Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tribal customs, not Islam, is responsible for male guardianship abuses

A battle is brewing among Saudi women over the touchy issue of male guardianship. Pressure from outside Saudi Arabia has been building to abolish guardianship laws, and a number of women who fashion themselves as activists have led the charge.

Perhaps the most visible is Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a Saudi who does a little showboating by being driven in a taxi to the border checkpoint to enter Bahrain without permission from a male guardian. She's always turned away by Saudi authorities and told to go home. She is the darling of Western conservatives who think this public demonstration will further the cause of Saudi women.

It's silly. Public acts of defiance are unseemly in Saudi society and few women want to give up their dignity when letter-writing and petition campaigns are more effective.

Additionally, advocating to completely abolish guardianship rules is not a productive means to deal with abuses in the system. The problem with some Saudi activists is that they want to make wholesale changes that are contrary to Islam, which requires a mahram for traveling women. If one wonders why great numbers of Saudi women don't join Al-Huwaider it's because they are asked to defy Islam. Al-Huwaider's all or nothing position undercuts her credibility.

Of course, there are a great many women who are abused and they are seeking to change the guardianship system. And these efforts have sparked a counter-campaign by women who want the system to remain the same.

Recently a campaign called "My Guardian Knows the Best for Me" was initiated in direct response to the anti-guardianship movement. I have mixed feelings about both movements, but I must say the guardianship supporters have me more worried.

The system currently in place is seriously flawed. Saudi authorities have abdicated their responsibility to see that laws are enforced in a fair and equitable manner. It has ceased being a religious issue and is more about patriarchal control.

Many families treat their wives, daughters and sisters with great respect and don't follow their every move. Permission to travel or to conduct business abroad is often granted carte blanche with a signed piece of paper from a mahram. Many women travel freely with this document and consult little with the men in their families about their movements.

But since there are no codified laws, most Saudi women traveling alone don't know from one day to the next whether their documents will pass scrutiny at the airport. And for every family that follows guardianship rules, there is another family that wields the law like a club. It's not a system ripe for abuse. It's already a system abused with regularity.

Guardianship opponents are waging a losing battle if they believe that Saudi authorities will abolish the law. The reality is that there is little incentive for the government to consider anything but maintaining the status quo.

More worrisome is the women's pro-guardianship camp that is perfectly happy for men to control their lives. That's fine for them. They undoubtedly live in households of unquestioned male authority and are pleased with the arrangement. But what about the women abused by the guardian system?

It was reported recently that a Saudi woman protested that her father rejected several potential husbands because they did not belong to the family's tribe. The father confined her to the house as punishment and denied her outside employment. He even sent her to a mental institution when she continued her protests. She sued her father in court, but found herself at the wrong end of a tongue-lashing from the judge who said she did not respect her father. She now lives in a women's shelter.

Here is a clear instance of the Saudi judicial system failing to protect the woman and tacitly endorsing abuse of the guardianship system.

If men follow the spirit of guardianship as outlined in the Qur'an and recognize at the same time there is no place for tribal customs within the system, then a happy medium can be found. But if the Saudi courts fail to implement checks and balances to punish guardianship abusers and to protect the victims, then the laws are pointless.

Tribal customs should not usurp Sharia. Yet, to listen to the pro-guardianship camp, Saudi customs and traditions should indeed be a central part of the system. In effect, they are placing customs and traditions above Islam.

By waging a campaign fully supporting existing guardianship rules dooms thousands of Saudi women to being housebound servants to male family members.

A campaign to encourage guardianship, but also to demand that codified laws protect the abused, makes more sense. Such a system respects an independent woman's right to move about, attend university and marry whomever she pleases. It allows the family to determine a comfort level, but also imposes consequences on guardians who manipulate the laws to their own advantage.

The argument that women are not competent to handle their own affairs is not valid and never has been. More Saudi women than men attend universities in Saudi Arabia and abroad. Most of the money held in banks belongs to women.

How guardianship laws are followed must be a joint decision involving the family. But Saudi judges also need to summon the courage to cast aside customs and traditions when faced with abuse cases and make the right call to protect victims.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rising crime against Arab tourists could dampen Europe's tourism industry

This is the high season for Saudi Arabia and airlines are booked solid as Saudis prepare to either spend Ramadan at home or abroad.

GCC tourists have been flocking to favorite spots like Geneva and London, but some European tourism experts are beginning to worry that Gulf tourists may take their spending cash elsewhere.

An incident occurred last month in Geneva that has Swiss tourism officials concerned over the country’s image among Gulf tourists.
A 48-year-old Saudi man was severely beaten outside a Geneva nightclub that left him in a coma for 10 days. Apparently local police did not take the incident seriously until the Saudi Consulate and the victim’s family provided evidence that the victim’s credit card was used by his attackers.

The story got plenty of air time on Al Arabiya. Now Swiss authorities are wondering whether the lax response from police and subsequent media coverage have harmed their image.

“This incident could have a very negative impact on Geneva’s image in the Gulf States,” François Bryand, director of Geneva Tourism, told “It’s clear that it’s one attack on one tourist, but it’s one too many.”

According to Swiss media reports, the Saudi consulate expressed concern that Swiss authorities are failing to deal with the rising number of attacks and harassment of Saudi tourists. There have been numerous incidents of petty thieves preying on tourists in the Lake Geneva area, according to

The Swiss newspaper Tribune de Genève, Moutinot, had sought to arrange a meeting with the Saudi Consulate to discuss how to increase security for tourists.

I don’t see Saudis abandoning Geneva, Paris or London anytime soon because of these reports. These European cities have been favorite tourist spots for Saudis for decades.

In fact, Switzerland’s tourism officials recently reported that the Arab tourists in their country rose by 62 percent between 2003 and 2008. But the first half of 2008 only saw a 0.2 percent rise.

Gulf tourists spend an estimated 164 million euros, or $233 million, annually in Geneva. That accounts for about 10 percent of all tourism euros spent in the city.

Certainly the global economy, rising prices in Saudi Arabia and fears of swine flu factor in the number of Arab tourists leveling off. But there also is an undercurrent of hostility in some Europeans cities. Arabs are sensitive to this and not inclined to spend their money where they are not wanted.

Geneva’s police, according to some media reports, seem to be at a loss on how to detail with the increased crime. But in London the attitude is a bit different. The city has a sizable Arab population and its own restaurants and Arab centric shops in Edgewater.

London’s hotels in particular make it their business to attract and keep Arab tourists in the city. Through November, The New West End Company, which represents 600 London hotels and retailers, expect about 140,000 Arab visitors. And estimated $410 million is expected to be spent by Arabs in London over the summer.

Restaurant open times have been extended. More Arabic speakers have been hired and more Arab chefs have been hired to service food that reminds Gulf tourists of home.

“The Middle East represents the third most important market to us and still the largest percentage of this business comes during the summer months,” one tourism official told the Arabian Business magazine recently.

Perhaps more important, Paula McColgan, director of sales and marketing at The Lanesborough in Hyde Park, told the magazine that, “(We also) have a very advanced security system, which is greatly valued by high profile guests from the Middle East.”

Swiss tourism officials have a long history of catering to Arab clientele, but the country’s law enforcement officials have less experience in dealing with increasing safety concerns for Gulf tourists. They never had to worry about it. Now they do.

London tourism officials don’t have all the answers, but they appear to recognize that in order to keep tourist spending money in their city they first must ensure their safety. Perhaps some lessons can be learned.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Good-minded people are being cowed into submission by shouting race-baiting hooligans

Last week I had the only nasty encounter with British teenagers in the
two years I have been living in Newcastle.

My sister-in-law and I were standing on a train platform to catch a train to city center when some loud teens walked up and called us “little rats” and asked if we were carrying “bombs” under our clothes.

These boys were boisterous and having fun at our expense. My sister-in-law, who doesn’t speak English and is in Newcastle on a brief visit, was terrified. I pretended not to speak English, hoping they would go away. When they became louder and bolder I asked a woman nearby to call the police.

The boys immediately stopped and attempted to explain they were simply joking. I found nothing to laugh about. I recognize that wearing the hijab draws unwanted attention. But I wonder why I should feel threatened wearing one in a country that prides itself on tolerance
and democracy.

The unprovoked verbal attack has marred an otherwise wonderful stay in the United Kingdom. I enjoy a productive and rewarding collaboration with my teachers and fellow students whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim. I have been shown nothing but courtesy and respect.

Perhaps the incident on the train platform was an aberration. It’s hard to say. But it gives me pause to consider where British teens learn that intolerance is acceptable on any level.

The media, of course, fuel much of the attitudes young people have today toward minorities. To read the UK tabloids and billboards paid for by the British National Party, UK citizens must come to the conclusion they are under siege from the unwashed masses of Eastern Europe and Asia.

There is immense pressure today on mosques to teach tolerance in school curriculum, as there should be. Many Islamic faith-based schools are under scrutiny to eliminate discussion of jihad and other references to Christianity and Judaism in the name of tolerance. This is all well and good, but British public schools must be a part of the solution as well.

Certainly the boys so interested in what was under my hijab got their ideas from home. Ignorance breeds ignorance. Yet teaching tolerance appears to be an elective in the British school system. Many school districts refuse to teach cultural studies on the grounds that it’s religious instruction. Parents and teachers have difficulty distinguishing the two.

The British Council reported last year reported that 3 percent of the British population is Muslim. That’s about 1.5 million Muslims in the United Kingdom. Further, 23 percent of the UK’s population declared no religious affiliation in 2001. And an estimated 75 percent of the UK’s
youths between the ages of 18 and 24 have no religious affiliation.

The British Council and a number of privately-funded UK organizations have teaching assistance material and curriculum for local schools on various cultures and religions, but it’s unclear how many educators take advantage of providing classroom instruction. If indeed three-quarters of the country’s youth have no religious affiliation, how are they educated about other religions if not in school?

Bradford, England, has a significant Muslim population and the nearby Rhodesway School has gone to great lengths to provide multicultural programs. School administrators have discussed how to better celebrate religious holidays of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus.

Unfortunately this is an initiative taken by Rhodesway and doesn’t necessarily reflect the rest of the UK’s school systems.

Part of the problem lies in fear. School administrators who see a need to develop multicultural programs and provide classroom lessons in tolerance are often the target of fringe groups and the tabloids. They face accusations of pandering to Islam or indoctrinating UK youths in the teachings of the Holy Qur’an.

By refusing to recognize some of the UK’s young people are blithely spouting racist, Islamophobic and truly hateful comments to strangers is no better than an imam encouraging jihad without proper context.

Ignoring the growing pervasiveness of public condemnation of religious minorities is in many ways another version of the “bystander effect.” The more people witnessing an emergency the less likely they are to help. There’s been a trend in the UK and the United States where people have become paralyzed or unwilling to stand up to abusive race-baiters and anti-reformers.

Here’s an example: In Saudi Arabia there is an element of society that doesn’t want reform and sees literature and the arts as a threat. Standard operating procedure of these groups is to lay siege to a book fair or stage play. They shout verbal abuse, toss chairs around and
intimidate attendees and organizers into submission.

Americans have witnessed this in recent weeks at their own community town hall meetings held by Congressional representatives. The men and women elected to represent their community are verbally abused and shouted down. In some cases the abusers incite violence because they
oppose their representative’s position on issues. Legitimate attendees are denied their right to speak.

The breakdown of public discourse on sensitive issues is redefining the bystander effect. Good-minded people who see a need to teach tolerance and engage in civil discussion are cowed into submission by the shouters. It’s easier to stand by and witness the public demonization of minorities rather than confront and condemn people who use intimidation as a weapon in debate.

The hooligans on the train platform last week are another version of today’s shouters and chair-throwers. Their behavior is endorsed by fringe media pundits passing themselves off as immigration experts.

They are validated by the BNP, which disguises their members’ racism in the cloak of immigration reform. These boys have been denied an education in the classroom on tolerance. Eventually the bystander effect will reach a level that will be difficult to turn back.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

New Saudi health minister takes aggressive approach to reform

It’s a rare thing these days to see a change in leadership in a Saudi ministry, and then for Saudis to witness a sea of reforms occur within a short period of time.

That’s what’s happening at the Ministry of Health following the February appointment of Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah by King Abdullah.

Al-Rabeeah is faced this year with the monumental task of ensuring that Haj is held while minimizing the spread of the swine flu. But if his performance over the past seven month is any indication, he is the right man for the job.

It’s unusual that a cabinet minister takes the time to meet with average Saudis, but Al-Rabeeah, a medical doctor, has made it a point to be accessible to rank-and-file medical staff personnel and even patients.

Just a few months into the new job, Al-Rabeeah announced a series of health reforms to provide better care to patients. The reforms include a new salary schedule for Saudi physicians and pharmacists, who are notoriously underpaid. The new scale will boost salaries by 41 percent and standardize government medical personnel salaries. He also plans a pay structure based on categorizing pharmacists’ positions as pharmacist, senior pharmacist and consultant pharmacist.

Al-Rabeeah also wants to bridge the gap between patient and doctor by developing awareness programs.

But more importantly is the lack of physicians available to treat patients. By late 2008, there were 4,000 patients for every one doctor. Al-Rabeeah hopes to bring that ratio down to 400 patients per doctor. I’m also hopeful that the Health Ministry will complement the Kingdom’s 50,000 doctors by retaining and adding as many Saudi physicians as possible to that number and train more female Saudi nurses.

Al-Rabeeah’s medical training makes him a rare breed among top echelon Saudi government officials. He knows what he is talking about. He is largely responsible for Saudi Arabia’s global reputation in separating conjoined twins. The last successful effort by his own multidisciplinary team occurred recently with the separation of Moroccan twins at King Fahad Medical City. It was the one of nearly two dozen such successful procedures performed in Saudi Arabia.

All of this brings me back to the swine flu epidemic and its potential impact on this year’s Haj.

In June, Saudi health officials recommended that the elderly and very young not join Haj this year. The World Health Organization and the Egyptian government also excluded pilgrims over the age of 65 and younger than 12 from attending. While this will help reduce the number, the fact remains that last year 2.5 million pilgrims performed Hajj. While a reduction in numbers is expected this year, the number still is expected to be extremely large.

The challenges are almost too difficult to comprehend. Worldwide the number of swine flu cases is approaching 150,000. More than 700 people have died, including four Saudis. Those deaths occurred in Al-Ras, Abha, and two in Dammam.

Although not directly related to Haj, the Health Ministry announced recently that it plans to establish an electronic network to improve communications between the Kingdom’s 20 health districts to monitor swine flu incidents. The project includes 500 mobile surveillance machines distributed to physicians, medical support personnel and community leaders.

It remains to be seen whether the project will make a difference in identifying swine flu cases in a timely manner as Haj approaches. But what is encouraging, though, is the Health Ministry’s aggressive proactive approach to stemming the tide of the swine.

Saudi Arabia has experience in dealing with epidemics during Haj seasons. Southwest Saudi Arabia was hit with the Rift Valley fever epidemic in 2000-2001 and there have been similar dengue fever outbreaks. These outbreaks pale in comparison to the deadly swine flu, but Saudis and visiting pilgrims can perform Haj this year with a high level of confidence that Saudi Arabia is prepared.