live. He wants to know who will refund the cost of his open visa, or the time and money he spent to move to Saudi Arabia.
There have been suggestions that Saudi Arabia drop the sponsorship system and develop a migrant worker or immigration system that permits immigration based on the education and the skill set of workers. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. It would take years to phase out the sponsorship program and replace it with something more fair. Sponsorship is an archaic notion that does not fit the needs of Saudi society in the 21st century.
But what to do in the mean time? Perhaps now is the time to freeze recruitment. At the same time the government can phase out the sponsorship system through attrition and financial incentives, such as End of Service Benefits bonuses, to encourage expats to return to their home country.
That way our dependence on expat labor is reduced through an orderly manner and through a legal process. It will also reduce the panic among our guests and save the Kingdom from embarrassment over the way we treat people who live and work here.

Ignoring the stereotypes of expats, Saudis

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 1/4/2013
The knock against Saudis from expatriates is that Saudis rarely mix with foreigners; that it is virtually impossible to get to know Saudis and that Saudis are not particularly hospitable.
Like most generalizations and stereotyping, there is a grain of truth in the portrait painted by expats of their Saudi hosts. I was thinking about this the other day when I took a brief break to visit my family over the weekend in Madinah. There, my sister invited a couple over for dinner. The husband was Lebanese and the wife was German.
The wife told me that when she first arrived in Saudi Arabia, she didn’t like it and after a few months returned home. But her husband encouraged her to give the Kingdom another chance and she returned. She soon picked up Arabic and began socializing with her Saudi neighbors. By the end of the night of our dinner, she was dancing with my sisters and carrying on long conversations in Arabic.
The woman made a concerted effort to blend into Saudi culture, although she was clearly an outsider from the very beginning and had little incentive, beyond the pleadings of her husband, to assimilate into our society. There are plenty of expats like her who take the dive and all but find a way to make friends of Saudis.
I know of expats like her, but I must admit there are not that many who can make friends as easily as her. From a distance, Saudis can look and behave rather stern and unforgiving, sending the wrong signals about his or her true nature.
I recall once at the airport, a Saudi shouted across the baggage claim area to a porter to come and collect his bags. The Saudi pushed aside women to retrieve his bags from the belt, and then demanded loudly that the porter come immediately. For many foreigners, it was probably their first impression of Saudi Arabia as they entered the country. In another instance, my husband recalled waiting to make a transaction at a Western Union office when a Saudi woman entered the office full of expats, grabbed her maid by the hair and pulled her out of line and literally threw her into the car. That was years ago, but my husband, an expat, remembers the scene to this day.
First impressions often cement in our minds the ideas we have about other cultures. Saudis often feel there is a spotlight on us whether it’s the fallout from the Arab Spring, 9/11 or simply the women’s driving issue. It can be a little much sometimes. We are also held to a high standard among Muslims because we live in the birthplace of the Prophet (peace be upon him). But for reasons absolutely unknown to me, some Saudis appear to have lost their national and religious identity.
On a recent visit to the airport again, I had a three-hour wait for my flight. I decided to go pray at the airport mosque. I stepped inside the women’s section of the mosque to find women and children using it as a waiting area. They had food spread out on the carpet as if they were at a picnic. They were sleeping or changing babies’ diapers. They talked loudly and children screeched. As I prepare to pray I could smell urine in the carpet. Expats clean the mosques and foreigners traveling to other destinations or waiting for their own flights use it. I wonder what impression they have of Saudis after a visit similar.
If an expat works for an employer that has a sizable number of Saudis on the payroll, then there is an opportunity to meet Saudis, become co-workers and colleagues, and eventually become friends. If one’s exposure to Saudis is more or less in public there is little chance for an extended conversation. Then bad impressions can be made and the prospect of socializing among expats and Saudis is minimal.
Last year I went to the states with my husband for a holiday. Jet-lagged and sleepless at 3 in the morning, we drove to our favorite all-night coffee shop for breakfast. A couple of tables away was a loud and obnoxious American with two other couples. He dominated the conversation and used vulgar language. He spotted my husband and I and began directing comments to us. It became so bad that the restaurant manager had to tell him to quiet down. His boorish behavior would have continued, but two police officers entered the restaurant and he piped down.
If this was my first visit to the United States, this crude man may have given me the impression that all Americans were like this. I know better, but I have heard stories from some Saudis about similar experiences, and their perception of Americans is tainted.
Just imagine the impression we sometimes give to foreigners based on reversed circumstances.

Older big trucks pose more risks than old cars

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 28/3/3012

Anyone who has ever stepped foot outside their apartment or villa knows that Saudi Arabia is the most dangerous place to drive a car or walk on the street.
There is so much wrong with the Kingdom’s traffic system and traffic laws that when municipal traffic departments establish new laws one must wonder whether they are serious about their priorities.
It’s with this in mind that that I learned that Makkah’s traffic department has decided that expatriates should own no more than two old cars. The law does not apply to Saudis.
The traffic department is a little vague about what it deems as an old and worn-out car, although the agency is apparently on a hunt to track them down, take them away and, I guess, destroy them. This will place somewhat of a burden on the poor — the people who actually drive old cars — who consider the automobile a lifeline. Two old cars may be enough, but many expats buy and sell such cars to earn a living. Walking, obviously, is out of the question.
The Ministry of Interior’s General Traffic Department has done some good things in the past few years to increase traffic safety. Saher is a major boon, keeping people alive. The effect of cameras at intersection has been instantaneous as most motorists seem to respect more or less traffic lights these days.
But beyond Saher, I am hard-pressed to see any significant changes into how to increase traffic safety no matter how vigorously we celebrate Traffic Safety Week and teach children traffic safety laws. While I understand that old cars may pose a hazard, should it really be a priority? If a 20-year-old car is well maintained with good tires, good brakes, working headlamps and taillamps, bumpers and glass what does its age matter?
If it’s the old rolling wrecks that traffic departments are worried about, then perhaps they should consider the thousands of big rig diesel trucks traveling along Ring Road in Jeddah. I was on my way to the airport the other night and took notice of the condition of many of these big trucks.
Many trucks were traveling on worn tires, the headlamps were dim and the taillamps often flickered off and on, or several were just working. A particularly dangerous aspect of these trucks is the lack of mud flaps behind the rear tires. On a road notoriously for debris and rocks strewn about, a rear tire can kick up a baseball-size rock and shoot it through a windshield. In addition to land-jumping and speeding, these big trucks are 10,000 pounds of steel capable of killing and maiming.
We permit these trucks to travel the Kingdom’s highways without the benefit of routine safety inspections, although the law is specific about how big trucks should operate. No truck can be operated without covering or properly wrapping loads. And each vehicle, whether an automobile, light-duty truck or tractor-trailer rig, can be on the road without “the necessary equipment such as brakes, lights, or their equivalent, putting public safety at risk.”
Owners risk having their vehicle impounded. While I am certain that traffic officers do everything they can to keep unsafe vehicles off the road, few people can argue that there is not an abundance of dangerous big rigs.
According to the Ministry of Interior, traffic accidents in 2010 resulted in SR 13 billion of property losses. In 2009, there were 485,931 traffic accidents that killed 6,458 people. That’s about 13 deaths per 1,000 accidents. In 2012, 19 people died each day in traffic accidents, that’s up from 18 in 2009. In addition, there are 9 million traffic violations committed annually by motorists.
I don’t begrudge Makkah’s attempt to rid its streets of old, unsafe cars, although exempting Saudis from the new law makes no sense and reeks of unfair treatment. But I begrudge the system for allowing old, unsafe big trucks on the road. We seem to have lost sight of the bigger picture. The highways belong to the big trucks, and cars are at their mercy as drivers practice unsafe driving habits. Add the insult of an unsafe, ill-maintained diesel rig that plies the roadways with impunity and we have vehicles that pose much greater threats to the public than a 20-year-old Toyota Corolla.

The kerfuffle over wearing foreign clothing

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 25/3/2013
Last week President Barack Obama visited Israel’s Hall of Remembrance while on his Middle East tour. During his visit he wore the Jewish kippa on his head as a sign of respect. It was an appropriate gesture that followed a long line of US presidents and foreign heads of state who also wore the kippa during ceremonies.
US presidents are often required, or asked, to wear traditional clothing of foreign countries or cultures. US President Calvin Coolidge famously, or infamously depending on your point of view, wore a Native American Indian chief’s headdress in 1927. He was widely mocked by the press. Yet such things come with the job like kissing babies and making promises that are impossible to keep.
Wearing an Indian sherwani or a Russian ushanka will never cause much of a stir, but the same can’t be said for any garment even remotely connected to Islam or Arab culture.
When then-Democratic Congressional majority leader Nancy Pelosi wore the hijab in 2007, and first lady Laura Bush wore one on her visit to Saudi Arabia in 2008, the slings and arrows flew. Saudi doctor Samia Al-Amudi gave Mrs. Bush a black hijab decorated with a pink ribbon to help raise awareness for breast cancer research. As any visitor who respects her hosts, Mrs. Bush was delighted to wear it.
However, the then-First Lady spent considerable time explaining herself as to why she felt the need to don the hijab that represents to many Western conservative extremists a symbol of oppression of women.
Politics aside, there are no culturally traditional clothing that sparks more outrage in the West than the keffiyeh, the Saudi thobe, the abaya (or burqa) and the hijab. While the hijab is indeed an obligatory code of dress, it’s not worn to display religious affiliation. There is no religious obligation to wear the burqa or niqab. Rather, these are articles closely associated with Arab and South Asian culture.
The issue of cultural clothing received considerable attention in February when history students in a Lumberton, Texas, high school wore variations of the keffiyeh, thobe, niqab and burqa as part of a classroom project. The intent by the teacher appeared to be to help students change their perceptions about Muslims and Islam.
The project raised the hackles of parents who complained that Christianity could not be taught on campus, but it was OK to teach Islam. The media picked up the story and fanned the flames of outrage by claiming students were “forced” to wear the clothing.
The teacher followed reasonable curriculum required by the school district. District officials said the lesson “focused on exposing students to world cultures, religions, customs and belief systems. The lesson is not teaching a specific religion, and the students volunteered to wear the clothing.” Judaism and Christianity were also part of the project..
The Huffington Post picked up on the story and held a live radio chat that included a representative from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and opponents of the history lesson.
The message that CAIR should have delivered, but never quite made clear during the radio interview, was the history class lesson was a typical high school exercise in teaching foreign cultures to teenagers. While the Arab Spring has helped drive the politicization of Islam, some Americans have taken the view that Arab culture is synonymous with Islam; that the two are interchangeable.
Parents and teachers would never consider that male students wearing the kippa as part of a history lesson is indoctrination of Judaism. Nor does the thought of high school kids wearing a Mao suit conjure up thoughts of communist indoctrination. And neither should wearing a burqa, representing some segments of Afghanistan society, be considered an oppressive religious garment.
Muslims themselves share some of the responsibility of confusing culture with religion. But most, including the 6 to 8 million American Muslims, make the distinction. The problem is we have done a poor job of delivering that message to non-Muslims.
Context also matters. Context provides a better illustration of the hypocrisy of condemning leaders (or non-Muslim school children) for wearing traditional Arab clothing, but praising them for being culturally sensitive to wearing other foreign clothing.
An American teacher may be condemned for having his students wear the keffiyeh and thobe to represent an Arab country. But would the same teacher be singled out for criticism if he had his students wear the same costume for a nativity scene during the Christmas holidays?

Foreign visits count for Saudi Arabia

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 21/3/2013

Reading articles in the foreign press about Saudi Arabia almost always ends with unfulfilled expectations. Never mind the articles on politics, oil and the usual tripe about Wahhabism. It’s the well-meaning, somewhat na├»ve and stage-managed reports from high school teachers and Western university students who come to the Kingdom for a week or so and leave as instant experts on all things Saudi.
Here’s a typical reaction from an American school teacher about Saudi Arabia: Saudi women wear abayas. Saudi women wear jeans under their abayas. Saudi women are smarter than they look. Saudi women can’t drive cars. Saudi shopping malls are big. Saudi Arabia has a Victoria’s Secret shop. Woo-hoo!
Here’s a typical published report from an American post-graduate student studying for his master’s degree in political science: Saudi women wear abayas. Saudi women are smarter than they look. Saudi women can’t drive cars. Saudi Arabia is a patriarchal society. Saudi Arabia oppresses women. Saudi Arabia’s “brand” of Islam is “ultra-conservative.” Saudi women need to spread their wings and fly like butterflies.
Yarrabi (Oh my God).
Give the various Saudi ministries credit for inviting young non-Muslim Westerners to Saudi Arabia to learn about our culture. Unfortunately, the time visitors spend in the Kingdom is not only too short, but tightly controlled. A week visiting schools, meeting with Saudi men and women selected especially for the visits, and time for shopping at the Al-Faisaliah Mall in Riyadh provides little more than a superficial, if not skewed look at Saudi culture.
Instead of demythicizing Saudi Arabia and Islam, these short, unproductive visits only add to the generalization and stereotyping of Saudis. It’s not the fault of our guests, who only write of the experiences from what they see. And in many ways these visits only reinforce what the writer is prone to believe in the first place. The American school teacher, for example, appears open to understanding Saudi women, while the postgraduate student’s deep beliefs about women’s rights and Islam are reinforced by his visit.
I read these news reports that pretty much say the same thing over and over, and wonder why the true story about Saudis is never told.
Take Intisar Filimban, for instance. She recently headed the Saudi delegation in the Arab Organization for Road Safety at the 30th Session of the Arab Ministers of Interior. She is the head of the women and family affairs branch of the Arab Organization for Road Safety. She is responsible for spreading public awareness about traffic safety. Six years ago, I asked her what is the use of such campaigns when Saudi women are not permitted to drive. She replied wisely that we are the real drivers in the back seat. As mothers, wives and employers of drivers, we must know the rules of the road and the basics of traffic safety, such as wearing seatbelts. If we can’t control the vehicle, at least we can protect our families. Intisar is a strong and forward-thinking woman who is serving her country.
Through her actions, Intisar is proving to the world and to people still obsessed with Saudi women covering their faces that there are more important issues to consider. There is more to life than sex and corruption, and Saudi women’s lives should not be defined as something corruptible. Instead, we should consider that things like Instisar’s safety campaign is far more important.
Foreigners visiting Effat College and Dar Al-Hekma University is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t give our visitors the opportunity to meet important women who are becoming the movers and shakers who can effect change in Saudi society. Saudi Arabia has done very little to provide our visitors with tangible examples of women’s success, especially in the fields of science and technology, membership in the Shoura Council and the growing influence we have in the workplace.
When I went to South Korea for a month on a fellowship a few years ago, our hosts didn’t just take us to the hot tourist spots and meet selected members of Korean society. We took classes in politics and culture. We were taught about the difficult relationship South Korea has with North Korea. They took us to the demilitarized zone. We toured the Hyundai auto and Samsung electronics factories. We could have come back with the knowledge that South Koreans eat worms and insects, and we could have toured the old neighborhoods of Seoul. But that experience would have been one-dimensional. Instead, I came back with a place in my heart for South Korea because I had an opportunity to live a natural life.
Saudi Arabia is to be admired for opening its borders to the West. I look forward to the next step that gives foreigners a much clearer picture of what we are about. It’s a lot more than what we look like in an abaya.

Book fair without distractions highlights need for libraries

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 14/3/2013

The pleasant surprise at this year’s Riyadh International Book Fair was that there was no news to report. Well, there was good news in that the fair drew millions of visitors and there were no closing down of sellers’ stalls to ban inappropriate books or strong-arming men and women who mixed by the conservatives.
As much as I wanted to go to the fair, I was unable to attend. But I followed the event in the media and on social media. The Ministry of Culture and Information, and organizers coordinated a trouble-free fair. It was obvious security was tight with the large presence of police officers. There were officers scanning attendees each at the men’s entrance and the women’s entrance. It’s something never seen at regional book fairs.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced well before the book fair began that it would not seize any books and it would not enforce a ban on men and women intermingling. Instead, the Haia promised that if it observed books that conflicted with Shariah and Saudi Arabia’s social order, it would contact the Ministry of Culture and Information and let the ministry handle it.
Haia members wore identification badges with the commission’s logo. Those who call themselves commission volunteers were nowhere to be seen, unlike last year. There were no confrontations with women, and whatever incidents occurred was handled lightly and in a respectful manner.
This is the Haia I knew as child. The Haia I knew was there for me in Madinah to protect my sisters and I, guide me, and offered religious advice when I needed it. I hope the book fair marks its transformation.
What we had in Riyadh was a book fair that served as a common event where families can come together without fear or trepidation. Because of the low-key approach of the commission, the book fair became a huge financial success that earned sellers millions in Saudi riyals.
What has emerged from a book fair without distractions was the realization that women were the top buyers of books and spent more money on books than any other demographic. Among Saudis there is a renewed interest in children’s books, which highlights the need to make children and young adult books available to Saudi youths. There was a strong customer base that supported the book fair’s inventory more than 250,000 paperback titles and 1 million e-books.
We as Saudis are not a strong reading culture, but the Internet has changed our tastes in literature. Arab language and English language books have permeated our society to the point that simply buying books from bookstores can’t satisfy the demand. The fact that an estimated 2 million people attended the book fair signals that Saudis are becoming more literate and have a hunger for a greater variety of choices.
Which brings me to one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest weaknesses: The lack of public libraries. There is a vital need in the Kingdom to privatize our existing libraries and build new ones by getting specific private companies and publishing houses to build and manage libraries. Costs can be offset through patron memberships. Universities and companies can develop these types of libraries as part of their social responsibility.
Every neighborhood should have a library and every city should have a main branch to enhance the culture of reading. If we wanted a better future for the next generation of Saudis, then Saudis should take the hint from the enormous success of the book fair and implement library programs.
This also doesn’t need to be limited to developing libraries, but also to encourage local bookstores like Jarir to provide a better environment for its customers by installing coffee shops to encourage patrons to relax, read and ultimately purchase books much like Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores in other countries.
It seems we have gotten past the headline-grabbing and distracting behavior of extremists who used the book fair to further their own narrow agenda. This now allows us the opportunity to expand the vision of the book fair by concentrating feeding brains with literature that will lead to a better educated country.