Tuesday, February 19, 2008

How the West Sees Gaza's Tragedy

By Sabria S. Jawhar

Saudi Gazette

The Western media have awakened up from its deep sleep to report on the terrible tragedies occurring daily in Gaza. That is, they are condemning the rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel. A simple examination of the news coverage of American and British press easily tells us of the indiscriminate attacks by Hamas on such Israeli villages as Sderot. And it's pretty much a no-brainer to the West that the ruthless Palestinians are at it again.

But where were the condemnations from the Bush administration, the US Congress and the United Kingdom's Parliament when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but still kept control Gaza's airspace, territorial waters and land borders. Israel in effect remains in control of Gaza as it continues to squeeze it dry with checkpoints not designed tokeep Israel secure but to keep the Palestinians in economic chaos. Israel also controls Gaza's telecommunications network, its population registry and its tax revenues. The Israeli army also have frequently re-entered Gaza at will. So how is this a withdraw from Gaza as toutedby Israel and Western nations in 2005? It's a withdrawal in name only.

But these finer points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are lost on the Western press. For the West there is nothing sexier in coverage ofHamas "gunmen" attacking Israeli civilian targets because "gunmen" is just another word illegal fighters at best and terrorists at worst. Israel began its blockade on Jan. 17 of the Gaza Strip. Israel cited rocket fire for the blockade. The international community agreed that Israel had a right to defend itself. The Western press backs the blockade because rocket attacks by Hamas are seen as unprovoked.

Yet the Western media fail to recognize the less sexier aspects of the conflict. It fails to report about electricity arbitrarily turned off in thousands of homes and severe restrictions of commerce at checkpoints that keep Palestinians in poverty. People are plunged into despair and live on the edge of starvation, but Western media coverage of the slow strangulation of the Palestinians would mean covering issues that go deeper than black andwhite and are more complex than a three-minute news report. This is on top of the sad fact that according to United Nations statistics, Israeli military forces killed 23 Palestinians andwounded 70 in Gaza by the third week of January. The total number of Palestinians, mostly from Gaza Strip, killed since the US brokered peace talks in Annapolis last November is approaching 200.

When the Israeli cabinet in September declared the Gaza Strip a"hostile entity" because of the rocket attacks it conveniently had forgotten what prompted the attacks in the first place. Israeli leaders forgot that their own policies toward the Palestinians are responsible for the attacks. Israel created the crisis by provoking the Palestinians, then exploited the crisis by claiming it is the victim.

I'm not an apologist for Hamas and the Palestinian people. Clearly Palestinian leaders have failed to rescue their own people by developing the infrastructure to ensure a self-sustaining government. Clearly, many leaders are more interested in protecting their own power base than helping the people who put them in power in the first place. But Israel created the current conflict, and then cries "victim" when its villages are shelled.

And what is perhaps the most tragic of allis the practice of Israel indefinitely keeping the Palestinians in astate of chaos to secure and maintain the support of the United Statesand the European Union. The US and EU mistake Israel's right to exist with the apparent right to inflict a slow death on hundreds ofthousands of people by crushing any hope of economic prosperity. The Western media have been woefully negligent in covering the story because bombs don't fall and there are no dramatic pictures to show television viewers. And the Arab media is not much better as it mires itself in conspiracy theories and exploiting Arabs' own sense of victimhood.

But once the media recognize that Israel's right to protect itself from the Palestinians is a self-fulfilling prophecy because it createsits own dangers, then the faster we get closer to peace.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Punished for Doing her Job

Tuesday, 12 February 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar

It excites me to no end to think that Saudi Arabia is on the verge of a renaissance as our government invests in huge projects like Petro Rabigh, which is part of a $500 billion investment project that promises us millions of new jobs, new cities and new universities. We're moving at lightning speed to diversify our country's economy that promises to rival many Western countries working on similar projects. We certainly have the drive and ambition to successfully accomplish our economic goals. But our social advances are lagging far behind our successes in the business sector.

It alarms and saddens me to hear about the businesswoman arrested and jailed by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice because she was meeting with a man not related to her at a Starbucks in Riyadh. She works for a business in the same building as the coffee shop. When the power went out she and her colleague went downstairs to Starbucks' family section to continue their meeting. It was not long afterward that commission members arrested her and took her to jail where she was strip-searched and held for several hours before her husband came to retrieve her.
What does this have to do with pursuing big projects that will boost our economy?
We are relying more and more on a women's professional workforce. Journalism, public relations, marketing, banking and a variety of private sector businesses are seeing increasing numbers of women taking positions of responsibility. A 2005 government study concluded that women make up 14 percent of the Saudi workforce but it continues to climb at a rapid rate.
If we continue to depend on professional women to work and contribute to the economy why are we placing obstacles at every turn? We already are hampered by severe transportation problems.
Now we must be careful about where and how we conduct our business.
As professionals, it is not practical for women to conduct business in hotel conference or meeting rooms and some public buildings. And depending on the policy of a private company, there may be no comfortable place to meet with male colleagues or clients.
The alternative, and not unreasonable in the slightest, is to conduct business in a public place in full view of everyone. Hotel lobbies have been favored for many years as a neutral meeting place, but it's not the most practical place because lobbies usually lack work tables and electrical outlets for computers.
Saudi newspapers report that the woman arrested by commission members at Starbucks was accused of "khalwa," or being in seclusion with an unrelated man, which is a moral offense. I'm not sure how being in a crowded family section at Starbucks qualifies as seclusion, but maybe the commission has its own definition.
Apparently Al-Jawhara Al-Angari, from the National Society for Human Rights, feels the same way. She said recently that the woman was not in a state of khalwa because she was in a public place with many people.
I remember not long ago being interviewed by two women members of a U.S. think tank. They had talked to Saudi professional women in Riyadh and Jeddah about the progress of women's rights. We agreed to meet in the family section of a Starbucks in Jeddah. I didn't know at the time whether their group would include any men. I didn't think to ask.
It turns out the interviewing team was all-female. But what if a man was part of that team? Would I have committed khalwa? It chills me to the bone that an innocent, but productive and important interview might never have materialized if I knew a male member would be present and I feared being caught.
The media often tout the accomplishments of Saudi women graduating from universities with degrees and post-graduate certificates. And we often cite statistical data of the rising numbers of women in the workplace. Yet it's a hollow triumph if we punish them for doing their jobs.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Who Determines my Rights?

Tuesday, 05 February 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar

Yakin Erturk, the United Nations' special rapporteur on violence against women, is in Saudi Arabia this week for a first-hand look at how much progress or how little progress we have made in providing women with equal rights. She will interview government officials, probably members of the Shoura Council and women who are active in working for the rights of Saudi women. Erturk may have already had this trip scheduled, but she also may be here after the hearing held last month in Geneva by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
A number of committee members thought that Saudi Arabia's delegation gave a less than satisfactory performance when discussing the gains women have made here.
We are now in an uncomfortable position of having to defend ourselves from Westerners who insist they know better about human rights issues. Human rights? I could go into the issue of the Iraq war and point fingers that human rights appear to have taken a back seatto the killing of tens of thousands of Iraqis or the phony elections Western nations support in Third World countries, which don't amount to much in the name of democracy.
No, I won't turn the tables on the West. As they like to say from their high horse, "We're talking about YOU, not us." But to be honest, I am glad that Erturk is here and wants to see for herself the status of the Saudi female.
It's not a pretty picture. The issue of whether a woman can drive a car is beyond absurd. The ban should have been lifted a long time ago. I have to wonder what everybody is so afraid of.
But the real issue is male guardianship and now the UN is making a lot of noise that Saudi Arabia should draft legislation to "enact a comprehensive gender equality law" that basically eliminates entirely male guardianship.
I agree. I've had enough of it. I've been a professional working in journalism and academia for many years now and have proven myself to be responsible. I'm fortunate that my father is an open-minded man and has given me permission to travel anywhere I please. But really, as much as I love my dad, who is he to give me permission to go anywhere or to do anything with regard to my future?
The concept of male guardianship is outdated. We don't travel from city to city across the desert on camels and camp in tents anymore. We don't need protection. There are laws and services worldwide that provide all the necessary tools to get Saudi women from one place to another.
I want to marry whom I please, divorce that person if I choose, and demand my rights to getting custody of my children if it ever came to that. I don't want the male members of my family to tell me what I am entitled to.
I want to own property without bothering to get permission from a man or have him as a sponsor. I want to choose where I live, where I study and what job I will have.
I pretty much have all of this, but once again I know dozens of other women with similar educational backgrounds and professional status who don't. I don't want to tell Erturk, "Gee, I'm lucky because my father gave me permission to travel." I want to tell her I can travel anywhere. Period.
While I am all for Erturk's visit, let's not fool ourselves into thinking that we are going to roll over and lift the male guardianship laws. There is something distasteful about having strangers come into my home and telling me that we have it all wrong and we have to do it their way. We don't like being told that male guardianship laws are medieval and that international standards should replace Shariah.
Did someone at the United Nations forget we are the land of the two holy mosques and the cradle of Islam? Did someone forget we are governed under Shariah and just because the United Nations established a treaty banning discrimination against women without our input almost 30 years ago that we need to jump on the UN bandwagon?
One of the lessons the United States and other Western nations hopefully have learned since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is that democracy can't be forced on another nation. It must come from within.
I want Erturk's input. I want her help, but I don't need her or anybody else to tell me what is good for me. I and my journalist colleagues, my sisters working in the private sector and academia, and the other Saudi women who advocate for our rights can speak for ourselves.