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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Photo Essay: First Saudi Female Athletes at the Olympics

After long negotiations with the International Olympic Committee and pressure from human rights groups, Saudi Arabia announced in the eleventh hour that they will be sending female athletes to the Olympic Games in London for the first time in the country’s history.

This was seen as a victory for the equality and the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia, but before that it was a victory for the IOC who declared that by London 2012 every national Olympic committee will have sent women to the Olympic Games.

The two athletes chosen to Saudi Arabia were Wojdan Shaherkhani, a 16-year-old judoka from Makkah; and Sarah Attar, a 19-year-old runner who holds dual citizenship for the United States and Saudi Arabia.

In the Opening Ceremony, the two teenagers walked at the back of the delegation, dressed in traditional clothes. As they made their strides to follow their male counterparts, the girls waved Saudi flags and flashed victory signs with big smiles on their young faces.

On August 3, 2012, history was made. “In white,” the announcer declared, “the first woman ever from Saudi Arabia, Wojdan Shaherkani.” Accompanied by her father, an international judo judge himself, she stepped onto the red and yellow mat in the ExCel Center to compete at the +78kg judo event.

Wojdan was also making another first. It was the first time a judoka competes at the Olympics wearing the hijab. That hijab caused contention in the days leading to the competition. Saudi officials insisted that Wojdan would only compete wearing the hijab, while the International Judo Federation said hijab is not allowed for safety reasons. When the Saudis threatened they would pull out if she can’t wear hijab, a compromise was reached allowing her to cover her hair.

Faced with a far more experienced competitor, Wojdan did not last for too long on the mat. Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica needed only 82 seconds to defeat her young opponent. On Twitter, some Saudis who were against women’s participation mocked Wojdan, sometimes using ugly racial slurs. But many others said they are proud of her.

Wojdan’s father said he was going to sue people who insulted his daughter. He also said he had to pay all the expenses for his daughter’s participation. “No one at the Saudi Olympic Committee promised to reimburse me, and I don’t really care,” he said. “My daughter’s participation is the true honor.”

Sarah Attar

Five days later, it was the turn of Saudi Arabia’s second female athlete to make her appearance. Sarah Attar, born and raised in Escondido, CA. to a Saudi father and an American mother, took her place on the track of the Olympic Stadium to run in the 800m heat.

Wearing a white headscarf, a long sleeved green top and black leggings, a beaming Attar waved to the 80,000 spectators who filled the stadium. This was a new experience for the college student who goes to school and trains in San Diego.

Few seconds after the race began, it was clear that Sarah had no chance to win. Other athletes ran past her, but she kept running. She was the last to finish the race, but she received a standing ovation from the crowd as she crossed the finish line, clocking at 2 minutes and 44.95 seconds. Her name was trending worldwide on Twitter.

“It’s an incredible experience,” Sarah told reporters after the race. In an interview with the BBC, she said this was not about winning. “It was really about the cause being here … representing all the women over there” in Saudi Arabia.

From their living rooms, Saudi women watched with hope that what Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar did will be a meaningful step in the direction of changing women status in the country.

End of Drama: Saudi to Send Women to Olympics

After much back and forth, Saudi Arabia will finally send two female athletes to the Olympics for the first time. A runner and judoka will be representing the Kingdom in the London 2012 Games, the International Olympic Committee said.

"This is very positive news and we will be delighted to welcome these two athletes in London in a few weeks time,” said IOC President Jacques Rogge.

It almost did not happen.

On June 24, Saudi Arabia announced for the first time that it was going to allow female athletes to compete in the Olympics. According to the BBC, the decision came after secret meetings held earlier that month in Jeddah, where “a consensus was reached in mid-June between the king, the crown prince, the foreign minister, the leading religious cleric, the grand mufti and others, to overturn the ban” on women participation.

At the time, all eyes were on showjumper Dalma Malhas, who won a bronze medal in the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010, and was seen as the country’s most likely representative. However, her mother told the Guardian that Dalma would not be able to compete in London because her horse was injured.

This seemed like a convenient way out for Saudi officials. By saying they don’t mind women participation but don’t have any female athletes qualified to compete, they can avoid an Olympic ban while at the same time avoid the rage of powerful clerics in the country who oppose competitive sports for women.

To appease the clerics, Saudi most senior sports official Prince Nawaf bin Faisal announced a set of rules for women’s participation at the Olympics. Athletes can only take part if they do so “wearing suitable clothing that complies with sharia” and “the athlete’s guardian agrees and attends with her,” he told local daily al-Jazirah. “There must also be no mixing with men during the Games,” he added.

Although the IOC said they remained cautiously optimistic of the Saudi women participation, they sounded very doubtful.

“I cannot guarantee it 100 percent,” Rogge told the AP on July 4, despite ongoing negotiations with Saudi officials. Four days later, the pan-Arab Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat quoted a Saudi official saying there is no “female team taking part in the three fields.” But human rights organizations urged IOC to ban Saudi Arabia from the London Games if they don’t send women.

“It’s not that the Saudis couldn’t find a woman athlete – it’s that their discriminatory policies have so far prevented one from emerging,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

On July 11, an unnamed Saudi official from the embassy in London denied media reports that no female athletes from his country will compete in the Games, telling the BBC “that a ‘shooter’ and ‘a runner called Alia’ are under consideration for London 2012.”

This turned out to be half true. Saudi Arabia will send two female athletes to London, but not the two mentioned by the embassy official.

Thursday, the IOC announced the names of the two Saudi female athletes to compete in London Olympics this summer: Wejdan Shahrkhani in judo above 78kg, and Sarah Attar at the 800m race.

Attar said she is honored to represent her country at London 2012 and hopes her participation will encourage Saudi women to get more involved in sport.

“A big inspiration for participating in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going,” she told the official Olympic website.

In the video published on the IOC website, Attar appears wearing a grey headscarf, with a loose-fitting long sleeves top and black sweatpants. She apparently did that to comply with the rules set by the Saudi government. A photo on her school’s website shows Attar in regular athletics gear, without a headscarf.

Attar was born and raised in Escondido, California. Her father is Saudi, her mother is American, and has been to Saudi Arabia only a couple times. She is a college student at Pepperdine University, where she is a a sophomore majoring in Art.

Attar has a message to Saudi women: “To any woman who wants to participate, I say ‘go for it and don’t let anyone hold you back’,” she said. “We all have the potential to get out there and get going.”

Saudi Govt Accused of Using Judiciary to Silence Activists

Three prominent Saudi human rights activists are facing serious charges in a series of court cases that took place over the last few weeks. The latest of these cases was brought against Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), and someone who has been tirelessly working to promote human rights in the country and bravely criticizing government’s record on the subject. Al-Qahtani appeared in court in Riyadh earlier this week.

The public prosecutor accused him of eleven charges related to his activism. Here is a link to the public prosecutor’s memo (Arabic PDF); below is a translation of the charges against him:

  1. Attempting to plant the seeds of discord and strife, breaking allegiance to the ruler and his successor, questioning the integrity of and insulting state officials.
  2. Questioning the integrity and piety of the members of the Senior Ulema Council by – falsely – accusing it to be a tool that approves government policies in return for financial and moral support as in the case of forbidding street protests.
  3. Accusing Saudi judiciary in its regulations and applications of being unable to deliver justice for breaching the standards set by Islamic Sharia.
  4. Accusing Saudi judiciary of being unjust by allowing torture and accepting confessions extracted under duress.
  5. Accusing the Saudi regime – unfairly – of being a police state built on injustice and oppression veiled in religion, and using the judiciary to legitimize injustice to continue its systematic approach to violate human rights.
  6. Inciting public opinion by accusing security bodies and their senior officials of oppression, torture, assassination, enforced disappearances, and violating human rights.
  7. Antagonizing international organizations against the Kingdom, and instigating them to focus on criticizing the Kingdom’s civic, political, economical, social and cultural fundamentals.
  8. Co-founding an unlicensed organization and making it appear as a reality by which he attempts to oppose state policy, spread divisiveness and disunity, spread accusations against the state’s judiciary and executive institutions and senior officials of injustice and transgressions; engaging in specialities that affect others’ rights and freedoms and the encroachment upon the specialties of governmental and non-governmental organizations (Human Rights Commission, National Society for Human Rights) and participating in writing statements released by them and publishing it on the internet.
  9. Preparing, storing and sending what could affect general order which is punishable by Section 1 in Article 6 of the E-Crimes law.
  10. Describing the General Intelligence body [mabaheth] as illegal militias.
  11. Providing false information as true facts and delivering them to official international bodies (UN Human Rights Council) which includes statements he delivered to these international organizations about proceedings regarding suing individuals that he gave which contradicts the truth and reality documented in official papers.

The two other activists facing similar charges, but in separate court cases, all pressed by the same public prosecutor, are Abdullah al-Hamed and Waleed Abu Al-Khair. In a gesture of support, they both attended the court hearing when al-Qahtani was accused of the charges listed above.

He remains defiant. “History is being written here,” al-Qahtani reportedly told his son after the court hearing, surrounded by 30 activists who were there.

Amnesty International said the case against al-Qahtani is part of part of a crackdown on human rights activists in the country and that it should be thrown out of court.

“The Saudi Arabian authorities’ trial of Mohammad al-Qahtani is just one of a troubling string of court cases aimed at silencing the Kingdom’s human rights activists,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program. The government must end its crackdown against activists, he said.

“This must come to an end and human rights defenders must be allowed to carry on their crucial work to expose human rights violations and call for justice and accountability.”

Commission Makeover? Good Luck with That

The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has a new president. Abdul-Latif Al-alsheikh is a descendant of Mohammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, the preacher whose pact with Muhammad bin Saud helped to establish the first Saudi state more than 250 years ago. But the first time I heard of Al-alskheikh was in 2010 when he joined a heated debate in the country about gender mixing.

On that debate, Al-alsheikh took what many considered a moderate stance when compared to the official stance taken by the Commission. “Gender mixing is here by need and necessity,” he told al-Jazirah daily. “Such practice was not born today or in this age, but rather has existed for a very long time, including the early days of Islam.” Al-alsheikh went on to say that Sharia did not ban gender mixing, but rather allowed it within certain limits.

Other notable names who took this side of the debate included Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamdi, former head of the Commission in Makkah, former judge Eisa al-Gheith and the current Justice Minister Mohammad al-Eisa. On the opposite side of the debate you had more traditionalist clerics who warned that any easing of gender segregation rules will lead to dangerous consequences such as sexual promiscuity and complete social disintegration.

At the time, the Commission was welcoming a new president to its ranks. Abdul-Aziz al-Humayyen was appointed for the post as part of a major cabinet reshuffle ordered by King Abdullah on Valentine’s Day 2009. Al-Humayyen was hailed as a reformer, and he promised to fix the Commission and end transgressions. That did not happen. Five months ago, he was replaced by Al-alskheikh.

Before being appointed as a new head of the Commission on January 13, 2012, Al-alsheikh served as an assistant general secretary of the Council of Senior Ulema as well as an advisor to the former governor of Riyadh Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. He is married and has four children.

Like his predecessor, Al-alsheikh came to the new job with promises of change and reform. On his first few weeks he made the headlines when he announced that the Commission patrols will no longer chase suspects in the streets. The decision was well-received because several people have been killed or injured in high speed chasing incidents in recent years, but also made some conservatives uneasy as it indicated that the new president seemed more than willing to limit the powers enjoyed by his feared men.

Al-alsheikh has had some quiet months on the job since then, but that did not last for long. The Nail Polish Girl affair came and forced him to speak up.

The typical response to stories like this in the past was usually very defensive. Typically, the Commission president or spokesman man would come out to defend and justify the aggressive behavior of their staff in the field, and accuse the media – local and international – of targeting the Commission and being biased against it.

However, things went a bit differently this time. Instead of defending them, Al-alsheikh attempted to play down the story and instead directed criticism at his own men saying Commission members who abuse their power would be fired immediately.

That was unusual, to say the least.

Are we finally going to see change in the Commission? Is Al-alshiekh serious about reform? And even if he has a true desire to fix it, can he actually do that? The Commission annual report for last year offers some numbers that could help us answer the aforementioned questions.

According to the report, most of the employees in this government body are not very educated. The Commission employs 4389 men: 60% of the these employees do not have a college degree, and half of those did not even finish high school. It is safe to assume that most of them are field officers, the ones you usually see in malls and patrolling streets in white GMC trucks.

The report indicates that the Commission field offers have arrested 392,325 persons for two types of offense: religious and moral. That number translates to 1.5% of the country’s population, and it shows a 20% increase over the previous year

The news items that I have read summarizing the report’s conclusions do not provide more details regarding the nature of the offenses, but based on history we can probably guess that the definition of what actions count as offenses depend on the interpretation the Commission field officers. The very same officers who severely lack education and who seem to act as if they are entitled by God to perform their job, even if that meant infringing on citizens’ rights and invading their privacy.

Looking at the numbers, history and the status quo in the country, fixing the Commission might seem like an impossible mission. There are very few reasons to be optimistic, and so many ones to be pessimistic. Abdul-Latif Al-alshiekh has to turn it around and somehow make it work in a modern country where citizens know their rights and fight for them. He will probably need a magic wand. Would his men let him have one?

Protest to Release Detainees in Riyadh Mall

Relatives of political detainees held a small protest in Riyadh Wednesday night, photos and videos posted to social media sites showed. The protest took place inside Sahara Mall in the northern part of the Saudi capital. The videos below show men marching inside the mall as they chant a hadeeth by the Prophet that says “release the distressed.”




The account @e3teqal on Twitter, which identifies itself as a coordinator for the activities of illegal detention victims in Saudi Arabia, posted a number of photos purporting to show the protest:





UPDATE 6/7/2012 1:10: Mohammad al-Abdulaziz said on Twitter that his brother and his family (wife and three children) have been arrested. It is said that more people have been arrested.

Head of CPVPV weeps, Head of NSHR talks

  • Sheikh Abdul-Latif Al-alsheikh, head of CPVPV, joins the growing crowd of weeping clerics, though unfortunately we don’t have a video of the incident. The tears were spilled during a meeting with his staff as he recalled a conversation with King Abdullah. Al-alskheikh said the king asked him to avoid using violence against citizens. Al-alsheikh also commented on the Nail Polish Girl issue, saying the story has been exaggerated. “The world is making airplanes and we are telling a woman to leave the mall because she is wearing nail polish,” he exclaimed.

Nail polish photo

  • Arab New interviews Moflih al-Qahtani, chairman of NSHR, to talk about the society’s latest report that was published yesterday. “Our report is in support of the Kingdom’s efforts worldwide to sustain its positive image among international human rights organizations,” he said. I thought the goal was to highlight the human rights situation in the country in order to improve it. Silly me.