Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Way we Live

Tuesday, 25 December 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

Every time I step into the lecture hall at Newcastle University, I offer silent thanks to Allah and then to my family for their support and encouragement while I pursue my education. There are many Saudi women like me who, despite being away from home, are seeking out a future and their own identity not only to make themselves better persons but also to make Saudi Arabia a better country. As a rule, Saudi society frowns on giving women this kind of freedom. Society says it must protect its women from temptation, but doesn't apply the same rule for men.
Society says that our freedoms must be restricted to keep families intact but it exempts men from these restrictions.
Islam is clear about our equal but separate rights. It's clear about divorce, education, inheritance and a host of other rights. But somewhere down the line they have been conveniently lost to favor a minority who make the rules for us according to their own viewpoint.
As a society, we ignore the impact that these arbitrary rules had on women.
The tragedy that befell the Qatif girl put a spotlight on this problem. We all agree that our society doesn't allow mingling of men and women. But her punishment of six months in prison and 200 lashes appears to be too harsh and does not match the crime after she was gang-raped.
King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, in his wisdom, pardoned the Qatif girl when the judicial system showed no compassion. The case of the Qatif girl is only a symptom of a much larger problem. The pressures on young women is almost unbearable.
It was reported last month that a 2006 study conducted by King Saud University researcher Salwa Al-Khatib found that 96 of 100 suicide attempts recorded by the hospital were committed by women. She added that the hospital receives on average 11 suicide-attempt cases by women each month.
Suicide is strictly forbidden in Islam. It is sinful that death by suicide is not recorded as a suicide but "misuse of medicine."
What could drive such a high number of women to take their own lives? Let's face it. We live a restricted lifestyle - our social life, where we go and with whom we are, our decision to go to college and even how many children we have are closely watched and guarded.
Maha Hamad, 23-year-old, recently told the British news agency Reuters that she attempted suicide two years ago.
"I was desperate back then because of family problems," she said. "My mother got divorced and I had to stay with her while my two older brothers stayed with my father. I faced too much pressure from my mother in everything I do. It was impossible for me to live my life without her dictating to me what to do and what not to do."
The rules that we live by appear to have been created to set women up to fail and are enforced in such a way that they can easily get themselves into trouble on the slightest pretence that what they do is wrong.
In Jeddah, I have seen a lot of women who live alone without talking to any man in their daily lives simply because this is taboo. When a woman is alone in a car with a driver, when a woman talks to a man who repairs something in her family's apartment or talking to a man who sells lingerie, does it become a crime? Should a woman receive 200 lashes for supervising two Pakistani workmen who are installing a ceiling lamp in her apartment?
The point I am trying to drive at is that it's impossible to survive in any society without mingling, especially in cases where there is no man in the family or, if there is, the man is abusive or irresponsible.
It's almost impossible to get around in a city without using a car. We haven't talked about these issues for a long time so much so that we simply accept them without questions.
How many times have I heard, "Well, this is Saudi Arabia." We all laugh and go about our business. But the pressure to get through the days with so much restrictions is sometimes difficult to comprehend by anyone other than a Saudi woman.
In the past two years, I've noticed a slight change in how women conduct themselves in public that gives me hope. Many young women are coming of age and sometimes go to coffee shops in groups or in pairs. They have fun and exchange conversation in a respectful way that, I bet, harms no one.
These bold, unafraid girls have the support of their families. They are given the right to choose their careers and the lifestyle they desire for themselves within the framework of Islam. They seek to deviate from old traditions that have added nothing to the development of our society.
I see Saudi society loosening the shackles of some arbitrary rules I have lived through as a teenager and young woman. And I am glad to see this development.
Maybe the case of the Qatif girl or the study of suicides by women have helped point out that we need to evaluate the restrictions placed on us, women.
Prince Saud Al-Faisal told a journalist from a British television last month that women in Saudi Arabia will drive cars when Saudi society is ready. Prince Saud has taken a bold step when he said he believes women should be allowed to drive.
By Saudi society, he means families, and I am thankful that my family recognizes my value and gives me the independence I am entitled to.
But if we are going to wait for all families to recognize the right of their wives, daughters and sisters, we will be waiting for a long time. We need a few more people like Prince Saud to give us a gentle push.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Crying for Justice

Wednesday, 12 December 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

RECENTLY the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, reported that a Saudi student in the United Kingdom was severely beaten by thugs and robbed of his mobile and cash. Muhammad Al-Hujilan, a student at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich reported that a dozen British youths attacked him and uttered racial expletives. He suffered a fractured nose and bruises all over his face.
He alleges the Norwich police did little about it. But a Norwich police spokesman said, "We're concerned there are reports of an increase in racist attacks at the UEA which are not reflected in reports made to police. Since the beginning of November we have had one racially aggravated assault at the UEA reported to us - the assault on Friday - which is under investigation by CID officers."
The incident alarmed the Saudi student community of almost 7,000 with many commenting on an online forum expressing fear and a sense of dread of who could be next.
The incident truly frightened me and I now think twice about taking a walk in my own neighborhood. Sometimes I feel as if my hijab is just a big sign that says "Kick Me!" when I'm out in public. Now I have more reasons to worry.
In another incident, my local newspaper reported the other day that a Nottingham law student, who appeared to be of Mideastern descent judging from the photograph, was visiting friends in Newcastle when he was attacked by a half-dozen or so men and had a portion of his ear chewed off.
This occurred within the walking distance of my bank and the stores where I shop.
As I mentioned before, I sometimes feel there is a big spotlight on Saudis - or any of the Muslim students, for that matter - as we go about our business in the United Kingdom.
The British press is full of immigration stories that are sensationalized to the point where even I am wary of newcomers.
What I find worrisome is that there has been no reaction from the British Government over this attack. What are they doing about it? If this attack was indeed motivated by ethnic or religious hatred than it is far more serious than the teddy bear teacher incident in Sudan in which the British citizen was jailed for several days for insulting religion.
Further, the Saudi Embassy has a duty towards Saudi students to notify them about the details of the attack. It should also take up the issue with the British Government and let the Saudi students know of the results thereof.
Did they or will they issue a statement? They hired a lawyer for Al-Hujilan, but their silence leaves the rest of the Saudi students in the dark.
While Al-Hujilan mentions racial slurs were made during the attack, the motive is unclear as to whether it was a crime of opportunity or racism.
Arab readers of the article presumed that the attack was motivated by nationality and bigotry. They went to great lengths to defend the Saudi's honor and to condemn the attack as if it was an assault on the Kingdom itself and our flag.
It's almost as if the Saudis have a persecution complex when it comes to criticism or attacks on us.
This young student could have been attacked because he was Saudi, but there has been no evidence to suggest it. Yet our first reaction is to conclude it could be the only reason. It reminds me of what Sigmund Freud once said: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Well, sometimes a beating is just a beating.
Equally worse than jumping to conclusions, is the irrational, partisanship that some Arabs have a tendency to play in which the thread of comments goes from lamenting the state of Saudi students in the UK and their persecution at the hands of thugs to one of elitism and nationalism. Here, the Saudi student is forgotten and comments fall into whose country is better. "Saudis are better than Libyans!" "Libyans are better than the Sudanese!" Jordanians are superior to the Syrians!" "Everybody is better than the Palestinians!"
Good grief, we can't even carry on rational, dignified conversation about living abroad and our normal fears that come with the experience.
We have to digress into discussion about nationalism, tribalism and about which is the better Muslim country. We didn't even think how to secure justice for this poor guy. We whine all day about how Western nations don't take our opinions seriously and, in fact, ignore much of what we have to offer. But sometimes I wonder that maybe we are just a little too self-destructive.
These comments posted online remind me of the new breed of Arab rap artists whose immature songs focus on heaping disrespect on people of other beliefs.
If anything, the Iraq war has demonstrated to the West the deep divisions between Sunnis and Shiites so they are attuned to our sometimes over-developed sense of national and tribal pride that gets in the way of some of the day-to-day issues that we live with. Like, for example, this Saudi student who was beaten and robbed. Remember him?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Teacher’s Trauma

Tuesday, 04 December 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

A FRIEND of mine once asked me why when I'm walking down the street here in Newcastle that I nod hello to other Muslim women, wearing their hijabs, but are complete strangers. I said I didn't really know but that it's probably just an acknowledgment of solidarity as we try to navigate our way through a foreign country. When we are away from home, we feel a kinship with our brothers and sisters because deep down we somehow feel that all eyes are upon us. Fair or not, the reality is that somehow our actions dictate how Muslims are viewed in the Western World.
So nothing could be more painful for me than seeing the Sudanese arrest and convict British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons for "insulting religion." Why? Because she allowed her 7-year-old students name the class teddy bear "Muhammad."
A large percentage of the Muslim men in the world are named Muhammad. I can imagine in a fit of anger what their wives, mothers and fathers call them. How they would abuse their name during a family argument. It's what people do. But this non-Muslim woman is the target of hate for something that wasn't even her fault.
If the Sudanese government felt that strongly about her alleged crime, then getting her on the first plane back to England would have been the answer.
But to make matters worse and hold Muslims to ridicule is having hundreds - or thousands, if the Western press is to be believed - of Sudanese in Khartoum demonstrate in the street shouting for her death. I'm sorry, these people are idiots. They hurt Islam. They make us look like blood-thirsty villains. They put a negative spotlight on Muslims abroad. Their actions are not constructive to creating dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.
I do not feel solidarity with the demonstrators, but anger, frustration and maybe even a little pity.
The good news is that the Sudanese president pardoned Gibbons and she is on her way back to Britain.
I suspect that he was caught unawares of just what a messy public relations disaster this incident turned out to be.
It's also good to see that British Muslim organizations condemned the arrest and conviction of Gibbons and that two members of the House of Lords, both Muslims, were alarmed enough to fly to Sudan at their own expense and negotiate for her release. These Muslims reflect the true attitude of most of us.
There's been discussions by Muslims in the United Kingdom to established "rules of conduct" list that could be issued as early as March.
One issue that may be listed is that honor killings should be publicly denounced as "un-Islamic."
I like the idea of becoming more vocal when people do bad things in the name of our religion. I like the idea that they are held accountable for their actions.
Whether I like it or not, I feel I have been put in a position of representing the Muslim community. Maybe I'm not seen as a Muslim to Westerners, although my hijab screams otherwise.
Whatever the case, my perception is I do represent my culture and religion and I act accordingly. I wish others would do the same.