Samar

Samar Badawi has always struggled with her father. He abused her verbally and physically, and even after she got married and had a son of her own, he kept interfering with her life. She got divorced, and decided to live with her brother. The father tried to sue his son and daughter, who was taken to a women’s shelter thanks to an order from Prince Mishal bin Majed, the mayor of Jeddah.

The father did not stop there. He tried to sue Samar again, but the case was dismissed. After staying in the shelter for sixteen months, she sent a letter to the mayor asking for permission to live with her son. The mayor accepted her request, and asked the police to protect her from the father.

Samar filed a lawsuit to lift her father’s guardianship, and the court ruled in her favor. The father filed a “filial ingratitude” complaint against her. When she went to challenge the complaint, “the judge pledged to teach her obedience and flog her himself.” Despite the previous court rulings and her father’s documented abuse, and even a royal order from Prince Khalid al-Faisal, governor of Makkah, to send her back to the shelter, the judge sent her to prison.

Samar told the Financial Times that the judge thinks a woman must submit to her father, regardless of how abusive he is. “Conservative judges hate the government’s women’s shelters because they empower women. They call them brothels,” she said.

This was six months ago. It was only last week that Samar and her lawyer decided to go public with the case. Since the local newspapers won’t pick up a sensitive story like this one, they went online. With help of fellow blogger Fouad al-Farhan, they set up a blog where they told Samar’s story and uploaded all the documents of her case. The case was also heavily discussed on Twitter, where users in Saudi Arabia used the hashtag #samar to denote their tweets about it.

While Samar enjoyed a lot of support from most users on Twitter, there have been some people who defended the judge, saying the case is being used to attack the Saudi judicial system. Moreover, a blog was to “basically show how the people responsible for the news breakout are not credible, liberal westernizers,” according Lou K.

Earlier today, Samar’s lawyer Waleed Abu Alkhair tweeted that the Supreme Judicial Council has opened an investigation into the case, anticipating a resolution in the next few days.

Samar’s story is undoubtedly a disturbing, heartbreaking one. It’s surely nor over yet, but now that the case is — I hope — moving forward, let me take a moment to say two of things about this:

  • The case shows that despite all the promises and the billions of riyals allocated to reform the judiciary system, we are still so far away from anywhere near a true reform for this institution. It’s been three years, and we are yet to see any tangible progress.
  • While many people still like to question the power of web and social media to make a difference to our society, this case offers a good evidence that the influence of online tools can be effective. Remember, the story was not picked up by any newspaper in Saudi Arabia so far.

I salute Fouad, Waleed and the others who supported this case. It fills my heart with hope to see many of my countrymen and women speak up and refuse to ignore injustice. Our nation deserves better than this, and we should never settle for less.

Fouad is back, Why are we never ready?

  • My good friend and fellow blogger Fouad al-Farhan has finally decided to restart his blog after more than two years of hiatus. During these two years, he experimented with Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, but he eventually admitted that there is nothing like blogging as a platform for personal publishing. Fouad is one of the most prominent people in the Saudi blogosphere, and I’m sure the whole blogging community is delighted to have him writing at length again. Welcome back, Fouad! You have been missed.
  • Abdulrahman al-Hazzaa, deputy minister of information and culture, keeps pushing for MOCI’s proposed law for regulating news websites in this column for Okaz daily. His latest argument: we are not ready for the freedom offered by such websites. We’ve heard this argument before. Government officials like al-Hazzaa keep telling us that we are not ready for civil society, not ready for elections, not ready of democracy, etc. We are pretty much not ready for anything, until they say we are, which, depending on their whims, can be next decade, next century, or sometimes never.
  • A little housekeeping note: the short linky posts are open to comments again. When I redesigned the blog earlier this year, I decided to close comments on these posts as an experiment. As part of the experiment, all posts are open to comments now. Let’s see how that goes.
  • It took a handshake between Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the UK and US, and Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon to settle a seating spat at the Munich Security Conference. Depending on who you are, this may or may not be a big deal. Here’s the video:

  • King Abdullah is popular in Egypt and Jordan. Yipee! Woohoo! The King is also very popular here. What I really hope for is that he would take advantage of this popularity to push for more radical reform in Saudi Arabia. People say he has to be cautious, but I disagree. If you are this popular then you can certainly afford to make some bold moves.
  • Two TwitterCamps in Jeddah and Khobar today. Twitter users in the country are invited to discuss Twitter services, features, tips and tricks, as well as twitter clients.

Thoughts on Jeddah

Three weeks have passed since the Jeddah catastrophe. People now are eagerly waiting for the verdict of the investigation commission. While we are waiting, it might be useful to look back and reflect.

The heavy downpour has exposed some nasty things such as the nonexistent infrastructure and the abundant corruption. But like what happens with many other things in life, sometimes we need to see the ugliness before we see the beauty. There are at least two good things I saw coming out of this disaster: the great spirit of the people, and the power of social media.

In the days and nights following Black Wednesday, we have seen more than 7,000 persons who volunteered to help in any and every way they can. I’m proud of Ibrahim al-Kushi who opened his house to shelter the displaced. I’m proud of Bassem Kurdi who decided to stay at the hospital when everybody else told him to go home. I’m proud of so many young men and women who, despite the harassment of some self-appointed guards of morality, rolled up their sleeves and spent countless hours at al-Harthi Exhibition Center to organize, distribute, and deliver the donations to those who need them in the most damaged areas of the city.

The relief efforts have been largely coordinated using the internet and social media tools. One Facebook group in particular was central to these efforts as it acted like an umbrella and a gathering point for volunteers. The group is called Rescue Jeddah, and it boasts more than 9,000 members. The content there is all in Arabic but you don’t need to read anything to see what they have been up to. Just look at the pictures and the videos and you will get a good idea on what they have done so far.

Beside Facebook, people were using blogs, Twitter, and SMS to circulate the latest news. They were also using Flickr and YouTube to document what was happening in real time. Some of the pictures, like the one of the dead little girl covered with mud, were really disturbing. But I think that in crises you need shocking images to make others understand the gravity of the disaster.

As for videos, estimates say more than 400 videos have been uploaded over the past three weeks. Most of these were taken by citizens using their mobile phones, but I have also seen some well-produced videos like this one by Mohammed al-Rehaili. In the end, I will leave you with this short film by Bader al-Homoud, who captures the tragedy but instead decides to focus on the bright human side of the story:

Read more:

  • One of my favourite blog posts about the disaster is this by McToom in which he offers an illustration on the basics of drainage systems. You know, because our officials are too busy to read long blog posts like mine.
  • Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of Arab News, wrote a letter to Makkah governor. “At the moment, the people of Jeddah and the surrounding areas are hurt, sad, anguished and in both physical and mental pain,” he said.

Saudi Unflagger and Blocking Twitter

Public demonstrations are banned in Saudi Arabia. We don’t have codified laws, so you will not find any official text that explicitly says it, but everybody knows it. What do we do when we want to protest publicly? We go to the internet and start a campaign online. Back in 2006 I wrote, ”Online campaigning is appealing to many people because most of the time it doesn’t take much resources.” Most of the time it takes little more than starting a freely hosted blog, design a few banners, maybe add a mailing list, and viola! you have a campaign.

This year alone, we have seen a plethora of campaigns that goes from the useful to the useless, and everything in between. We had the Khalooha… series, which covered topics like greed of car dealerships, women’s rights, and marriage expenses among other things. Most recently we had two confusing, similar but apparently opposing campaigns on the issue of male guardianship. But what I want to talk about today is a campaign called SaudiFlager (sic).

SaudiFlager’s goal is to clean up YouTube of videos offending to Saudi Arabia by flagging them. In addition to the unfortunate misspelled name, I believe this campaign has two main problems. First, what is an offending video? What are the criteria for such thing? I mean, what is offending to you can be quite harmless to me, right? So who gets to decide which videos are offending? Second, YouTube is already heavily censored by CITC. Do we need another layer of censorship?

twitter_cageI’m all for free speech, so don’t get me wrong. If you feel strongly offended by a video on the website, go ahead and flag it. Knock yourself out, I’m not going to stop you. Actually, I can’t stop you. But I think that organizing a campaign for such purpose is a just a waste of time and effort. What is worse, it is enforcing yet another form of censorship and that is the last thing we need. CITC is already doing a great job at it that I find myself occasionally amazed by how dedicated they are to this job.

This dedication is shown clearly in their latest blocking spree, which included Twitter profiles like those of @Mashi97 and @abualkhair. Blocking @Mashi97 was particularly strange because it came after he tweeted about having fried eggs for breakfast, which made him think that maybe someone at CITC does not like eggs. Also, what CITC don’t seem to realize is that blocking profile pages on Twitter does not prevent the users from updating. Go figure.

Which brings me back to online campaigns: should we start one to unblock these guys? I think we should, but currently I’m busy with another campaign of mine: Saudi Unflagger. Who is in?

Normal Country

In a moment of frustration yesterday, I posted this rant on Twitter: “If only we were living in a normal country…” Apparently the short sentence struck a chord among my fellow twiterrers and a meme was born. Here’s some examples:

7anno: that’s “if”

CivilLizard: If only anyone can come up with what’s normal for the majority or can find me a country they can call normal.

mohamed: define normal…

weddady: in a normal country u don’t have to show marriage license 2 eat in a fish restaurant

krispijnbeek: in a normal country every one has a irrepressible quote on their site to remember freedom ain’t a free lunch http://bit.ly/2HrKpK

asad_wosaibi: in a normal country, I can choose what education program my kids go thru.. study science, math.. or have fun with arabic lessons

alfarhan: In a normal country, they don’t stop drivers in the highway for 20 min because a damn person is passing by

bianconeri4ever: In a normal country the Twitter experience is actually enjoyable, because Tinyurl.com is accessible :P

yazeez: in a normal country ppl dont start their tweets with “in normal country”

thecrazyjogger: In a normal country they don’t block all the links starting with tinyurl.com

thecrazyjogger: In a normal country they don’t ask all ur license n registration for a car if its going thru a checkpoint n the car is fulla teen guys

However, I have some great friends and thanks to one awesome friend of mine the day ended on a happy note, so I finally said: In a normal country, _great_ things can happen too :-D