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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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.”

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

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?

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.

Saudi Jeans Turns 8, Nail Polish Girl

Saudi Jeans turned 8 earlier this month. I did not mark the occasion with a post as I usually do, but I thought I would give the blog a facelift. As you can see, the redesign features (much) bigger typography with content taking center stage. It is still work-in-progress, so I will be polishing this over the next few days.

Speaking of polish, you probably have already seen the nail polish girl video. If you haven’t, here it is:

Eman al-Nafjan already wrote a good post about it, but I thought I would add my two halalas. What makes the incident interesting is not just that the girl is standing up to the Commission members (other women have done it in the past) but that she also tells them they have no right to chase her, she documents the whole thing on video and threatens to expose them on social media. She then reports them to the police who seemed pretty confused over what to do about it.

Abdul-Latif Al-alsheikh, the newly appointed chief of the Commission said the incident will be investigated. “We do not accept transgressions or mistakes by Commission members, but we also do not accept transgressions against them at all,” he told Sabq which reported that the Commission is now seeking legal action against the girl. This has become a trend: conservatives who for a long time despised government regulations because they are “man-made laws” are now using such regulations to sue people at courts where they are sure to find sympathetic judges to rule in their favour.

Hamza Kashgari To Be Released

Hamza Kashgari, the detained Saudi writer accused of blasphemy, will be freed in the next few weeks after a court in Riyadh accepted his repentance, multiple sources said.

Human rights activist Souad al-Shammary tweeted that a Sharia court in the capital has ratified his repentance in the presence of his family, and that he showed his regret over what he has written about the Prophet.

I have tried to reach Kashgar’s lawyer but he did not answer his phone, but I have confirmed this through a friend-of-a-friend of the writer. Local news site Sabq cited sources that also confirmed the news.