Saudi Women Granted Right to Vote

Yes, you read that headline right. Saudi women will be allowed to vote and run in the next municipal elections. They will also be appointed to the Shoura Council in its next term. As I said on Twitter yesterday, this is big news for women in Saudi Arabia any way you look at it. You can read more in this blogpost that I wrote on NPR’s The Two-way blog. I have also created a storify to collect the reactions from people that I follow on Twitter that you can read after jump.

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MOCI Failwhale

The Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) is at it again. There is a new directive signed by Ahmad al-Hout, (get this) the acting assistant undersecretary for domestic media affairs, that bans journalists from pretty much doing anything without getting permission from the ministry first.

Al-Hayat daily reports that, based on the new directive, Saudi journalists cannot accept invitations or attend events or training organized by foreign parties working in the Kingdom or abroad. The directive also says that journalists must not do any interviews with these parties or invite their members without coordinating with the ministry and getting their approval first.

I have never heard of Mr. al-Hout before, but a quick search on Google reveals that he probably should not be in this position. He did not go to regular schools: he attended the Scientific Institute, a religious school, starting from seventh grade to the end of high school, and then went to study Sharia at Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.

His dream, he said, was to become a football referee. But somehow he started his career at the censorship office of Riyadh airport and then made his way up at the ministry to reach the office where he is today. He recently gave an interview on a site called Tareeb News (with some shots of his house), in which he revealed some juicy bits of information such as: what is his speciality (boiled eggs) and what is his favorite holiday destination (northern Italy).

However, the most interesting statement in this interview came when Mr. al-Hout was asked about how he deals with his family. The principle in his dealings with the family, he said, is “sharing in decision-making” and that “freedom of speech is guaranteed to all.”

I’m not sure why Mr. al-Hout seems to think that the democratic principles he says he practices at home do not apply to journalists. Double standards much?

UPDATE 9/2/2011 9:30 ET: when al-Hayat contacted a source at MOCI about how did this new directive, the source simply said: “the directive is based on instructions from higher authorities.” I have asked the minister Abdulaziz Khoja on Twitter about this but he never replied. That’s not surprising, though, the man has not tweeted in six weeks.

On Being Hashtagged

Adhwan al-Ahmari seems to think that there is some kind of war raging between Saudi journalists and activists. He said the revolution in Egypt has produced a divide between the two groups. This war is taking place in Twitter and in newspaper columns.

First, let’s get some facts straight. There is a lot of broad-brush statements and sweeping generalizations being thrown around here.

For example, Adhwan says activists are demanding the immediate release of all detainees and apply the criminal procedures law to them even for terrorism suspects. This statement is not entirely true. I never heard any activist say they want all detainees released. What most activists want is simply to have the criminal procedures law applied to all detainees, because indefinite detention is illegal and violates their basic human right to a speedy and fair trial.

The activists I have been talking with tell me that keeping detainees in prison for prolonged periods will backfire because these individuals who feel they have been locked up unfairly will leave prison — if and when they do — with a good reason to hate the government, and to act on it. The government needs to respect the law and present the detainees to a court of law, activists said, where they would get charged or acquitted.

Adhwan disagrees. He thinks that activists are exaggerating the numbers of detainees and their grievances, and even lying to promote their cause. Moreover, Adhwan thinks terror suspects should not enjoy the legal protections provided by the criminal procedures law because terrorists have killed innocent people, bombed buildings, and attempted to overthrow the government. That’s why the government, he argues, is not bound by the law when dealing with them.

Of course Adhwan is not the only one of this opinion. Other people, in the media and outside it, agree with him. Recently, some journalists who share this opinion have grown fed up with the activists rising calls on the government to respect the law. Since such topics are still sensitive for mainstream media in the country, activists have turned to social media and the international press to make their voices heard. This did not set well with some local journalists like Adhwan, who seems to have a lot of pride in his profession.

Adhwan’s colleagues, as I have written earlier this week, decided to take on what they called the “New Activism.” Activists, and their supporters, don’t have newspaper columns. They have Twitter. There, they denote their tweets about a specific topic using a hashtag. When someone says something controversial and what they said becomes a topic of discussion on Twitter, we commonly say that he has been hashtagged.

However, because we as a society are not used to critical thinking and open debate, this practice makes some people uncomfortable. I’m not saying Twitter is perfect for every kind of discussion. Sometimes people will use the hashtag to attack the person instead of discussing his ideas. Is that good? No, but I think it comes with the territory and I can live with it. Plus, in a country where frank debate of our most pressing issues is still laden with political, religious and social mines, Twitter is providing a great window into the psyche of the nation where people can freely talk about these issues

Again, I’m not saying that unchecked personal attacks are okay. All I’m saying is that if you decided to publish an opinion then get ready to be not just criticized but to take whatever you get. If you are too sensitive and can’t take criticism then you probably should not put your opinions out to the public.

If getting hashtagged hurts your feelings.. well, tough shit. Grow up. Welcome to the Internet.

Some people downplayed the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Now some local columnists like Salman al-Dossary are trying to do the same. But even if the number of Saudi users on these sites is still not very big, I think tools like Twitter and Facebook have become mainstream enough to offer a good representation of society.

Al-Dossary says it is “laughable” that anyone would take Twitter seriously when there is only 115,000 Saudi users of the service. However, when you consider that many of these users have more followers than the daily circulation of his paper, you wonder who should be laughing.

The New Activism

It is rather sad that at a time when peoples are toppling dictators and changing regimes, we are still stuck talking about women driving, underage marriage and the right of prisoners to get a speedy, fair trial. I’m not saying these issues are unimportant, but let’s face it: their importance pales quickly when compared to other countries’ struggles to change their reality.

So, what’s up in Saudi Arabia?

The latest Saudi story to make international headlines was about a proposed anti-terror law that the interior ministry has been aggressively pushing through the Shoura Council. Amnesty International somehow obtained a copy of the draft and published it on their website.

Amnesty said the proposed law would strangle peaceful protest, and asked the King to “reconsider this law and ensure that his people’s legitimate right to freedom of expression is not curtailed in the name of fighting terrorism.”

The draft, probably leaked by a member of the Shoura Council, contained comments made by the Council’s security committee. Based on the copy, they seem to have made very few and minimal changes on the text prepared by the ministry. These changes, however, do not touch on the articles that caused concern to Amnesty and activists in the country like Article 29, which says: “Anyone who doubts the king or crown prince’s integrity will face punishment of at least 10 years in jail.”

The Saudi embassy in London responded to Amnesty’s leak by saying the concerns of the human rights organization were “baseless and mere assumptions.”

Local media did not report much on the news, but newspaper columnists made a point of attacking Amnesty and activists who raised their concerns about the proposed law on social media sites. “Amnesty have committed a crime by interfering [in a domestic matter] and publishing confidential documents,” wrote Ahmed al-Towayan in Okaz daily. “They proved that they are an organization that includes a group of ignorants, rebels and people who have interests; an organization morally and financially bankrupt seeking money any way they can.”

But the most severe and sinister attacks were saved for local rights activists, who have gotten increasingly vocal in their criticism of some government practices lately. In the same week, the Saudi edition of Al-Hayat daily carried two columns calling activists “erotic dancers” and outlaws.

“There is no doubt that the new activism has become a dangerous phenomenon,” Saud al-Rayes wrote, “because it aims to challenge the state and its organizations.” Al-Rayes linked local activism to the Iranian influence in the region, a bold statement for which he did not bother to provide any evidence, then called activists to support the National Society of Human Rights instead of questioning government policies.

The article understandably angered activists who turned to Twitter (where else?) to release their fury. Al-Rayes, as we now say in Saudi Arabia, has been hashtagged.

His fellow columnist in the same paper Hani al-Dhaheri could not just stand their while his colleague gets ripped up by the kids in social media. Few days later, he penned this column in which he called rights activists khawarij who use social media to incite people against the government.

After getting a slap on the wrist for signing one of the reform petitions earlier this year, al-Dhaheri has learned his lesson and conformed.

“How could a whiner in Twitter, Facebook or YouTube assert that someone is innocent or oppressed unless they have an ulterior motive beyond this cause which they use to cover their agenda,” al-Dhaheri wrote today. He kept repeating a line about targeting the “legitimate leaders” of the country, despite the fact that none of the local activists actually question the legitimacy of the royal family.

After writing 457 words, al-Dhaheri concludes in the last paragraph that this “suspicious project run by activists ‘from their homes’ is not new,” and that those activists will either end up distracted by fame and money or leave the country to join the opposition in London. Again, al-Dhaheri does not bother to tell us how he reached that definitive conclusion. Maybe he has a magic ball?

Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani, co-founder and president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, noted what he called an “attack campaign” on human rights activists.

“My message to all #saudi columnists who ridicule and humiliate people that one day you will be held accountable in people’s court,” he tweeted.

One day.

Here and there

  • The Guardian sent their south Asia correspondent Jason Burke to Saudi Arabia for a special series on the country. While I think the overall reporting of the series leaves something to be desired, it was the third part of the series that made the headlines locally. Sheikh Saad al-Shethri (remember him?) said he intends to sue the paper because he claims that they misquoted him.
  • The families of detainees protested earlier today outside the ministry of interior. A number of men, women and children have been arrested. ACPRA condemend the arrests and repeated their call on the minister and senior officials to be fired and tried.
  • Rasheed Al-Khiraif notes the decrease in fertility rate in the country and asks if Saudis need to use contraceptives. I think the answer to that question is pretty obvious.
  • It’s funny/sad how local media are finally able to discuss things like closing shops during prayer. I wrote about this here on the blog six years ago.
  • Eman al-Nafjan takes a moment to reflect on what happened regarding the issue of women driving over the past few weeks. Good read.

On June 17

  • Saudi women did drive on June 17. More than 50 of them drove, and the day went by peacefully for the most part. Check out my post for NPR’s Two-way blog to read more and hear from some of the women who got behind the wheel and defied the ban.
  • I somehow made Foreign Policy’s Twitterati 100 list for the most influencial people on Twitter, and what’s great about it is that I’m in good company.
  • Speaking of Foreign Policy, they published a good piece by Ebtihal Mubarak looking into the historical background of the demands for women driving in the country.
  • Remember when I asked if there was hope for Saudi Arabia? ColdRevolt thinks there is none. She says, “Our society is not only backward for debating a basic human right, but looking at its reaction to the revolutionary movements across the Arab world, and the uprisings in Bahrain specifically… it’s absolutely hopeless.”

More on Manal al-Sharif and women’s driving

  • Eman al-Nafjan has a good roundup on the latest in Manal al-Sharif’s case. Al-Nafjan was on also on CNN to talk about the issues yesterday.
  • Wikileaks documents reveal that the US government been quietly putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive, the Guardian reports.
  • Sabria Jawhar says “There was a time when I firmly believed the endless debate about Saudi women banned from driving cars was trivial. It distracted Saudis from the real problems of the denial of women’s rights: employment, education, guardianship abuses, inheritance, and fair and equitable treatment in the Saudi judicial system. The arrest and imprisonment of Manal Al-Sherif, 32, after driving a car in Khobar, has changed all that.” I have said it before and I will say it again: this issue has become a symbol for all other reform issues in the country, especially the ones related to women status. It has become like a psychological barrier. If we can overcome this, then we can cruise into our other challenges with more confidence and determination.
  • What if Manal al-Sharif were American, and Erin Brockovich were Saudi…
  • Tariq Alhomayed, the man who turned Asharq al-Awsat from a respected newspaper into a joke, weighs in on the women driving issue. Alhomayed fails to name Manal al-Sharif, but he says “She was stopped and told not to drive because there is no organization in place [to regulate female driving], but she returned the following day to drive yet again.” Well, he needs to get his facts checked because this is simply not true. Al-Sharif did not drive again after her first arrest, and she was arrested again from her house late at night in violation of the Saudi law of criminal procedures. Then he went on to say that she filmed her actions and uploaded them to YouTube “in order to provoke people.” How can he speculate about her motive like that when she is still in jail? But hey, at least Alhomayed offers a solution to get us out of this mess: “It would be useful to immediately announce the formation of a committee to study this issue,” he says. Yeah right, that usually works.