Why They Make Fun of Us?

Arab News reports:

Saudi women expressed outrage at Chelsea Handler, the American host of the TV show “Chelsea Lately,” when she swore at Saudi men for being able to receive notification by SMS of their wives’ travels abroad.

Here’s the 35 seconds long clip that got these women outraged:

The first woman quoted in the story says Handler does not understand how the system works:

Sabah Abdulmalik, a 42-year-old stay-at-home-mom said, “I would like to inform Chelsea that this is only a service that people can activate or decline and that this was not forced upon us,” said.

“This service was developed by the Saudi authorities and not by husbands who want to track their wives, so when she says such a word, she should know that it was not conceived of at a local level and that it’s a matter of choice,” she added.

It might be true that the SMS notifications are an optional service (although it is more complicated than that), but you are ignoring elephant in the room: guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia do not allow women to leave the country without permission from their guardians. In the past it was the notorious yellow slip, now it is the infamous text messages.

Saudi fashion designer Reem AlKanhal says she respects freedom of speech but this crossed the line. “I think we have deeper problems than traveling, driving and covering our faces. They only focus on the aspects of our lives that make them laugh and we hate to be the butt of jokes on live television,” she said.

If we don’t want to be the butt of jokes then we should fix our “deeper problem.” Complaining about others laughing at us will not solve these problems, especially when we are not allowed to discuss and tackle them because of the red lines that you say Hanlder has crossed one of them.

A female Saudi blogger who chose to remain anonymous said that Chelsea’s clip was offensive not only to Saudi women, but to Islam as well. “We learned that Muslim women should not leave the house without the approval of their husbands and I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

“Her words were very aggressive and we do not accept such attacks, especially using bad words knowing that this is not how we were raised and this is not normal to us in Arab, local TV shows and talk shows,” she added.

You would think that bloggers are opinionated people who want to express their ideas and stand behind them, but this is not the case here. Here, you have a blogger who wants to be anonymous. She is like the anti-blogger. She complains that Handler, a comedienne who was talking on a late night show, used “bad words.” What are you, five? She adds that “this is not normal to us in Arab, local TV shows and talk shows.” First, this was not an Arab or local show. Second, you almost certainly watched this on YouTube, i.e. you chose to click and watch this. Nobody forced you to do this. Oh and by the way, since you seem easily offended, you should probably stop using the Internet.

Sarah Essam, a 32-year-old mother of two, wonders how Chelsea thought she was defending Saudi women in making these statements. “I know that using shocking language and discussing controversial topics are surefire ways to attract a larger audience, but this is beyond disrespectful and she crossed the line,” she said.

“Thanks to her words, she actually made us defend our husbands and stand behind this service even if we don’t approve of it,” she added.

Again with the damn line. But wait, Handler’s comments made you “stand behind this service even if we don’t approve of it”? Wow, talk about Stockholm Syndrome.

Mariam Hejazi, a 28-year-old banker, demanded an apology from Chelsea. “We have been tolerating the international media for a really long time. How can they judge a whole nation when funnily enough, it is their motto to “never judge a book by its cover,” she said.

Poor Hejazi is upset. Very upset. How dare this Handler comedienne make fun of her plight? How insensitive of her. Okay, khalas, international media will no longer talk about Saudi women issues because someone’s feelings are hurt. Promise. Pinky promise.

In the end, the newspaper has managed to find at least one woman who was not offended by the clip:

Yasmine Abdulrazak, an English teacher at a college in Jeddah, thinks the clip was actually funny and did not feel offended by it. “I don’t know why we are always offended when people talk about us. Yes, the media highlights the negative things about Saudi Arabia and they always make women feel like we need a hero to save us,” she said.

“Chelsea is a comedian and her job is to mock people and attack others to make her audience laugh. We see her make fun of celebrities, politicians and nations but they do not express offense in the same way we did today,” she added.

I found a few more on Twitter. Here’s one of them:

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Rooster’s Egg

The book Girls of Riyadh is one of the few true Saudi bestsellers. The controversial novel by Raja al-Sanea first came out in 2005 and became a sensation right away. The instant popularity and the controversy surrounding it prompted the Saudi government to ban the novel at first, but soon the ban was lifted and the book was available for purchase almost everywhere, including gas stations on the road between Riyadh and Dammam.

The novel was translated to English and published in the summer of 2007. I was not impressed by the book when I read it, but I thought that accompanying controversy was interesting nevertheless.

Considering that al-Sanea was trained as a dentist and this was her first book, some people raised questions over if she really wrote it. The fact that the well-known Saudi writer and minister Ghazi al-Gosaibi, a figure hated by religious conservatives, wrote a blurb for the book did not help. But I did not have a reason to doubt that al-Sanea had indeed written the novel. Al-Gosaibi, who passed away in 2010, would not have written something like that.

To avoid the controversy and her new fame, al-Sanea left the country and headed to Chicago to pursue higher education in dentistry. But before departing to the US, she told those who questioned her talent that Girls of Riyadh was not a “rooster’s egg,” which means that her novel was not a one-off, accidental success. She said she was going to write a novel as “powerful and influential” as her first one.

Seven years later, al-Sanea is yet to publish her second book. She told the Beirut-based al-Akhbar last year that she is working on a new novel to come out in 2012 “reflecting the changes surrounding her life.” The year is almost coming to an end and I have not heard or read anything about her upcoming novel.

However, the most interesting part in her interview with al-Akhbar for me was her take on the Arab Spring. I was surprised to read that she thinks that “We [in Saudi] have nothing to revolt against like neighboring countries.” Moreover, she believes that Saudi Arabia is “on the reform track.”

Obviously, Raja al-Sanea is not beyond her rooster’s egg yet.

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.

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.”

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

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.