Wednesday, March 6, 2013

At the mercy of the old guard

The column was originally published in ARAB NEWS
As more Saudi women attempt to enter the work force, they discover obstacles thrown in their path as they pound the pavement looking for employment.

There are the obvious problems: No transportation to go to job interviews. Very limited access to private businesses because women are stopped at the guard office. No family members willing to see their beloved treasure mixing with men.

I’ll add another obstruction: The old guard, an entrenched group of men who insist they know what is best for women and who consider themselves as role models for Saudi society. It is the issue of role models that I will get to shortly.

Consider the urgent issue of female unemployment in Saudi Arabia. An estimated 86 percent of the job seekers collecting an allowance from the Hafiz program are women. A majority of these women are university degree holders and live in large urban areas. Only about 15 percent of the work force consists of women. About 1.2 million Saudi women between the ages of 20 and 35 are looking for work.

The deck is stacked against Saudi women to find meaningful employment for the reasons I have already mentioned. But the real insult is the conservatives who portray themselves as paragons of religious order but seem to have forgotten the basic teachings of the Holy Qur’an.

Solving the issue of transportation and getting one’s foot in the door of a prospective employee take a little initiative, gumption and persistence. Running head first into the old guard who still view camels as the only honorable mode of transportation is problematic.

These are the guys who attempted to browbeat the minister of labor to ban women from taking jobs in retail shops. Women won that battle because common sense prevailed in the Labor Ministry. Now I can go into any cosmetic shop and feel more comfortable because women are using their own skin and my skin to test makeup while selling me a product. I can’t do that with a man, so I tip my hat, or really my hijab, to those practical people in the ministry.

The old guard says they want to protect women, keep them at home and away from the dangers of, I guess, Saudi society. They know what is best and they should be revered.
Then I think about the television preacher accused of beating to death his 5-year-old daughter because she reportedly had an “attitude” and he didn’t like her morals.

The baby’s death may have been intentional or unintentional. We don’t know because all the facts are not available. But I think to myself that if this is an example of the men who went to the ministry and attempted to stop women from working in shops or preventing them from giving women an active role as citizens, it raises the question of how I can trust the opinion of people who kill their own daughters.

Of course, the girl’s fatal beating is an individual case and shouldn’t be taken as an indictment on all television preachers. Yet there is the connection. This television preacher talks to his audience, dispenses advice on family matters, and no doubt has a following. Are these the guys we want as role models?

I prefer the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). I see a loving father and loving husband. I see a husband who held his wife on his shoulders so she could see a group of African performers walk into Madinah. I see the man who asked his neighbors to keep his wife company. I see a father who loved and respected his daughters so much that he offered his space for them to sit when they visited. I see a grandfather who kept his head bowed in prayer while allowing his grandchildren to crawl all over him. The Prophet is a real role model and any woman will follow his example.

Contrast this to preachers who get paid to be on television and want to make my life miserable by imposing requirements on me that have nothing to do with Islam.

These fellows use women to fulfill their agenda because they perceive women as the weakest link in Saudi society. The young girl who died was in the custody of her father and stepmother. She didn’t have her mother there to protect her. The girl’s death should force us to reconsider not only who we are following as role models, but also our current child custody laws that inevitably give custody of children in divorce cases to the father.
In Islam, children should be in the custody of the mother until seven years old. The dead girl was five. Who decided in this case not to follow Islam? Who decided that the father was better equipped than the mother to raise the girl? And will I forever be at the mercy of a segment of society that thinks it is better for me to shut up and stay at home?

The invisibility of the Saudi woman

The column was originally published  in Arab News

I was struck the other day by the message that two unrelated photographs conveyed.

One was of President Barack Obama on stage with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Sasha and Malia, moments before he gave his victory speech after his re-election Tuesday night. The other photo was of a conference on contemporary women held in Saudi Arabia. There were no women in the photo, but hundreds of men in short thobes.

The photo of the Obama family sent a strong message that family is the core value of the leader of the largest and richest nation on earth. The other photograph told me that women are invisible and they have no voice in their future.

I am sure there were many women at the Saudi conference working behind the scenes, but if a photograph speaks a thousand words, then only one is really needed: “absent.”
As a Saudi woman I don’t want or need a man to hide me away from society. I don’t need my husband to go to government offices to do my business for me, nor do I need him to run routine errands for me like going down to the corner fish market to pick up dinner.

As Saudis we have managed over two generations to strip away women’s identity. The proud names of Saudi mothers have been removed from the outside of homes in Old Jeddah. In the days of my grandparents, the name of the mother of the house was once proudly displayed. Her identity was the family’s identity. My mother, Alia Muhammad Al-Atayyah, had literally thousands of people attend her funeral in Madinah. That’s the kind of impact she had on her community. Her name is our family’s legacy.

Today, husbands and fathers fight to ensure our national identity card photos are obscured so government officials don’t see our images. Men refuse to talk about their wives or daughters to other men for the irrational fear that the women in their families will have their reputations tarnished. And even women going about their business in public places demand that men lower their gazes if their eyes linger on us a little too long.

When I watched the Obamas on stage the other night, I was a bit envious. This husband and father had no problem showing off his family and how proud he was of the women in his life. The scene reminded of rare photographs of King Abdullah and Prince Salman and with their grandchildren.

The image of Prince Salman and his grandchildren was especially touching, with one of the young girls going about straightening out the gutra of her grandfather as he sat patiently waiting for her to get it exactly right. I got a glimpse of our leaders’ personal lives and feel more secure as a Saudi and more proud of my country.
King Abdullah has consistently been photographed in public with women and considers himself an advocate for women. So it’s difficult to understand why the men at the women’s conference felt compelled to discuss women’s issues away from women.

Barack Obama’s re-election to a second term as president and his speech also reminded me why Saudis admire the US so much despite its questionable Middle East foreign policy goals. He fought a furious campaign and former Gov. Mitt Romney lost. Romney, however, was a gracious loser and Obama struck a conciliatory note by promising to work with both Democrats and Republicans to ensure that the US prospers.

In the Middle East, we have few gracious losers. Defeat is not easily accepted and differences become starker as the winners take control of a government. Political and religious leaders defame each other and wars continue to be fought and often won through attrition. A look at a tumultuous post-revolution Libya and the continuing civil war in Syria are examples of how winners are never satisfied and how in the face of overwhelming evidence that a dictator is hated, he still clings to his power.

While Obama still faces a hostile Congress, Romney set the right tone with his hope that the president will guide his nation on the right path.

Our disappointments in Obama’s Middle East policies and whatever shortcomings he has as president don’t erase the fact that for the US the system of government works. And that despite harsh tone of the campaign it’s in the best interest of the United States to forge common ground between the two political parties.

But on a personal level, I find the pride Obama displays every time he shows off the beautiful women in his family is representative of the true values of this man. And I will preempt the literal-minded critics right here: It’s not about showing off women in western dress or showing off their legs. It’s about honoring the family. I don’t buy the argument that Saudi society is different and should be respected. I don’t buy it because I really don’t appreciate a roomful of men gathering at a conference to evaluate my role as a woman in Saudi society without my input. 
I am not invisible and I am not going away.