Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rules restrict Saudi women’s studies abroad

Sabria S. Jawhar

Saudi Gazette

THERE is probably no more important issue than tuition that affects Saudi women attending universities abroad than the requirement to have a mahram.
One of greatest joys and probably the most important decision for potential students is the opportunity to study abroad. But for many women the opportunity just isn’t there.The Ministry of Higher Education has been unmoving in its policy to require that a male relative accompany a female student on a scholarship to a university in a foreign country.
Women who are attending universities at their own expense are not required to have a mahram. But every female student on a scholarship is not only required to have a male relative with her, but to have the man present his passport to the Saudi embassy to have it recorded and approved.
All of this ensures that the woman has an appropriate guardian but also that the tuition money is used properly.Unfortunately, this policy leaves many women unable to attend a Western university.
Saudi Arabia has always placed huge emphasis on studies at Western universities. Our fathers and older brothers enjoyed the best educations in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia and brought back that education home.
Saudi Arabia is a better place today because these men have a global perspective of life and also about how it can be applied to Saudi society.
The post 9/11 world has severely affected the availability of these opportunities.But in the past year or so, the United States has relaxed conditions in issuing visas for Saudi university students and we are beginning to see the number of students climb to pre-9/11 levels.And even better is the fact that more and more women are now able to go abroad for their undergraduate studies or to pursue their master’s or doctorate degrees.
With more women entering the workplace and the Saudi government easing its restrictions on gender segregation, women see a wide horizon in employment opportunities.But at the same time it is counterproductive to have stringent rules in place that deny many Saudi women an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a foreign education that their fathers and brothers experienced.
I’m talking, of course, of those bright young women who are eager for an education, but come from a family that can’t afford to have one of its men away from Saudi Arabia for four years and remain jobless.Or those smaller families that have no male relative to accompany them abroad.
Should these women be penalized because they don’t come from large families with an abundance of idle brothers or a retired uncle or father who can afford to play tourist in a foreign country for four years? Not to mention the fact that immigration officials in some Western countries can’t grasp the idea of a mahram and wonder what a Saudi man with time on his hands is going to do with himself for four years.
The answer to this problem is deceptively simple.Saudi women can travel freely without a mahram simply by having written permission. I am among the lucky ones who have a full-time maharm to accompany them during their years of study.My father has also given me a written permission that has allowed me to travel to the United States, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Japan among other countries.
A similar, and yes, even bold, plan can be developed for female students wishing to study abroad.But perhaps more practical would be developing a system that allows Saudi women to be grouped, perhaps as many as five women, who live together in a dormitory setting and can share household responsibilities and look out for each other in the academic, social and domestic environments.
If the Ministry of Higher Education believes it can’t trust five Saudi women living together, perhaps an appointed “den mother” or “den father” can be approved by the ministry to watch over all five girls.
These are not meant to be perfect solutions, but a starting point to discuss how we can honor the Hadith in which a mahram is required and allow women their right to a full education.Given that increasing numbers of women entering the workforce and many of these women in management positions, it does a disservice to the country that we deny some women a fair chance at an education simply because they are not in a position to have a full-time mahram over a long period of time.
We are witnessing exciting times as we aggressively pursue a diverse economy.Working women are becoming more important to that diverse economy, but we only harm ourselves by denying them the right to a full education.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Obama fails to understand the ‘cockroach’ factor in Iraq

Sabria S. Jawhar

Saudi Gazette

THE prevailing wisdom among many Americans and most Arabs is that the best candidate to lift the United States out of the muddy hole it dug for itself in Iraq is Barack Obama.

John McCain, at least on this side of the world, doesn’t even run a distant second. Obama is holding the future of free world in his hands.As much as he is considered the new hope for war-weary Americans, his trip to the Middle East and Europe is far from impressive.

He is visiting Afghanistan and Iraq because American troops are there. He will visit Israel because America is an unconditional ally of that country. And he is visiting Germany because that is where his media moment will come. But more on Germany in a moment.

What Obama is not doing is visiting an Arab country that would demonstrate that Muslim opinion matters to him. Not just the Muslims who lost family members to American firepower, but to Muslims who are eager for normal relations with the United States.

Any of the GCC countries would do. And if Obama wanted to send a message that we are all in the fight against terrorism together, what better way than including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or even fun-loving Dubai on his itinerary.But what is more worrying than Obama’s snub of Muslims is his fence-straddling over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There has been much criticism of Obama lately for his changing positions on a number of domestic and foreign issues. Yet this is your run-of-the-mill political gamesmanship. He has all but secured the Democratic nomination for president, so he must now move away from his left-leaning rhetoric to the center to capture voters who are undecided.All understandable, but now he seems to embrace President Bush’s “surge” in Iraq since it is perceived in the West as a success and points toward an American victory.

So what does Obama want to do? He wants to move 10,000 American troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to chase down and snuff out the Taleban.This is rather meaningless and simply illustrates that Obama is pandering to the American voter. Pull troops out of Iraq as he has always promised and send them to fight the real enemy that is hiding: Osama Bin Laden.

But moving troops from one combat zone to another is only symbolic and simply serves to escalate the war in Afghanistan, which has already seen 700 civilians die this year alone.It appears that Obama is not aware of the “cockroach factor.”

You spray one portion of the house with insecticide to get rid of the roaches only to have them scurry to another part of the house. Once that poison disappears, the cockroaches race back. It’s easy to overstate the success of the surge. Al-Qaeda is moving to Afghanistan to continue their fight, but once Iraq is left vulnerable with a weak army, guess what? They will scurry back and the US will be in the same position it was a year ago.

If Obama is showing off his foreign policy acumen, he is doing a poor job of it. But let’s be realistic here. Obama’s tour of the Middle East and Europe is not to demonstrate his expertise in foreign affairs. As much as I admire him he is a lightweight in this area. And he has smartly said that he is in the Middle East to listen not talk. So what this amounts to is a publicity campaign and photo op.

His feet firmly planted on Iraq and Afghanistan soil will give him certain measure of credibility in the eyes of the American voter.Which brings me to Germany.Perhaps more important to the Obama campaign than visits to Iraq and Afghanistan is his much anticipated appearance on Thursday at Tiergarten Park in Berlin.

His speech is expected to draw huge crowds in a country that is enthralled with all things Obama.Obama, who has fashioned himself as somewhat the 21st century version of President John F. Kennedy, is likely seeking his own “Ich bin ein Berliner” moment that cemented Kenney’s international credentials and won the hearts and minds of Europeans, especially those in 1963 Berlin who were cut off from their families living in Communist East Germany.

If Obama can draw the thousands of Germans expected Thursday and strike the right tone that echoes one of Kennedy’s most triumphant moments in his presidency, then Obama’s paper-thin solutions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will matter less to Americans who continue to seek a leader they can believe in.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Assimilation or alienation?

Sabria S. Jawhar

Saudi Gazette
THERE once was a time in the not so distance past that democracy meant something. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Freedom of expression. Freedom of religion.

The United States was a beacon for these ideals and it’s no small wonder that through the generations Saudis eagerly sought to study there. Most European nations also have their own version of democracy.

In virtually every aspect, the United Kingdom, France and Germany all follow the same democratic principles. Western history has taught us that the American’s declaration of independence in 1776 set the stage for the French revolution, which brought democracy to their country.But somewhere along the line after 9/11 democracy became a fist to bludgeon those who don’t conform.

Now there is liberty (but not as much as it was once enjoyed). There is freedom of expression (but with consequences like losing one’s job or being jailed for supporting unpopular causes). And there is freedom of religion (but only for some people).

While America has done enough to set back the cause for democracy a good half century, France has gone about willfully, if not gleefully, trampling all that is democratic.France recently denied citizenship to a Muslim Moroccan woman because of her religious beliefs.

Apparently her conservative practice of Islam clashes with “the essential values of the French community.”Faiza Mabchour is 32-years-old and has three children. She is married to a French national, speaks French and has been living in the country for eight years.

She also wears the abaya and the veil. She is the first person to be denied the right to French citizenship based on her religious and cultural background.How does this mother of three clash with the values of the French?According to government officials, who had interviewed Mabchour for citizenship, she lives in a state of “total submission” to her husband, father and brother-in-law.

She wears her abaya and veil in public.Here’s what French government representative Emmanuelle Prada-Bordenave said about Mabchour: “From her own declarations she lives an almost reclusive life, cut off from French society. She has no idea of secularism or the right to vote.

She lives in total submission to the men in her family. She appears to find that normal.”Normal?Excuse me. But who is Prada-Bordenave to say what is normal? Normal by Western standards? Must Mabchour completely conform in every respect to France’s cultural values to be a French citizen? Speaking French alone is a sign of assimilation into French society.

Mabchour even has a male gynecologist, a fact that most Muslim women would find extremely difficult to face. That is considerable assimilation.I don’t know whether Mabchour is submissive. Perhaps by her own standards she has a fair and equitable marriage. I frankly think that is her business.

What comes to my mind is whether the French interviewing citizenship candidates apply their so-called submissive standards to all. Or is it just a Muslim woman behind a veil.The French government picks and chooses what is normal and what is submissive. They apply different standards to different religions and cultures.

I wonder whether Orthodox Jews, Mormons and Evangelical Christians are scrutinized under the same rules.Immigration issues are hot-button topics in Western European. There is fear among conservatives of the alleged Islamification of Europe.

The building of mosques, wearing the hijab in public buildings and setting aside time for prayer in the workplace have built up considerable anti-Muslim sentiment among conservative politicians.France tries to hide behind false front of legitimacy of carrying out investigations into a citizenship candidate’s assimilation into society by using arbitrary rules of what is “normal” and “submissive” behavior.

What the French want is to jam square pegs into round holes.It’s not preserving French society. It’s the demand to conform. Because if one doesn’t conform to the French interpretation of what is normal, then that heavy fist of democracy will come crashing down on those who are different.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

An opportunity to bridge gaps

By Sabria S. Jawhar Saudi Gazette


Academics expressed hope that the Saudi Arabian-sponsored inter-faith dialogue conference in Madrid Wednesday will be the first step to resolving the chasm between Jews, Christians and Muslims, but also expressed skepticism of how much can be accomplished at a highly public venue.
The conference will be held July 16-18 with many of the world’s leading religious leaders and scholars attending. Steve Fuller, a professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK, and author of the book, “The Intellectual,” said that the conference is an opportunity that goes beyond whatever constructive dialogue the representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths manage to have with each other.
“Hopefully, and more importantly, the conference will publicly underscore the distinctive character of this common religious tradition,” Fuller said, “The Abrahamic faiths are unique among the world’s religions in singling out humanity as beings created ‘in the image and likeness of God.’” Fuller said this is probably the most powerful single idea in history, responsible even for modern political and scientific ideas.
At a time when the value of being human is questioned from many different quarters, he explained, the conference may provide a setting for proposing some new answers.He said the conference would be a forum to denounce Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis.
Huntington’s thesis suggests that there is a fundamental and irreconcilable difference between the Judeo-Christian and the Muslim worldviews. Fuller said no one denies that there are specific political and economic differences between various nations and groups that claim the Abrahamic ancestry.
“But these are largely differences over how best to implement, what are fundamentally the same pro-human values,” he said.“The violence associated with the expression of these differences on all sides is regrettable, not least because they are so much smaller than the areas of agreement. If the conference made this point clearly, it would be a great achievement.”
The conference was called for by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and is expected to bring together prominent leaders from the main three monotheistic religions in the world. More than 200 Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders are expected to discuss what they have in common as the children of one father, Abraham (pbuh).
The fact that the conference will be inaugurated by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques adds significance to the gathering. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s most influential religious leader, also will attend.
The conference was preceded by a visit by King Abdullah to the Vatican last November during which both sides stressed the importance of inter-faith dialogue and understanding among all religions.
The Muslim World League’s secretary general, Abdullah Al-Turki was quoted saying that the conference will “discuss cooperation between communities from different religions and cultures over common human values.”
Jermey Shearmur, a professor of Philosophy in the School of Humanities at the Australian National University, appreciated the timing of the conference, adding that it should be useful especially giving the current tensions and difficulties.
However, he expressed his fear that not much will come out of it. “It is not clear that, in such settings, leaders will learn a lot from one another, even if they should wish to do so,” he said.
There is a risk, he said, that one will get prepared, well-meaning statements, rather than actual interaction and learning because everyone will be conscious of their positions that they may be quoted in the press. His main concern, though, he added, was that religious leaders have relatively little influence in Western countries.
However, he said such a conference would be useful to bring out commonalities among participants and to speak frankly about grounds without suspicion and hostility.
“It would be useful to have authoritative figures from the different traditions provide reassurance, and to make it clear that fanatics, in all the traditions, are a small and often ignorant minority,” he added.
Shearmur said the conference demonstrates the good intentions of Saudi leaders. Nevertheless, it is important, he added, to perceive Western countries as secular rather than as having a religious basis to them.
As a result, he explained, while inter-faith dialogue is important, what would seem to be more significant for Muslims, would be to have discussions with those people who are leading (secular) figures.
Getting a better mutual understanding with religious people, he said, may be valuable, but it is not clear that people in Western countries who form and inform public opinion pay much attention to the views of Western religious leaders.
Mircea Itu, a professor of Communication and Public Relations, Faculty of Journalism, Spiru Haret University, Bucharest, Rumania, agreed with Shearmur there needs inter-religious and inter-faith dialogue. He said Spain is an excellent choice for this meeting, as it is a country with a rich Christian and Muslim heritage. Jews are also present there.
To him, the presence of Archbishop of Canterbury as well as that of former American vice president Al Gore is inspiring. “We need decisions made by institutions and in a global perspective, beyond states’ policies,” he said.He praised the Saudi initiative adding that the best thing for Muslims at this critical time of their history is to confront attacks and criticism by dialogue. “Violence should not be fought with violence,” he said

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Do Saudi Courts Legitimize Revenge?

By Sabria S. Jawhar

Saudi Gazette

Just when I think I have heard it all, something comes along to remind me that anything goes in the Saudi judicial system.

It's more than enough that Saudis risk forced divorces, face punishment for being raped or tossed in jail for conducting business in a crowded Starbucks. Now we find that if a jilted husband guesses that his wife left him because she was talking business-related matters to another man on the phone, then the wife and her supervisor ought to go to prison.

This week the Saudi appeals court will review a case involving a biochemist and his female student. The husband alleges that the biochemist and his wife carried on a telephone affair. So the Saudi lower court sentenced the man to eight months in prison and 600lashes.

The wife got four months and 350 lashes.The biochemist works for a hospital in Al-Baha and supervised the female master's research student, who was working at the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. This started in 2002 and the woman was married in 2004.

She obtained a divorce seven months after her wedding. The husband now holds the biochemist responsible and complained to the Saudi courts, which agreed with him.The biochemist and student say their telephone conversations were work-related. Is it true? Well, no one knows but the two people on the phone.

But what we do know is that they were not in a state of khalwa and they did not have a physical affair. And to add insult to this miscarriage of justice, both defendants have been denied attorneys or to have witnesses testify on their behalf.

The woman's father, who is not a lawyer, is defending his daughter.What this tells Saudis is that anybody can make allegations, whether true or not, and ruin lives. Have some vengeance in mind over a perceived wrong? Well, it appears the Saudi courts can help with that.

We shouldn't respond to international pressure because we look like idiots when these things come up. We should respond to our sense of justice, fair play and simple common sense. What is truly frightening that we are subject to the whims of people who have an axe to grind,who didn't get what they want and turn to the courts to legitimize their revenge.

I appreciate that the Saudi judicial system is in the process of reorganizing its courts and moving toward codifying its laws. But this doesn't help the biochemist who may lose all that he has worked for in his career and the woman who wants her master's degree.

More over, it does not help us as an ambitious country that looks for a leading role among the developed countries.Don't misunderstand. I am not judging their guilt or innocence. I am condemning a system that refuses to allow people charged with serious crimes to be properly represented and defended in court.

And I condemn the apparent low threshold of evidence that anybody can bring forth to allege a crime. Really, doesn't the court legal system have standards for charging crime? Or can anybody walk into a police station and with a signature on a piece of paper send people on a path that can't be altered.

Every time one of these incidents involving the judicial system comes up I feel a little more sense of urgency than I did the previous incident. We need codified laws in place now.The urgency is real because we are witnessing magnificent projects undertaken as our country makes an aggressive move to diversify its resources.

The construction of economic cities and the King Abdulaziz University of Science and Technology will bring thousands of jobs,expatriate workers and more Saudis than ever from the rural areas to these new cities and to Riyadh and Jeddah.

We are on a path to gain international recognition for our work in research and science and not just as an oil producer. This new emphasis on business brings more people and with more people,including foreigners, brings a new responsibility to make our laws –without sacrificing the spirit and intent of Sharia – more consistent with our neighbors.

My days at Newcastle

I recently celebrated a milestone. I finished my first year at Newcastle University in the UK. Just three more years to go!

For those readers who have been following my journey will remember that I am working on my PhD in applied linguistics at Newcastle University in Newcastle upon Tyne, which is a good four hours north of London by train.

I have visited Europe on several occasions, but always as a tourist.Now I am a legal resident and obliged to follow all that is British, from paying my taxes to making sure I get to class on time. As a Saudi, I entered the UK at Heathrow Airport with some reluctance and a little bit of fear.

My welcome to England, I must admit, was more than a little nerve-wracking. My brother and I spent nearly eight hours in customs as we waited in never-ending queues to pass inspection and have a chest X-Ray, which is required of all students. But I have to admit that since then my exit from and re-entry into UK has been a very pleasant experience.

To tell you the truth, it has become more like coming back home. That might sound a bit extreme to some of you, but this is what I feel, once my brother and I arrived in Newcastle and were settled in our flat.Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect from Newcastle University.

But one thing I have learned is that the faculty is very excited to have international students. The welcome committee at orientation gathering and many professors and staff afterwards made me feel at home and welcomed me in my new and strange environment.

The group I study with is a mix of Saudis, a Libyan, an Egyptian, a Colombian, a few Chinese, and other nationalities. We have become like one big family, sharing study notes and helping each other navigate through the university system. My fellow students and my instructor are my support group. Without them attending university would be very difficult. Finding the campus mosque and making friends there has been a blessing, thanks God.

I find the Saudis, as I have mentioned previously, too insular. As a rule they are not eager to socialize with other students. But Western students, whether British or American, are friendly and go out of their way to be helpful. So helpful, that sometimes I have to take a break from them or gently remind them of the boundaries in being social with a Saudi woman.

But the important thing is that it’s not only a cultural lesson for them but for me as well. We are all trying to find our footing when developing personal and professional relationships.The most important thing is that my professors give me all the help I need to accomplish my goal in earning my doctorate. They are here for me and to see that I succeed.

They seem just as excited and eager to help me achieve my goals as I am about making a good impression on them.I’ve learned to take a train to and from the university.

I’ve learned to regularly pay my TV license to avoid the dire warnings from television company that they will take away my television set if I don’t pay (although I’m told by my British friends that has never happened).

I’ve learned that British Telecom is more bureaucratic than Saudi Telecom and 10 times more expensive. I’ve learned the British love shopping as much as Saudis but everything here is twice as expensive as in Saudi Arabia. I can still get Happy Meals at McDonald’s but the McDonald’s restaurants in Saudi Arabia are cleaner and the staff friendlier. And I have found Starbucks is the same everywhere, except there is no family section and everyone is speaking English and not Arabic.

I have learned that the British health system is among the most organized and trustworthy in the world. It doesn’t only treat you but also educate you about your health issues. In UK, all what it takes to answer my health questions is to call the NHS free telephone number, where a friendly and well-educated nurse provide me with all needed help and information.

I have learned more about human nature, Western culture (it still surprises me to see young women wear short skirts in freezing weather!) and how to live in a foreign country without dozens of family members watching over me.

I’ve learned what to accept and what to reject in Western culture. It’s not easy for foreign-born Muslims to integrate into British society, but the experience alone is worth the difficulties we face.Having said that, though, it’s very tough living on the tuition given to me and my fellow Saudi students.

The recent downturn in the global economy has hit us hard. It was tough before, but now prices seem to climb daily and it’s a struggle to pay rent, utilities, school supplies and eat food. This is a legitimate issue among Saudi students, but somehow we all manage.

To sum up, I have the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques as well as the Ministry of Higher Education to thank for their confidence in providing women such as myself a quality education. I think Saudi Arabia will be better for it when I return.