Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Saudi women: New leaders of positive change

ALTHOUGH nobody from the Ministry of Education or the Saudi Embassy in London has ever said a thing, it has always been my personal policy that I am a representative of Saudi Arabia and in some minor form or other perform a diplomatic service.

No, I am not a government official and have absolutely no status to speak of. But while I am a post-graduate student at the University of Newcastle, I and many of my Saudi classmates believe we have a duty to present the best possible face of Saudi Arabia.

To that end, I make it a point to meet and socialize with my British hosts, other international students and enjoy the northeast English lifestyle as much as possible while at the same time remembering who I am and where I come from.

The hijab makes me stand out more than most international students, so already there is a spotlight on me and my fellow Saudi female colleagues.Given that every day I am faced with challenges of being a Muslim in Western society, I considered it a blessing and a privilege to meet last weekend in Glasgow with Princess Fadwa Bint Khalid Bin Abdullah, wife of HRH Prince Mohammad Bin Nawaf Bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

I must admit that leaving Newcastle for Glasgow early Sunday morning didn’t seem like the brightest idea. To tell you the truth when I left the warmth of my apartment and felt my cheeks sharply kissed by the cold wind of winter, I wondered why someone like me would be interested in an all-women gathering, even if held in a fancy hotel. I would rather spend that time drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book under my dear blanket on my comfortable couch.

But encouraged by a friend of mine, I went to the railway station to meet five other Saudi women students. Once we arrived in Edinburgh for a short stop, we had to disembark and stand in the cold for another 40 minutes before boarding again. I asked myself why a Madina girl used to the arid, dry weather in Saudi Arabia would make such a trip.

But with warmth and passion, Princess Fadwa greeted each and every one of us after we arrived. She wanted to hear about our experiences in the UK and whatever complaints we had about our studies and our scholarships. Naturally, being scholarship students, we never have enough money and we never feel that the Saudi Cultural Bureau is responsive enough to our needs. So the complaints poured forth.

Yet Princess Fadwa was patient with us. And all of us were in for a surprise. At the hotel when they announced her arrival, I expected to smell Oud and see at least a half-dozen companions hovering around the princess. To my surprise, an elegant lady who looked as young as many women in the audience entered with a wide and attractive smile.

She apologized for being 20 minutes late, and insisted on being seated in a place where she could see and hear every single person in the crowded room.She engaged in a lively dialogue with the attendees that not only included Saudi female students in the UK, but the wives of male students as well. She discussed our problems with each person individually.

Citing the example of her own life as a working mother, she encouraged us to learn and get the most out of our stay in the UK. Nevertheless, she was keen to remind us that we should work hard to achieve the right balance between the increasing demand and challenge of our lives and our families.

She encouraged us to get out of our shells and get to know the local people and their culture. She asked us to maximize the benefit of being in such a beautiful country where civilization and modernization meet.“You have to learn about culture as much as about science,” she said. “Go out, go to theaters and museums, and get along with your neighbors, teachers and classmates. I want people to get to know and love you for who you are but always keep in mind that communicating with others does not necessarily mean changing your skin or adopting new values. Do mix but keep your culture and religion intact.”

She said that no matter what officials do to promote the social and cultural aspect of Saudi Arabia, the Western media will perceive it as propaganda. She also said that what she cares about is people-to-people interaction.“I want the people here to see the humanitarian side of Saudis,” she said.

It was a relief to me, but not unexpected, to hear Princess Fadwa confirm and endorse what I and my fellow female Saudi students already believe in. Some of our harshest critics are other Saudis who give us disapproving or harsh looks and mutter to themselves when they see us socialize with Westerners or enjoy a movie at the cinema.Princess Fadwa put me at ease and made me less self-conscious about how I conduct myself in my host country.

The princess was accompanied by Dr. Elham Danish, head of the women’s section in the Saudi Embassy in London, and Sawsan Jad, female students coordinator in London, who both introduced the group to the Tawasul volunteering program. The program was launched three years ago in London to connect Saudi families - and in particular women - in the UK and Ireland.

The program aims at raising women’s awareness of the available social opportunities. It also focuses on tackling women’s social, financial and health problems.One important lesson I learned from the gathering is that behind many Saudi women on a scholarship there is a sad story of injustice, divorce or separation from the ones they love.

I have come to learn that Saudi women are real fighters and they deserve society’s care, respect and trust.The sacrifices they have made to obtain a university scholarship are worth acknowledgment both locally and internationally. The determination that I saw in those women’s eyes has assured me that this is their time and they will be the new leaders of positive change that our present leaders are seeking.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Implications of the Interfaith Conference

The interfaith conference held last week at the United Nations marked a bold step for Saudi Arabia in general and King Abdullah in particular.

This sequel, of you will, to the interfaith conference held earlier this year in Madrid solidifies the world view that religion is not a justification for terrorism and the killing of innocents and that tolerance of various religions is the key to global peace.

The conference had a few unexpected surprises and its share of historic moments. Israeli Prime Minister Simon Perez made positive comments regarding the intent of King Abdullah's efforts to bring about international dialogue of religious issues. He also spoke encouragingly about the Saudi-initiated 2002 Arab peace plan that would bring peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors in exchange to Israel returning to its pre-1967 borders.

No one expects a quick resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but for the first time in decades we may see some sort of breakthrough that could eventually lead to peace.

While Saudi religious authorities have fully endorsed the interfaith conference, it's unfortunate that conservatives in some Islamic circles are critical that the Israelis were invited to the conference in the first place.

The Saudi government pointed out that the conference was held by the United Nations and, therefore, had made the invitations. But that is beside the point. Just how does one conduct an interfaith conference without inviting all religious representatives, much less a religious segment considered by Muslims to be the People of the Book. Simply put, there is no room for political agendas at such an event.

Despite the general positive reaction to the conference, there are troubling noises from some Western groups: One is the persistent question of when Saudi Arabia will permit other religions to publicly worship in the Kingdom. The other issue is the speculation that Saudi Arabia wants to have anti-blasphemy laws passed to make it a criminal offense to ridicule or mock religions.

It's been my feeling all along, and I have stated this before, that most Saudis liken the Land of the Two Holy Mosques to the Vatican. We don't expect to place a mosque inside the Vatican, so why must we consider placing a church in Jeddah or Riyadh.

But having said that, Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal noted that it's up to Muslims to decide whether such public worship will be permitted.

"The Kingdom is the cradle of Islam and a country where millions of Muslims come every year to perform the Haj and the King is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Thus, the Kingdom is responsible for (reflecting) the desire and will of the Ummah worldwide," Prince Saud said last week.

He added that, "If you bring people together so that they understand that they have the same ethics, they have the same values, this will open the hearts and minds of people for further progress. But to say from the beginning you have to transform yourself into something which you aren't now or nothing else can be achieved is, I think, carrying the argument too far."

The other issue is the hysterical tone some Western media have taken by suggesting there is a Saudi conspiracy to demand the implementation of anti-blasphemy laws. Never mind that there has been little discussion among Saudi authorities to demand such laws. But it's not a bad idea.
Given the disaster following the publication of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the hate directed at Muslims from conservative bloggers, perhaps an anti-blasphemy law would be appropriate.

The paranoia among the Western media would have the world believe this is an effort by Muslims to stifle any criticism of Muslim. But they forget that is would be a law to protect all religions.

The reality, though, is that Western nations would never stand for such a law because freedom of speech is so ingrained in the democratic ideal. Implementation of such a law on an international level would never get off the ground given the power of these Western countries.
But there can be a compromise.

Canada, while embracing freedom of speech and all that it holds dear in a democracy, also has stiff hate speech laws that punishes people who gratuitously mock, ridicule and threaten with violence ethnic or religious groups. It has worked well for decades. Although I should point out that it is only recently, in the aftermath of 9/11, that Canada's hate speech laws have come under criticism as too restrictive, especially when it applies to criticism of Islam.

Yet those laws have worked. Perhaps we should examine them to implement on a larger scale.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The marriage question

THE Shoura Council this week has decided it is not time to simplify marriage laws concerning Saudis marrying foreigners.

By streamlining the law things could become more complicated according to the logic of some lawmakers.But leaving the law the way it is will only continue the heavy burden -- especially for women -- that Saudis carry if they want to marry a foreigner.

There are hundreds of examples of Saudi women in high-level jobs in Saudi Arabia and around the world. These women work in the Ministry of Education or other government jobs or are poets, writers, journalists, film directors, pilots and even race car drivers.

But the Shoura Council apparently believes that they are not competent to choose a husband.Shoura members are frustratingly vague about why they refuse to streamline marriage laws when it comes to marrying non-Saudis. The general argument is that a streamlined system would only increase the problem of spinsterhood.

“Such recommendations would greatly increase the number of Saudis marrying foreigners while we are fully aware of the complications that such marriages create,” Shoura member Abdullah Al-Dosary told a journalist this week.Well, those complications are created by the Saudi government in the first place. Perhaps minimizing the complications that exist in the law would help those marriages.

A friend of mine is a graduate of a US university and she is in her mid-30s. She owns her own home and her own car. She is a success by every standard. Her father is in ill health and she has no brothers. She told me recently of the pain she endured in order to get government approval to marry a foreigner.“I wished that I died before going through the humiliation of trying to get approval,” she said.

She said the looks that male government officials gave her while she was getting her documents processed made her feel as if she were doing something haram and immoral.It has been many months and she still has not received permission. While Saudi marriage laws affect male and female Saudis alike, the resistance to changing the regulations is really directed at women with the age-old argument that Saudi society must protect us helpless females.

While figures are not readily available, Saudi men have a much easier time marrying a non-Saudi than a Saudi women do.Human relationships are complicated and messy. People get married. They get divorced. They have custody issues regarding children. But it shouldn’t be up to the government to regulate the bonds between two people.

Yet, not only does the Saudi government insist on being part of the marriage pact from the beginning by deciding who we can marry, the government also stacks the deck against women from the onset of the relationship.The children of a Saudi mother are denied citizenship if the father is a foreigner. No matter what the future holds for the marriage, the children of a Saudi woman will never be fully integrated into Saudi society.

Despite being born and raised as Saudis, they will never be treated as Saudis, which limits their social, economic and professional opportunities.The same goes for foreign-born husbands. They must be in the country on the wife’s sponsorship or the sponsorship of her father. And unless the foreign-born husband is working for a non-Saudi company, his prospects of professional success are limited. And this doesn’t even address the exclusion he faces as a non-Saudi in society.

For all the worrying Saudi government officials do over whether Saudi/non-Saudi marriages will work, they do their best to set the marriage up for failure before it even beginsThere is a tremendous gap between the attitudes of Saudi men and women about the issue of marriage to foreigners. At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, most of the Saudi men I know oppose the idea of “their women” marrying foreigners – especially non-Arabs.

There is a proprietary attitude among men that the women in their families belong only to Saudi society.Women, of course, generally feel the opposite. Possessive, paternalistic attitudes among men are not accepted by educated women who are seeking balanced relationships. This does not necessarily mean driving a car, having a job, getting an education or going shopping alone at the mall, but the right to have the choice to do so.

Many Saudi women today no longer find it desirable to walk three steps behind their husband at the shopping center, but prefer to walk right alongside.Since many Saudi men are reluctant to give up these “perks” of male domination in the household, Saudi women are willing to consider marriage to a non-Saudi.

The opportunity to establish a relationship on an equal footing is very appealing. And with this choice, many women are willing to risk spinsterhood or establishing an independent and professional life beyond the Saudi border.So the argument that simplifying marriage laws would only increase the likelihood of spinsterhood is ridiculous.

The government should not be denying Saudis the opportunity to marry non-Saudis. They deny the country the resource of a new generation of smart, well-educated and loyal people by refusing them citizenship. They deny the country a valued resource in allowing non-Saudi men to live and work in an unrestricted environment. They deny the country the valued resource of educated Saudi women who may look elsewhere in the world for professional and personal fulfillment.