When Foreign Officials Visit Saudi Private Girls Colleges

During his visit to Saudi Arabia last week, British PM David Cameron made a stop at Dar Al-Hekma College (DAH) in Jeddah. The private girls college held a roundtable with students and alumnae to welcome the visitor from England.

Private higher education institutions in Jeddah have become a usual stop on the schedules of foreign dignitaries who come to Saudi Arabia in recent years. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a large town hall meeting with students at DAH when she visited the country in February 2010.

In both occasions, the Western visitors praised the intelligence and determination of the female students, and in both cases religious conservatives attacked.. well, everyone: the visitors, the colleges and the students.

As soon as photos from Cameron’s roundtable at DAH surfaced online, religious conservatives started spewing venom. Elderly cleric Abdulrahman al-Barrak described the scene of DAH students shaking hands with the British PM as “disgrace, scandalous, and shame.” He said DAH is only interested in “Westernizing Muslim women.”

Nasser al-Omar, another cleric, asked how is it possible for “those who organized, permitted or participated at the meeting of our girls with a Christian official” to be loyal to our religion, country or people?

More people on Twitter made similar remarks, using even coarser language. This prompted a number of DAH students to say that they will file a complaint with the court against what they described as defamation on the social network, according to Saudi Gazette.

When Cameron visit’s to DAH was first announced, Hanan al-Shargi asked: “Why did the private girls colleges in Jeddah become a regular stop for foreign dignitaries?” Why don’t they visit the public King Abdulaziz University (KAU), for example? Are we embarrassed by KAU students, or is their English not good enough? she added.

Those questions should probably be directed at those foreign officials, but let me take a shot at guessing some answers.

First, there is the political gain that Western politicians can easily achieve by such visits.

When Cameron visits Jeddah and meets with the students, he can come back to tell his parliament that he did not just go to Saudi Arabia to sell arms and ignore their dismal record on human rights. He can go back to London and say that he didn’t just discuss human rights with the Saudi government, he has actually met non-government actors and visited a girls college known for empowering women.

Second, logistics and bureaucracy. Most of these visits are usually proposed by the embassies of those foreign countries, and for them it is far more easier to deal with a small private college than a big public university where they have to go through a lot of red tape. Speaking to foreign diplomats over the years, many of them told me that public universities remain off limits to them.

The Education Office at the US Embassy in Riyadh has been for years seeking permission to organize activities at local universities to help Saudi students prepare before they fly to the US to study on government scholarships. No permission was granted, despite the fact that more than 70,000 Saudi students are currently seeking degrees in America.

Then, there is the general perception that those small private girls colleges in Jeddah are more liberal and progressives than public higher education institutions in the country. A perception that many people would agree with. Even though these private colleges are women-only, they don’t have a problem welcoming male speakers every once in a while.

Now compare this with the “crisis” in Dammam University two months ago when a German female professor entered the engineering building of the male students and gave her first lecture in the semester to the students who were apparently freaking out. Some of them reported the incident to the dean who asked the professor to leave the classroom immediately. It turned out that the professor was confused about her schedule, and that she is only supposed to teach female students.

This is one of these these issues that is a non-issue, really. But then again, it is the kind of thing that conservatives enjoy the most: an issue that involves women, especially one where they don’t have to worry about a direct confrontation with the government.

In the end, it is the control of the social arena that they seek the most. As long as they don’t choose to challenge the government, the government would gladly let them have it.

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Covering Up

Niqab-less Norah al-Faiz

Norah al-Faiz is supposed to be a symbol of progress in Saudi Arabia. She was appointed deputy minister of education by King Abdullah in February 2009, making her the kingdom’s highest-ranking female official. At the time, many observers hailed the move as a sign of reform.

But controversy has dogged Faiz since the beginning of her tenure. Continue reading at Foreign Policy

Update 6/27/2012: Saudi state press agency published this new photo of al-Faiz, reportedly taken in Riyadh last night during her visit to an Aramco cultural event. She is the first from the left in the black abaya.

Norah al-Faiz in Aramco cultural event in Riyadh

Saudi Female University Students Protest in Abha

At least 53 female students from the college of arts at King Khaled University in Abha, southern Saudi Arabia, were injured in a protest today, local daily al-Watan reported. Other sources said one student died in the hospital of a status epilepticus condition that she suffered during the protest, after the university security guards attempted to force the students to disperse.

The students were calling for the improvement of the learning environment after local news sites published photos of trash piles in the campus.

This video shows the students in their black abayas screaming:

Weal Abdullah, a medical student at the university, said his sister was among the protesters, and she told him that security guards used clubs to beat the female students.



UPDATE 21:25: Wael Abdullah posted more details on his blog:

On Wednesday Morning , My sister says that they were banned from bringing in or buying any water bottles or Any other refreshment; the dean instructions they said to punish them for throwing it at the guards. Around 10:45 AM the Guards grabbed one of the girls accusing her of hitting the guards and breaking the law, they were pulling her hair and dragging here on the stairs in the most humiliating way screaming and crying for help. Her friends, my sister included, rushed to help and pushed the guards away. This incidence triggered the demonstrations in the whole campus which was already sick of the corruption and ill-treatment of the dean and heads of departments . The girls were calling for an end to the university president Abdullah Alrashid’s era and held him responsible for all the ongoing corruption and deterioration for 13 years now.

The students were protesting for the second day when violence broke out. A local news site published photos of the students on campus during the protest. Photos also showed security forces and religious police patrols outside the school building.

Prince Faisal bin Khaled, governor of Assir province, has ordered a probe in the events at the university.

In a statement released by the media center of King Khaled University, the school administration said the students gathered and acted in ways that violate the rules then escalated to attack security guards, staff and the faculty. “The university will investigate the causes that led to this and address them according to the common good,” the statement said.

On Twitter and BlackBerry’s BBM, messages have been exchanged calling the students, male and female, to hold a demonstration on Saturday calling on the university president to resign.

“Personally, I think that If the government didn’t act and act fast, they could risk losing control over the whole situation;” Wael Abdullah wrote. “I know that We’re all used to be let down by our own country when it comes to rights and freedoms but lets just hope that it won’t this time.”

The Arab World Demographic Dilemma: Young, Unemployed, and Searching for a Voice

Arab youth confront daunting challenges, including a lack of economic opportunities, constraints on their freedom of expression, and the complex and shifting nature of their own Arab identity. How the Arab world meets these challenges will have significant ramifications for the Middle East and the world. This special panel discussion marks the release of America Abroad’s three-part public radio series on youth in the Arab World.

Moderator Deborah Amos, foreign correspondent of NPR News who has covered the Middle East extensively, started by saying that as a reporter in the region you notice the young population, but most of the people she interviews are usually over 30. “If you overlook this generation, you miss something essential about the Middle East,” she said.

Marc Lynch, aka Abu Aardvark, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University, believes that one thing is clear: sheer magnitude of the crisis facing youth in the Middle East. Lynch said many in the West focus on a small group of activists and bloggers, but miss the silent struggle of tens of millions of people. Those people are and their issues are also ignored by their own governments, who seem to think that as long as they can keep these young people off the street then they are doing a good job. Lynch said the recent events in Tunisia and Algeria is particularly interesting because it could have a domino effect all over the Arab World. But when it comes to political ramifications of these events, he wonders if it is going to lead to a substantial change in policy, or just to more repression and bloodshed. This kind of spontaneous uprising and dissent has no place to go because there are not political or social movements involved in it. Lynch said the greatest single thread that combines what is happening in the Arab World right now is the failure of the system to deal with systematic problems, as well as the failure of outside intervention plans. “The tools we have might not be appropriate, and the dynamics are don’t look familiar,” he said. “It’s exciting and troubling.”

Christine Capacci-Carneal, is the Education Development Officer of USAID, and she works primarily with USAID-funded programs in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, West Bank/Gaza and Yemen. Based on her experience in youth development programs, Capacci-Carneal said that youth are a sophisticated group with many subgroups, and that’s why a problem-based approach is less effective than a comprehensive approach. “Problem free is not fully prepared,” she said. As an example for working with that approach, Capacci-Carneal talked about Youth:Work Jordan, which tries to engages youth directly, but also tries to solve systematic issues by targeting youth in poor districts and working with local organizations. She commended the efforts of the program, but admitted that one of the problems they faced is that they have had a hard time building political will and institutional capacity to sustain that effort. Other challenges facing such programs include how to address building a stronger youth voice and a stronger sense of identity then let local organizations join in that effort. Also, how do ensure that your using the available funding efficiently? Capacci-Carneal said USAID is working to develop better research tools to know what works best.

Lina Khatib, who runs the Good Governance and Political Reform in the Arab World at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law in Stanford University, wanted to focus on youth and freedom of expression in the Arab World. She said that social media has opened up further space for views on many topics that were considered once taboo such as politics, sex, and religion. “No doubt interactive media pushed the boundaries for what’s permissible,” she said, and that young people are no longer willing to accept the status quo as the norm. Khatib has also given the recent example of Tunisia, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in what she described as “a desperate plea for the issues of arab youth.” But she added what gives her hope is that young people have not given up and continues their struggle, and thanks to the fact that we live in a world of globalized media, and no authoritarian regime in the Middle East can fully stop the circulating of information. “Youth need a strategy to reach goals,” she concluded, “not just enough to say what they want, but also a way to find what to do.”

Diane Singerman, the associate professor at the American University School of Public Affairs, decided to focus on a slightly different angle on the issues facing Arab youth today. This issues, she said, was extremely ignored: the question of marriage. In the Arab World, adulthood equals being married. However, it is very expensive to get married, and because of the high unemployment rate it is difficult for young people to work and save for marriage. This leads to what she called “wait-hood,” the stage between childhood and adulthood that can only be reached by getting married. Signerman cited the example of Egypt, which has the latest age of marriage anywhere in the world outside china. According to studies, 50 percent of men in Egypt are unmarried, and when they do get married they get married later and later. That’s why youth unemployment should be seen in the lens of getting married, Singerman said. Young men are political excluded because of repression, economically hurting because of unemployment, and because they can’t make money to get married they become socially excluded.

Apologies for posting much later than expected due to some technical difficulties.

Scholarship students complain, Saudis big on the net, new header

  • The BBC website has this nice audio slideshow about the visit of Princess Alice Countess of Athlone, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, to Saudi Arabia in 1938.
  • Saudi scholarship students in the US complain that high living costs force them to take on part-time jobs. Welcome to the real world, kids.
  • According to a recent study, people in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and China are the busiest and most enthusiastic internet users, a study of the world’s online habits has revealed. So yeah, I guess we are big on the internet. Yay.
  • I have changed the header image. The new image is actually not very new. This photo was taken in New York three years ago.

Columbia

Probably most of you already know this by now, but I was actually planning to post about it earlier and did not have a chance. It is long overdue, but I guess better late than never.

Earlier this year I was accepted to the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. However, until the last week of July I was not sure that I will be studying here. My uncertainty had nothing to do with my desire to come to Columbia. It’s just that coming up with the needed finances to be here proved to be much, much more troublesome than anybody anticipated. But in the end everything somehow worked out, and shortly after that I put myself on a plane flying across the Atlantic.

I arrived to New York just a few days before school started on August 9. I was hoping to arrive a couple of weeks earlier to settle down and get used to the city before we start but that hope unfortunately evaporated due to the mentioned above problem and visa delays. I have basically hit the ground running, and have been running like crazy since then. The J-School is a lot of work, but for the most part I’m enjoying it. It is hard to believe that two months have already passed, but here we are, overwhelmed by deadlines, assignments and projects.

This is the reason why I have been neglecting the blog lately, but it is certainly not an excuse. As I promised two days ago, I will try my best to keep the blog up while I’m NYC.

That’s all I have to say for now. Before I go, I need to thank some many people. This will sound like a very, very long acceptance speech, so please bear with me…

Continue reading

Saudi TV staff not paid, MOE strange transformation

  • Why state tv channels suck? Because people are not getting paid. Arab News says the producers and presenters of the early morning show “Good Morning Saudi Arabia” on Ch1 have not received their salaries for the last two months. The production company that makes the show said it has not been able to pay workers because it has not received payment from Saudi Television. I’m not surprised. I have heard many similar stories from people I know who have worked in the past with Ch1 and Ch2.
  • According to Saudi Gazette, a crowd gathered at the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Riyadh on Sunday to express their objections on “Shariah grounds” to the visit of deputy minister Norah al-Faiz to a boys’ school in Al-Zulfi last week. The Ministry issued a statement on Sunday saying that deputy minister Faisal Bin Mu’ammar met with the protesters who submitted a range of proposals related to the work of the ministry which will be studied. I can’t help but share the amazement of Khalaf al-Harbi at this soft stance and really strange transformation of MOE, which just a few days took a very strict, some even said aggressive, stance against the teachers who have been demanding the ministry for what many people view as fair demands.