Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reporting without context

Navi Pillay, the human rights chief for the United Nations, recently completed a tour of the six Gulf countries and discovered that women’s rights in those nations have improved. She had some sharp words for some countries, including Saudi Arabia, for the lack of employment opportunities but progress, she said, is evident.

Pillay is the right woman for the job. She’s no-nonsense and tough, but she recognizes that hammering away at Muslim countries for their deficiencies in dealing with their women and expatriate workers gets the UN nowhere pretty fast.

Here’s the assessment Pillay gave at a press conference the other day in Abu Dhabi: "Clearly the winds of change are blowing strongly throughout the region on a number of fronts — perhaps more strongly than we had anticipated when preparing this mission, and more strongly than many people in the outside world realize."

Still, she expressed concern that more attention be given to women’s rights, freedom of expression and migration. Treatment of expatriate workers, in particular, troubled her.

Pillay visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. She wasn’t specific in what progress she had witnessed but she was clearly impressed. But she seemed less impressed with the external perceptions of the Gulf countries.

She acknowledged "how the region is portrayed in the international media, particularly on issues related to women's rights and migrant labor."

"What I find admirable is that the issues are being addressed and advances are being made and this is the aspect that is unknown to the international community," Pillay said in a separate interview with the Gulf News.

No truer words could be spoken.

As if the international media couldn’t take the hint, Agence France Presse led its news story about Pillay under the headline “UN rights chief chides Gulf states over women's employment” with this: “UN human rights chief Navi Pillay on Saturday criticized restrictions on women's employment in some Gulf countries and called for those barriers to be lifted.”

Not until the seventh paragraph did AFP acknowledge Pillay’s comments about progress in women’s rights before abruptly turning to allegations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of torture in some Gulf countries.

The Voice of America’s website was more balanced, leading with: “The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights says more basic freedoms are being seen in Gulf Arab countries, but further progress must be made.”

Naturally, the Gulf News and the Khaleej Times touted the progress and downplayed the setbacks since the story was in their own back yard. The Khaleej Times couldn’t bring itself to write about any improvements needed in the Gulf.

Only the independent-minded Abu Dhabi-based The National played it tough among the Gulf newspapers: “The UN’s top human rights monitor called yesterday for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to give migrant workers more dignity and rights, and to eliminate the male guardianship system that gives men almost total control over spouses and female relatives,” wrote reporter Caryle Murphy.

To The National’s credit, Pillay’s praise in improved human rights followed in the second paragraph.

Pillay met King Abdullah, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Ministry of Justice Minister Mohammed Al-Issa and some Shoura Council members. She also spoke to a handful of students at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in an unpublicized visit. She met with no NGO groups.

Although Pillay indirectly criticized the international media for contributing to the misperceptions of the Gulf countries, none of the journalists attending the Abu Dhabi news conference could manage to put Pillay’s comments in proper context. I can’t speak for Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, but Saudi women account for nearly 60 percent of all university students. And the last I heard, Saudi female employment was up to 14 percent from a dismal 5 percent a decade ago. Yes, not particularly impressive numbers compared to 59 percent of the Emirati women employed in the UAE and 42 percent in Kuwait, but progress nonetheless. We know that a university education for a Saudi woman doesn’t guarantee employment, but clearly Saudi Arabia is on the path towards closing in on that goal.

Without this kind of context from the local press, Pillay’s comments, both the positive and the negative, are empty of meaning.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Find someone else to rescue

Like all Saudi women I appreciate the efforts by American and European human rights organizations to protect us from bad Saudi men and to help grant us the freedom we deserve. Without the help of Americans and Europeans my life would have no future.

Okay, I’m lying.

If Western do-gooders minded their own business I’d be a pretty happy girl.

The same goes for the Kuwaiti media. Kuwaiti journalists apparently have ripped a page from the Western “Save the Oppressed Saudi Woman” handbook and now want to rescue us poor little lambs from the wolves. In this case, Kuwaiti newspapers and websites are criticizing the male organizers of the Janadriya Festival for “exploiting” Saudi women and engaging in “unethical behavior.”

Ouf! According to the Kuwaitis, women Janadriya Festival workers just fell off the camel in Riyadh following a long journey from Sakakah. The only women who are exploited are women who want to be exploited. And I’m pretty darn sure that the Riyadh ladies and desert village girls can take care of themselves. They probably have a few suggestions for journalists offering to save them.

According to festival organizers, three women committees were involved in helping stage the event: a media and protocol committee chaired by Lubna Al-Ajami, a cultural committed headed by Jawahir Al-Abdul Aal, and the education and upbringing committee supervised by Iqbal Al-Arfaj. Not for a second would these committee chairwomen stand for any hanky-panky when working with their male counterparts.

Typically, the Arab media are not specific in their allegations, providing only hints and vague allegations, which cast a dark cloud over the event and leaves the meaning of these charges to the imagination of the reader.

The festival is not just any festival, but Saudi Arabia’s cultural and heritage festival with craft and culinary exhibitions, camel races, national folklore dances, poetry readings, art and theater. If I was asked to participate and I was available, I would be proud to serve in the festival and proud to serve my country. Most women I know would jump at the chance to be part of it. In recent years, stronger family
participation has become more common as segregation rules have been eased a bit.

This unnecessary scrutiny based on unfounded allegations hurts more than helps Saudi women and the family-oriented atmosphere. The last thing festival organizers need is to second guess themselves at next year’s festival planning meetings and scale back female participation for fear of external criticism.

I resent the fact that outsiders, whether they are our Gulf neighbors, or some well-meaning but ignorant Westerner, telling us what is best for Saudi women. Criticism of this sort doesn’t bring Saudi women closer to gender equity but endangers what we have already accomplished.

The other night I visited the Red Sea Mall in Jeddah. On the first floor was an exhibit on Islam that appeared to be organized and run by Saudi girls no more than 18 years old. The exhibition was designed to attract the young Saudi generation by offering a view in a modern context of science combined with the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. Young men and women viewed the exhibits and discussed Islam in a respectful way. On the second floor was a small exhibit offering sales literature on a personal hygiene product. A number of young women, wearing uniforms instead of abayas, were working alongside young men giving sales pitches to passersby. On the top floor young women were running their own clothing and accessories shops.

It’s refreshing to see these young girls take charge of their future and get out and meet the public. I was particularly impressed with the mobile Dawa center where these young ladies, speaking almost perfect accentless English, handed out reading materials to men and women and answered questions about Islam.

Are these young women being exploited? Is there even the danger of exploitation? Of course not. We as a society offer tremendous education opportunities to Saudi women, although we are not quite committed to giving them jobs. After all, only 14 percent of the Saudi workforce consists of Saudi women.

Yet when we make the effort to allow these women greater opportunities, whether its selling deodorant or clothing, we not only get a little nervous, we have malgoofs (nosy people) who complain that these girls are being exposed to blackmail and exploitation. If it’s not our Gulf neighbors worrying about the safety of Saudi women, it’s the West saying selling deodorant is not good enough and they should be selling cars, or whatever big ticket item, instead.

Here’s a tip for the complainers: Saudi women are doing just fine and making progress on their own. Find someone else to rescue.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Muslim leaders must reach out to common Christians, Jews to make interfaith dialogue effective

A funny thing happened after the Saudi Arabia-sponsored 2008 World Conference on Dialogue in Spain: People began paying attention.

For those readers who may have forgotten, King Abdullah initiated the interfaith dialogue conference with the hope of bridging the gap that exists primarily among Muslims, Christians and Jews. Not unexpectedly, the conference was greeted with a lukewarm response, if not more than a little hostility by the Western media. Saudi Arabia, according to the argument at the time, was presumptuous to sponsor a conference on religious harmony since no churches are permitted in the Kingdom.

Media coverage was casual and the event was soon forgotten. Or maybe not. According to the Washington Times, an arch-conservative newspaper and ordinarily a harsh critic of Saudi Arabia, some Jewish leaders have recognized that such conferences can narrow the gap that separate Jews and Muslims.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, who heads the Foundation For Ethnic Understanding in the United States, attended the conference in Spain and a similar one later in Vienna.

“The challenge of the 21st century is to narrow the chasm between Judaism and Islam,” Schneier told The Washington Times. He added that, “the King has realized how much damage has been done by religious fundamentalists and extremists, particularly in Islam.”

Well, okay, that’s true as far as it goes, but what Schneier doesn’t mention is the utter failure of the media, both Western and Arab, to convey what Islam means to Muslims on a personal, not political, level, and just how removed the vast majority of Muslims are from extremist ideology.

Although speaking from a Western viewpoint, Blake Michael, chairman Ohio Wesleyan University’s religion department, puts the Muslim position in better context than Schneier: “A lot of Muslims around the world are utterly bewildered by terrorist and jihadist efforts. They want to get the truth about the complexity of Islam out there. They feel the Western media cover a narrow strand of what Islam is about.”

The number of interfaith dialogue conferences has increased tremendously over the past five years or so, but even more so since King Abdullah’s 2008 conference. The inclusion of Muslim imams who were previously absent at interfaith conferences has added another layer of dialogue.

Unlike Christian, Jewish and other religious leaders, Muslim leaders have two strikes against them when participating in religious conferences. They must answer questions about extremist ideology found on dozens of websites that is perceived as speaking for the Muslim community. They also must find a solution to the manufactured threat of Wahhabism, which is considered by Western conservatives as a conspiracy to create a caliph.

Most non-Muslim religious leaders recognize these two issues are not reflective of the Muslim community, but whether they convey that message to the members of their church or synagogue is another issue. I think not. It’s one thing to participate in large scale conferences like the ones held in Spain and Austria and the ones that followed, but the greater challenge is to bypass the Christian and Jewish hierarchy and speak to the people themselves.

Saudi imams and sheikhs might consider educating non-Muslims on the true voice of Islam by participating in events at smaller venues outside major metropolitan centers. Many non-Muslim centers, for example, have guest clergy from other faiths give lectures and presentations.

Discussions between imams, priests and rabbis will help break down significant barriers.

King Abdullah got the ball rolling two years ago and Muslims are quietly being heard by non-Muslim leaders, but the next step is to make sure that message is delivered unfiltered to the rest of the non-Muslim community.

Rogue agency fails to protect Saudi women

In February I wrote about the “heroic” role the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice can play in Saudi society, noting that the commission can earn the confidence of the people it serves by protecting women from predators. When some Hai’a members become the predator, however, then they betray all Saudis.

Recently a girl, who was reported to be a runaway, was arrested in Tabuk after she asked a man for a ride to the bus station so she could return to her family in Jeddah. The Hai’a says the girl asked the man to smuggle her to Jeddah in his car.

Recently it’s been reported that the young woman is not a runaway but a divorced mother who was visiting her child in Tabuk and was returning to Jeddah.

The young woman was detained and taken to the commission’s Tabuk headquarters. During Maghreb, several people at a nearby mosque reportedly heard a woman’s screams from the headquarters and called police. The girl allegedly had been severely beaten and taken to the hospital for treatment. Bruises were said to have been found on her body. It was also alleged that she had been choked.

The Hai’a members denied they beat the girl and imply the injuries were self-inflicted. The Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution is investigating.
The Hai’a’s version of events doesn’t ring true. They should leave the stories of prisoners abusing themselves to the experts, like the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Saudis are not so gullible.

If indeed those members beat this young woman, then it’s a betrayal of Saudi society in the worst sense. It’s further evidence that Hai’a’s rogue members are accountable to no authority and they wage terror in the name of instilling virtue. These Hai’a members, if the investigation reveals wrongdoing, used their mandate to prevent vice and promote virtue as a shield to inflict pain with impunity on the people they were supposed to protect.

There have been many attempts to rein in commission members. There was the laughable campaign five years ago to develop a “kinder and gentler” commission. There was this year’s effort to spell out in writing the duties of commission members, much like a job description. But as I mentioned in February, these measures mean nothing without enforcement to govern behavior and accountability for those who abuse their authority.

The incident in Tabuk so thoroughly damages the Hai’a’s credibility that no woman may feel confident to seek sanctuary at their headquarters or flag down a commission member on the street if she is harassed.

The rule of thumb in Saudi Arabia is that change comes when Saudi society permits it. That’s how we skirt around the issues of women driving, child marriages and allowing women equal access to jobs and to the judicial system. If no one asserts their daughter or wife’s right to drive a car or to practice criminal law in a courtroom, then the status quo remains and our society becomes stagnant.

The problem with the Hai’a is more immediate and more critical. It involves the safety of women who, according to the commission itself, need protection. Yet some members of the Hai’a repeatedly demonstrate that women apparently need protection from them. From the ugly 2002 Makkah fire tragedy to car chases that leave people dead in the streets, the commission appears to operate without fear of annoying law enforcement intervention.

Let’s assume for a moment that commission members did not beat the girl and all those people who heard the screams were mistaken or misinterpreted the cries for that of a budding Saudi actress. The Hai’a, according to reports, did not allow the girl medical attention until police intervened and they did not take the man who purportedly gave the girl a ride into custody or question him. Commission members’ reported behavior before police intervention is suspect even without the allegations of abuse.

If Saudis are comfortable with such conduct and prefer to wait for the next big fire or to expose their daughter or wife to the abuse of strangers, then so be it. But as for me, I see no reason to subject myself to questioning by a commission member or agree to visit their offices. I want to believe in their goals, but I don’t have the confidence that my safety is their concern. In the meantime I will wait for the government to impose codified checks and balances to govern the Hai’a.

I believe the Hai’a can be heroic, but that time has yet to come.