Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lashing of Saudi student only part of the problem

Things are getting a little out of hand in Jubail. Apparently a public girls school is at the center of an international uproar over the lashing and prison sentence of a young woman found guilty of assaulting the school's headmistress.

Originally it was reported in the media that the young woman was a 13-year-old girl sentenced to 90 lashes for bringing a mobile phone to school. But, no, that wasn't true. Then it was reported the girl assaulted the headmistress for taking away the phone. Well, that's only part of the story. Now it turns out the girl is not a girl, but 20 years old and she cracked a drinking glass over the headmistress' head while the woman's mother stood by and watched.

Frankly, I'd like to turn this adult student over my knee and give her a good spanking for acting like the misbehaving toddler she is. But lashings in this case are counterproductive, unnecessarily humiliating and have no place in modern society. This student understood the rules of her school, knew the consequences, and decided to ignore them anyway. She deserves to be punished, but lashings are way over the top.

Yet the young woman's temper tantrum and the authorities' overreaction point to larger issues: Saudi society's treatment of adult women, Saudi media's haphazard and lazy reporting, the lack of institutional transparency, the sense of entitlement among some Saudi families and lack of parental control.

We can't point to the 20-year-old student as the epitome of model behavior, but it's ridiculous that Saudi women are treated like little children. All women, including parents and guests, are not permitted to have mobile phones on school grounds. It's fine to ban mobile phones use by students, but it's simply an abuse of power when applied to anyone else. If my mother came to my high school campus with a mobile in her purse, it's nobody's business but her own. And if she sat in the administration building's lobby and chatted on the phone with my sister, then it's her business. Just who has the right to stop her? It's not the Ministry of Interior, but a school for girls.

Saudi girls' schools can be unreasonably strict in some regions. Most schools have strict dress codes that require heavy dark colored clothing without adornment that is impractical for hot weather. I remember that girls at my school were required to wear black shoes and white socks. Makeup and perfumes were banned. There were no mirrors in the restrooms and compacts from girls purses were often seized by school authorities. While proper decorum in an academic environment is conducive to good leaning, there's a fine line between oppression and discipline. Perhaps if Saudi institutions like this school in Jubail stopped treating women as kids they will stop acting like kids.

The Saudi media and authorities, in their own inept way, helped bring international condemnation from human rights groups on Saudi Arabia. The Arabic-language press not only got the woman's age wrong but also muddled the facts over whether the flogging sentence was for having a mobile phone on campus or for assaulting the headmistress. Amnesty International made matters worse by announcing the girl was 13 years old.

Inevitably, Saudis start complaining about sloppy reporting by the Arabic-language press. The complaints are justified, but a lion's share of the blame also goes to the school and the judicial system for not providing the necessary information to paint a complete picture.

Lack of transparency usually leads to erroneous reporting. The international community will only remember that a young girl was flogged for bringing a mobile phone to school. Nobody cares that it was an adult who attacked another woman with a deadly weapon.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this incident is that the attack appears not to have occurred in the heat of the moment, but rather after some time had passed and cooler heads should have prevailed. After the headmistress confiscated the phone, the student went home and returned to school with her mother. It was during the meeting between the three women that young woman picked up a drinking glass and struck the headmistress with it.

No doubt the mother was shocked at her daughter's behavior, but one has to wonder where the daughter learned that violence solves such small problems as the confiscation of a mobile phone. It's a dangerous thing to break a glass over someone's head. This student possesses an undeserved sense of entitlement that the rules don't apply to her and she is not subject to the same consequences as her colleagues if she breaks those rules.

The headmistress, though, could have stopped this runaway locomotive of a public relations disaster. She could have nipped the controversy in the bud by taking the high road and forgiving the student, which is a Saudi custom that would have spared the woman a lashing. But the headmistress had her own temper tantrum by refusing to take the high road only exacerbates the controversy.

There's plenty of blame to go around here. It certainly doesn't end with a spoiled brat's confrontation with school authority.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Saudi Arabia takes step backward in treating AIDS patients

Saudis always have struggled with the issue of AIDS with debates over treatment and our penchant to treat victims like criminals. The first Saudi AIDS case appeared in 1984 and for many years we simply locked up people in prison hospital wards.

Times have changed and we have become more humane, although belatedly compared to the rest of the world. Yet the stigma of AIDS remains in our society and the most important rule that victims follow is to keep the disease a secret from friends, acquaintances and even family.

Jeddah’s King Saud Hospital and its little-known volunteer clinic perhaps have done more than any other Saudi medical facility to provide medical services, counseling and privacy to AIDS sufferers.

Now, it’s scheduled to be shut down and its AIDS patients distributed all over the Kingdom for treatment. It appears that just when Saudi Arabia achieves parity in treating AIDS sufferers with the rest of the world, as it has with its organ transplant policies and with its specialization in separating conjoined twins, it takes a step backward.

The closure of AIDS services at King Saud threatens the privacy and consistent treatment of patients. It also increases the likelihood of spreading the disease because the trust built by King Saud doctors, nurses and support staff must be rebuilt with strangers at another medical facility. This is not an easy task.

According to Saudi media reports, the Health Affairs Administration, which is
affiliated with the Ministry of Health, announced earlier this month that King Saud employees and patients will be “distributed” to other hospitals to prepare for the closure of the AIDS clinic.

The clinic will be transferred to another location and change its focus as a center for medical checkups for non-Saudis with the financial means to pay for services.
Earning revenue from paying customers, I mean patients, comes at the expense of patients with AIDS, Hepatitis C, pneumonia and other infectious diseases.

Saudi health officials say that 51 percent of all AIDS patients in the Kingdom live in Jeddah and are treated at King Saud. Now these patients must go to other hospitals, if not other regions, no doubt a great hardship, to be treated by medical personnel that are likely not AIDS specialists.

The transfer of patients also begs the question of what will other medical centers do with them. Will these patients be grouped with non-AIDS patients or be treated in a specialty ward? Will their privacy be protected?

The beauty of the clinic at King Saud Hospital and what made it a success was that its chief concern second to treatment was privacy protection. Patients who believed they may have AIDS were questioned by clinic personnel, assigned a number (no names are involved in the process), tested and given the test results two days later.

The hospital also provided financial aid referrals and connected patients with charity organizations. They counseled patients on the religious implications of the illness to ease their fears. They helped patients solve tricky employment and family problems associated with finances and the virus itself. If a patient with no financial means asked a hospital employee for taxi fare, it was given without strings attached.

The emotional bond among hospital employees was strong. A trust existed between the patient and employee. Unlike many Western AIDS patients who don’t hide their illness, Saudis insist on it because it means being judged by one’s family and friends. The trust between patient and hospital employee meant their secret was safe.

One AIDS patient said recently of King Saud Hospital: “When we go there we feel like we are treated like human beings. I know people will listen to me. But I don’t tell anyone else.”

That secret is now at risk as these patients are shuttled to different facilities. Ensuring proper treatment and taking precautions to prevent AIDS from spreading is now at risk.

The Saudi government reported that in 2008 the number of AIDS patients in Saudi Arabia was 13,926 with 3,538 Saudis. An estimated 505 were Saudi females and 769 non-Saudi women. About 80 percent got the virus through sexual activity, 15 percent through blood transfusions and 5 percent unknown. Most AIDS victims are between the ages of 15 and 49, which is a disaster in a young country like ours.

These numbers are conservative at best. It’s likely the number of AIDS cases in Saudi Arabia is far higher than the official figure.

We can’t afford to be casual about what we do with these patients.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Saudi women damaged hopes for a voice in the business community

Saudi businesswomen in the Eastern Province this week won a hollow victory when two women, Hana Al-Zuhair and Samira Al-Suwaigh, were appointed by Commerce Minister Abdullah Zainal Alireza to the Asharqia Chamber board.

The appointments are lauded as an historic victory and a step forward for Saudi women trying to gain a foothold as players in the Saudi business community. Alireza is to be commended for making two of his eight appointments women. Yet the appointments ring false. Neither Al-Zuhair nor Al-Suwaigh had run for election. The three women who did run – Suad Al-Zaydi, Fawzia Al-Karri and Dina Al-Fari – captured less than 100 votes between them.

Al-Zuhair and Al-Suwaigh have excellent business credentials to qualify for the chamber. It seems odd, though, that the three female contestants, who lost but did garner at least some backing from the business community, couldn’t muster the support of Alireza for an appointment.

Eastern Province businessmen and women share the blame for this failure to allow females a voice. The women candidates were tainted from the beginning when three Eastern Province men lodged a complaint with the Asharqia Chamber that the women should not run for election. The men claimed it was against Shariah. Although their complaint was denied, it served to validate the beliefs among many male voters that women did not belong on the chamber board.

A greater travesty, however, is the behavior of eligible female voters. One comes to expect male chamber members to vote for their male colleagues and business acquaintances. Social networking, word-of-mouth and telephone campaigning by businessmen bring votes to male candidates and freezes women out of the process. But only 60 of the nearly 900 eligible women voted in the election. The remaining 800-plus women were either too lazy or lacked the interest to bother going to the polls.

Certainly there is a percentage of businesswomen who took their voting cues from their husbands and fathers, but I suspect the majority of female non-voters simply did not care enough to see their sisters elected.

This means an uphill battle for the female appointees. Al-Zuhair and Al-Suwaigh are only two of an 18-member board. And they are two board members without a mandate from the business community. They are in a position where nobody has to listen to them.

The Eastern Province election follows a more dismal showing in the October board elections for the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI). Lama Suleiman was the only woman to win a seat on the board with 557 votes. Ousted by voters was Nashwa Taher, who made history a few years ago when she won a chamber board seat along with Suleiman.

This year’s Jeddah chamber contest had seven women candidates. No men voted for them and the entire lot received no more than a handful of votes among the more than 6,400 cast. An estimated 160 women voted in the Jeddah election.

As Saudi women continue to pursue greater education opportunities and insist that Saudi society find a place for them in the workplace, their voice should become greater and their contributions should become more significant.

Yet sometimes their all-consuming desire for that great job with those wonderful financial rewards, which obviously means independence for many, is undermined by the complete lack of perspective.

The women who have already achieved that financial independence by owning their own businesses are – whether they like it or not – role models for these young girls fresh out of college and looking for career.

These role models failed them when they decided to ignore the Asharqia election and failed to return Nashwa Taher to the Jeddah chamber board. By not waging a battle to bring more women to the chamber boards, they failed the girls who are following in their footsteps.

It’s great to have a postgraduate degree and a well-paying job, but young Saudi women will always be on the outside looking in when it comes to expanding their businesses and seeking domestic and foreign investors. Male business owners have a monopoly on that kind of networking. Their businesses will grow as Saudi Arabia becomes more of an international player in the global economy.

Eligible female voters in the chamber elections let slip through their fingers an important opportunity to slightly tip the scales of power. From the business deals conducted in the Jeddah Hilton lobby to the chamber board meetings, there will only be one voice making policy for the business community. And it won’t be a woman’s voice.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Thanks, Al-Qaeda, for the full-body scan

It doesn’t surprise me that the United States has put Saudi Arabia on the “countries of interest” list for passengers flying out of the Kingdom.

In the wake of the failed terrorist attack at the Detroit Metro Airport on Dec. 25, the US placed Saudi Arabia and 13 other countries on a list that requires intensified scrutiny of passengers originating from those countries, and apparently people passing through or visiting.

Occupying the top four spots on the list are what the US considers state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan.

In addition to Saudi Arabia of so-called “countries of interest” are Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen.

What that means in the coming months or years is anybody’s guess. Yet I know it means that I will be treated differently from other passengers. It means my carry-ons and checked baggage get a double inspection. It means that as a Muslim woman I am now required to undergo a full-body pat down. It means that I will be required to go through the whole-body scanner that checks for hidden bombs or makeshift weapons at airports in the United Kingdom and in Amsterdam.

I see the potential for public humiliation for Arabs passing through airports. All eyes will be on us as we are pulled aside and given a good once-over. Those passengers will remember us on the plane. So all in all, the plainclothes air marshals traveling with us will have an easier job since there will a couple hundred extra pairs of eyes watching our every step to the restroom and as we reach for our carry-ons in the overhead bin.

I don’t mind, though. I fly a lot between Saudi Arabia and Europe and I expect full protection from the airlines, airport security and the countries I fly to and from like any other passenger. I want to be safe, even if it means having a stranger put her hands on me. It’s the world terrorists have created for us.

The optimist in me has a tendency to believe the US is overreacting a bit. Previous security measures in place have been remarkably effective since 9/11, and airline passengers have been in safe hands.

Governments must sort through the never-ending messy business of moving millions of fliers annually through airports. To believe that any security system is full-proof is na├»ve. It’s the law of averages: the longer the US stays in Afghanistan and Iraq the more likely the new attacks will be attempted. It’s not an excuse for the failed attempt in Detroit, it’s just an evolution of the war.

I have Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula to thank for these new security measures and how people will view me. These are the idiots who wreaked so much havoc in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006 that left a lot of innocent people dead in Yanbu, Riyadh, Al-Khobar and Al-Ras. Al-Qaeda then reconstituted itself after the Ministry of Interior’s security forces beat the stuffing out of them and set them on the run.

Al-Qaeda would like nothing better than for me and my fellow Saudi students to stay at home. But I won’t allow Al-Qaeda to make me a victim in my own country and the country where I am pursuing my studies. I won’t allow Al-Qaeda to put an end to my plans for future tourist visits to the US or the annual academic workshops that I attend in Sweden and Germany.

Al-Qaeda may hope that Saudi students think twice about being subjected to profiling at airports and stay at home like “good Muslims,” in their view.

Good Muslims, however, get an education and bring that knowledge home to help Saudi Arabia become a better country. Good Muslims don’t hide out in Yemen planning attacks on planes with children aboard.