Women, Diversity and Jails

A member of Shoura Council said that he would like to see a woman minister in the government. Khalil al-Khalil also said he would like to see women work “side by side” with men in the Shoura Council.

Al-Khalil was speaking during a discussion panel on diversity in the Saudi society which took place this Saturday at King Saud University, where he was supposed to be joined by his fellow Shoura member Abdullah Dahlan. The latter, however, was a no-show. The discussion panel was typical of events at KSU. It started 30 minutes late and the attendance was low. The speaker’s talk was too general and he admitted later that he shied away from tackling specifics to avoid controversy.

Al-Khalil said we should not be afraid of diversity because it is “not a Western invention,” and because even the most powerful governments cannot erase it. That’s why we should protect diversity by legislation, he added.

I agree with him when he says that the government needs to step up and take its responsibilities on this crucial matter, and I think that they have failed to do so in the past. He claims that the government has a clear policy when it comes to religious diversity that is based on justice but I really don’t know what clear policy he is talking about.

Al-Khalil, who heads the security committee at Shoura, ended his remarks by saying that if we want to promote diversity then we need to build more universities, not jails. Well, it is a very interesting thing to say considering that the government just announced last year they will spend SR1.7bn ($450mn) to build five new high-tech jails around the country. Not that he and his colleagues could have done anything about it but…

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It’s Good to Talk

Women’s driving and the mahram (male guardianship) have been two of the most pressing and controversial issues in the country during the past few years. However, serious debate regarding these issues has been almost absent from the local media in the past few weeks.

I slightly noticed the absence, but I thought it could be that people simply got sick of endlessly discussing these issues without seeing any visible progress. But I was wrong. According to Dr. Abdul-Rahman Al-Enad, member of Shoura Council, the Ministry of (dis)Information have secretly ordered the newspapers to ban any article on these two issues. He didn’t explain why MOI have taken such measures, but the message is clear: they don’t want anyone to talk about this.

Dr. Al-Enad, who is also a founding member of NSHR, revealed this secret and other juicy bits during a lecture on human rights and freedom of expression that he gave to a group of journalism students and teachers at KSU last Saturday.

Truth be told, I was a bit hesitant to attend the lecture because my recent experiences with Shoura Council members were not particularly encouraging. I’m glad to report this wasn’t the case this time. Dr. Al-Enad was frank, blunt and refreshingly as cool as a Shoura member can be.

He started his talk with a brief introduction on the principles of human rights and the international laws, then quickly moved to focus on the importance of free speech as a fundamental and indispensable right for the citizens any developing nation.

Dr. Al-Enad said that although the Press and Publications Law states that “freedom of press is protected in line with laws and Sharia,” such statement has no basis in The Basic Law, which serves as a constitution, where Article 39 states: “Mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation and strengthen unity. It is prohibited to commit acts leading to disorder and division, affecting the security of the state and its public relations, or undermining human dignity and rights. Details shall be specified in the Law.”

The devil is in the details. The Basic Law refers you to the Press and Publications Law, which in turn doesn’t offers much details. All what the latter has to offer is the vague sentence “in line with laws and Sharia.” What laws and what interpretation of Sharia, no one exactly knows.

As I previously said here, The Basic Law should be amended to enumerate the rights and duties of citizens, and one of these rights is freedom of expression. Dr. Al-Enad agrees, but says the problem is that the Shoura Council has no right to amend The Basic Law. Actually, the Council doesn’t even have the right to modify its own rules. Only the King has the power to do that.

However, the Council has the authority to review and approve lower laws. One of these laws is the E-Crimes Act, which has been passed in March 2007. I am concerned because the act contained some articles that are very stretchy and non-specific, and they can be easily used to target freedom of expression online.

I went to ask Dr. Al-Enad about this law after he finished his lecture. He told me he does not remember the details of the law, and asked if he can contact me later to talk about this. I gave him my card, and I’m still waiting to hear from him. Can I trust the Shoura Council to act positively to protect human rights and free speech, at least on this particular case? For now, I’m reserving my judgment until the esteemed member and I get a chance to talk. Because, you know, it’s always good to talk.