Thursday, October 29, 2009

Saudi female journalist becomes LBC's scapegoat

Something got lost in all the outrage last week over the conviction and lashing sentence of the 22-year-old Saudi woman journalist who worked for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp (LBC). What exactly is the LBC doing to support their journalist?

The answer is absolutely nothing.

According to a Reuters report this week, the young woman had nothing to do with the Bold Red Line broadcast segment in which a Saudi man bragged about his sexual conquests. The man was sentenced to five years in jail and lashings, but the woman journalist only worked as a "fixer," someone who arranges interviews for foreign media. She apparently had nothing to do with the segment involving the braggart. Her crime apparently is that she worked for the LBC, which was not licensed to operate in Saudi Arabia.

Let's set aside the idiocy that the Saudi government did not know that the LBC was not licensed. Let's focus on the conduct of the LBC. The Lebanese were kicked out of the country, so they suffered a bit for their actions. But they also couldn't get out of Saudi Arabia fast enough, leaving behind a vulnerable employee who proved to be the LBC's scapegoat for their poor behavior. King Abdullah this week pardoned the woman, but she still must face a tribunal before the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information.

A year ago the LBC approached me and offered a job that eventually went to this young Saudi journalist. I spoke over the phone with their producers and a presenter. It quickly became clear that the LBC was not interested in Saudi news, but creating tabloid headlines.

Among the topics the LBC was eager to cover were strange sexual practices, voodoo and black magic, especially black magic practiced on wayward husbands. Runaway girls, marriages of convenience and spinsterhood were other topics the LBC wanted to present. The LBC was clearly interested in the sensational aspects of Saudi culture, taboo subjects that are not topics of conversation. Yet the LBC seemed unmoved that these stories would perpetuate Saudi stereotypes in a period in which Saudis are under attack for their cultural and religious differences.

Part of my responsibility as a Saudi journalist is that if wrongdoing is exposed or taboo subjects are addressed, solutions must be provided in these stories. Perhaps more important is the safety and well-being of the people we interview. It's likely that Saudis who participate in media interviews on sensitive subjects will face consequences for their actions.

It's one thing to interview a Saudi woman who chooses to remain unmarried to pursue a career. It's another for a young woman forced into spinsterhood by her father who wants her income. If such a woman gave an interview, she would have to answer to her family. What kind of support would the LBC provide for the girl if she was thrown out of the house? I think none. No two better examples of abandonment can be found than the sex braggart and the Saudi journalist.

During our discussion about my role in their Bold Red Line series, the LBC producers were cavalier, if not dismissive, about my concerns over the consequences of these kinds of interviews. When the discussion turned to me being hired as a producer, I thought that I could control editorial content. But the answer was no. Editorial control came from Beirut.

It became apparent that if I were to arrange the interviews, it would become my responsibility to see that the interviewees did not suffer any consequences for their frank talk. But that is an extremely risky task without the support of the employer.

I recognized the LBC was not prepared to offer any support after a broadcast to its Saudi employees or the interview subjects. Their desire to present sensitive Saudi issues as tabloid fodder was not much different than Western media parachuting into Riyadh for two days to do a story on how the abaya and niqab are oppressive to women. It makes for interesting television and boosts ratings, but it leaves a lot of pain and humiliation in its wake.

I rejected the LBC's offer. Their attitude toward Saudi Arabia was insincere and cynical. I could not see how the Bold Red Line series would benefit or shed any light on Saudi culture other than presenting Saudis as parodies of themselves.

It didn't occur to me until this young Saudi female journalist stood trial for the LBC's negligence that the LBC's producers would prey on someone who is young, perhaps naïve, and eager to advance her journalism career.

Now this young woman is suffering for the sins of the LBC, which has stood by mute. They offered no lawyer and no statement of condemnation for her treatment by the Saudi courts. LBC should be an embarrassment to Middle East journalists. At a time when Arab journalists are seeking to be taken seriously as professionals and attempt to adhere to an ethical standard, the LBC's cowardice illustrates just how little progress we have made.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Opening gunshops in Saudi Arabia is not the answer to curbing illegal weapons

The Saudi Ministry of Interior’s decision to issue licenses to entrepreneurs to open private gun shops is full of good intentions, but until more information is disclosed I must wonder: Do we really need easy access to guns?

The ministry announced recently that any person 25 years or older with no criminal record and a bank guarantee of SR500,000 can open a gun shop. The best part of these requirements is the bank guarantee, which pares down the pool of potential applications to open businesses.

The idea behind this is to curb illegal ownership of firearms and have a better tracking system of where guns originate. About five years ago, the Saudi government asked gun owners to register their weapons at the regional Emir office's security department. The response from Saudi citizens was overwhelmingly positive. Many -- if not the majority -- Saudis participated in the registration drive.

Gun ownership is long ingrained in Saudi society. Boys are taught to hunt and as men usually keep firearms in the house. Truck drivers, and even some women drivers in rural areas, as I mentioned last week, carry handguns for protection.

As a society we have demonstrated responsible gun ownership. Our crime rate is extremely low. About half of the crimes committed in Saudi Arabia are non-violent thefts, and the murder rate is barely 1 person per 100,000 population. The U.S. State Department, however, has issued a warning to its citizens that the instances of carjackings in Riyadh have risen. Yet violence involving firearms is low.

Although I have no doubt that illegal gun ownership remains a problem in Saudi Arabia, the logic of opening gun shops eludes me. This move by the Ministry of Interior reminds me of the occasional news article I read from the United States in which a municipal police chief decides to issue concealed weapons permits to all gun owners who ask for one to ensure they can legally carry a weapon. The thinking is that the permit will reduce the number of people walking around with illegal
guns in their pockets or purses. But all it does is simply put more weapons on the street and increase the chances that someone will get hurt.

The ministry’s logic is similar to the U.S. police chief. The ministry’s ruling will put more legal guns on the street, but it’s still more guns.

It’s likely that the ministry has thought of such things, but has not released the requirements that will be imposed to buy and sell guns. Issues to be addressed are whether a waiting period between purchase and actually receiving the weapon will be imposed and if criminal background checks will be conducted. Presumably the ministry will establish checks and balances to maximize the safety of people.

We only have to look at the U.S. as an object lesson. According to a 2009 Centers for Disease Control report, 30,896 U.S. gun deaths were reported in 2006. Forty-one percent were the result of homicides and 55 percent were suicides. The remaining fatalities were unintentional or undetermined intent deaths.

In addition, a gun in the house increases the risk of a homicide by three times and the risk of suicide five times compared to no gun present. People are more likely to be shot by their own gun than shooting a robber or attacker.

We shouldn’t believe for a second that more legal guns in Saudi Arabia are going to protect us from criminals. Rather, think about the next Saudi National Day. We already have a problem with people who don’t understand that shooting a gun into the air means a bullet must come down somewhere. If more guns are available the odds of more bullets falling on someone’s head on National Day increases. The same goes for
tribal weddings and celebrations in which guns are shot in the air.

Perhaps the most obvious argument is that we still have extremists operating in Saudi Arabia, as was the case with the recent attack on security officers near the Yemen border. Although the Ministry of Interior has done an incredible job of curbing attacks and our country is stabilized, the threat remains. During the height of the 2003-2006 militant attacks in Saudi Arabia there were Al Qaeda supporters,
perhaps better described as wannabes, trolling Riyadh and Jeddah streets using handguns to shoot Westerners.

Presumably Saudis with no criminal record can walk into a gun shop and purchase any weapon he desires. Militants with a phony identity or a well concealed background should have no problem purchasing over-the-counter weapons. Do we really need to make it easier for them?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Saudi rural women's freedom to drive cars and trucks under renewed threat

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of Saudi society in the non-Arab world is the myth that all Saudi women are banned from driving cars. Read any English-language news periodical and the message is absolute: It’s illegal for Saudi women to drive.

Well, that’s kinda-sorta-usually-but-not-always true.

For decades, Saudi women have been driving on highways and streets outside of urban areas. They must drive because their families’ survival depends on it. While men are working, wives are tasked with taking the kids to school, transporting livestock to market, and managing the house. They also drive big tankers to bring drinking water to their villages. Many of these women are also Bedouins who travel from village to village earning a living by transporting goods.

This is not a case of heading down to the local Danube supermarket for a box of corn flakes. This is a long drive, sometimes hundreds of miles, over a harsh desert environment usually in a 2-ton Mercedes truck or a Hilux pickup. These moms, some who arm themselves with a handgun for protection while driving alone, are a hardworking, tough lot that can handle a truck better than most men.

I remember as a child my uncle in one of the Yanbu villages going to work at 4 each morning, leaving the management of the house, the family and the harvesting of their crops to my aunt. She drove all over the region to make sure not only her kids but the extended family were cared for.

As a practical issue, the police and Hiy’a (Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, commonly referred to as the religious police) can’t effectively patrol these remote areas. For the most part, women have had free reign in driving vehicles where they please.

Common sense, which is not always a prime ingredient when journalists address perceived wrongs with Saudi Arabia, tells us that it’s impractical and dangerous to ban all Saudi women from driving. Of course, Saudi conservatives, and that includes some members of the Commission, share the same problem.

Although rural women have had it pretty easy on the roads, apparently there can be too much of a good thing. Last week, the Hiy’a filed a complaint with the administrative ruler of the Hail region in which they asked him to ban 15 village women from driving their cars and trucks. Now, women who make sure the family’s chickens and goats get to market and keep the village supplied with water, are without transportation.

These women can’t hire a driver because their primary means of transportation is a pickup truck, which forces them into a state of khalwa -- or seclusion with a non-relative male -- as they sit beside the driver.

Consider what is more dangerous: a woman driving a truck or a woman alone with a male stranger in the middle of nowhere. The female breadwinner is faced with the double whammy of being denied the right to use a vehicle to contribute to the household income and the
right to hire a driver as a solution to her economic problem.

Many Saudis support the idea of enforcement of our moral and religious obligations. Indeed, it’s addressed in the Qur’an. But it’s quite another thing to mess with hardworking families who depend on the motor vehicle to make ends meet. For decades Saudi law authorities recognized that ranch and farm families were an exception to the driving ban edict because a family’s livelihood depended on a vehicle. They understandably turned a blind eye. That right apparently has been taken from them for no reason other than the conservatives feel threatened by it.

Saudi Arabia is in a period of great transition, and there is an expectation of movement forward, not backward. Naturally there are many people who prefer the comfort of the past. Perhaps forcing working rural women to return to camels and donkeys as transportation makes some people feel more comfortable. But their comfort comes at the expense of the working family.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Saudis in denial over violence against women and children

It came as something of a shock when I learned the other day that the number of domestic violence cases in Saudi Arabia does not exceed 650.

What a relief to live in a country where violence against women and children is virtually non-existent. This good news comes from none other than the man who should know: Ali Al-Hinaki, the general manager of Social Affairs Department in the Makkah province.

Al-Hinaki told a Jeddah reporter that there are no statistics on the number of abuse cases, but he estimated that there were no more than 650. Yet the Social Affairs Department does not explain that if there are so few domestic violence cases in Saudi Arabia, why is there the need to sponsor this week a three-day awareness forum in Jeddah? Or why establish 17 committees to deal with family protection? By Social Affairs Department’s logic that amounts to 38 abuse victims per committee. Now that is what I call great response to such a minor issue.

But all kidding aside, this ridiculously low statistic is an insult to every Saudi woman and child whether or not they have been the victim of abuse. There are more than 27 million people – 22 million of which are Saudis – living in Saudi Arabia. Just how did the law of averages
elude the Social Affairs Department?

Earlier this year Abdul Aziz Al-Dakhil, an attorney and a leading expert on domestic violence, said, “If we are informed that there are 10 cases of abuse, there are for sure 1,000 more suffering in silence and not spoken about.” Al-Dakhil has a better grasp of reality, but the numbers don’t adequately convey the urgency of establishing codified laws protecting abuse victims.

Al-Dakhil points out that there is no established definition in Saudi Arabia of what constitutes domestic violence. Family members who perpetrate violence against their victims confuse guardianship and Islam with discipline. Even victims are often confused about whether
their misery is a product of abuse or a form of discipline under Islam.

There are grassroots efforts to provide services to prevent domestic abuse. Saudi writer Rima Ibrahim is campaigning to establish a facility that can provide care and protection for women abused or abandoned by their husbands. We’ve also seen the growth of women’s shelters throughout the Kingdom.

Saudis, however, have a tendency to minimize their faults. We claim the moral high ground by asserting we are good Muslims not capable of committing unspeakable violence towards our loved ones.

Government officials undermine their own awareness projects by dismissing the seriousness of domestic violence with unsubstantiated low statistics. People in a position of authority charged with making life-altering decisions affecting a girl’s future have no business holding the job. I recall visiting a shelter a couple years ago in which the director told me that many runaway girls seeking protection from abuse were simply disobedient brats who should mind their parents.

It’s incredulous that Saudis still dance around the issue of domestic abuse. It’s not a question of whether Saudi Arabia has a domestic violence problem, but how do we as a nation solve it. Our failing is that we think our moral authority makes us separate, if not above, the rest of the world in terms of crimes against our own family members. We are no different than the rest of the international community. I imagine that the number of abuse cases in Saudi Arabia is proportionate to the rest of the world.

It’s fine that judicial reform is underway to codify laws. It’s good that Saudi authorities are moving towards legal transparency. And it’s satisfying to see progress made – although at a snail’s pace – in the establishment of shelters and women’s rights services.

But none of it means much if we continue to bury our heads in the sand and claim the violence in the home is limited to just a few hundred cases. These kinds of pronouncements instill little confidence that we will ever effectively combat domestic abuse.