Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

March 7, 2012

Arab Spring Democracy: A Win for Women?

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Arab News

7 March 2012

They get more of a voice in Tunisia, Libya, but Egypt seems to be marching backwards

Is the Arab world becoming a friendlier place for women in politics?

The turmoil that has upset the region’s politics over the past year has yet to provide a clear answer. Women can point to some preliminary gains in Tunisia and Libya.  The Islamists who have come to power across the region have proven more female-friendly than skeptics predicted. The winds of change have even reached conservative Saudi Arabia, which decided last year to let women vote and run for municipal office.

But in Egypt – the biggest and most influential country in the Arab world – the revolution has marked a setback for women.

When they try to size up a complicated and contradictory picture, Islamic and Western women’s rights activists express cautious optimism that women in patriarchal North African and Gulf countries are gaining a voice. They warn, however, that that voice is fragile at best, with little evidence yet that women will be able to achieve true power.

“Tunisia and Egypt have held elections, and the fear, particularly in Egypt, is that women have been left out,” Amber Maltbie, an American attorney who is an expert in gender and politics told The Media Line. “The Arab Spring has prompted new elections in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. It appears cosmetic because the bodies are consultative in nature.”

On the balance, the Arab Spring resulted in “mild electoral reforms” and some reforms are nothing more than “cosmetic,” says Maltbie, who was a polling station adviser at the Kosovo parliamentary elections for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Women start from a low baseline in the Middle East and North Arica, which has lagged by Europe and North America, and even Asia, in getting their foot into the doors of parliament and the presidential palace. The Inter-Parliamentary Union figures show that women account for just 11.3% of lawmakers on average in the Arab World, compared with 22.6% in Europe and America. In Asia, they occupy 18.3% and in sub-Saharan Africa 20.8%.

Women have been the power behind the throne in countries like Tunisia, where Leila Ben Ali helped her husband to manage the affairs of state, and Qatar, where Sheika Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned is a highly public figure. Syrian women won the right to vote in 1949, Lebanese women in 1952, Egyptians in 1956 and Tunisian women in 1957.  But no woman has ever been elected to high office or, as had been the norm in the region, seized it for herself.

The Tunisian legislative elections, the first to be held in an Arab Spring country, came as a surprise to Western observers, who had expressed skepticism that the victorious Islamic Ennahda Party could deliver on its promises of promoting democracy and Islam as compatible, if not complementary, forms of governing.

“I view the Tunisian election as a gain for women,” Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative “They have a substantial representation, and unlike in Egypt, they didn’t lose ground. Many of the women elected are from Ennahda.”

According to the IPU, 26.7% of the Tunisian legislature is female after the transitional government passed a law in 2011 that required half of all party lists to have women.

“It will be up to them to play a strong legislative role and forge an influential role within the party. That is what will make a difference over the long term,” says Coleman.

Libya has yet to elect a parliament, but the National Transitional Council (NTC) has approved a quota for woman that will ensure a place for women in a country making its first real attempt at democratic rule after 40 years of dictatorship under Mu’amar Al-Qaddafi. But women had to fight for their rights.

The final version of the country’s election law, passed in January, had dropped a quota requirement that would give 10% of the legislative seats to women. That angered women’s groups including the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, which mounted a campaign to reverse the decision.

Najat Al-Dau, a women’s rights activist in Libya, told The Financial Times the revised election law ignored women’s role in overthrowing Al-Qaddafi.  “I don’t think it’s fair to women,” Al-Dau told the newspaper. “They’re trying to eliminate women from politics and revolution. But they cannot deny us what we did in the revolution.”

The women prevailed, with the NTC revising its election laws to allot 40 seats to women on the 200-member Constituent Assembly.

Morocco, whose king responded to protests with a package of mild reforms, has a voluntary party quota system which resulted in 17% women in the lower house and 2.2% in the upper house in parliamentary elections last year. In 2009, Morocco established a quota requiring that 12% of all local government council seats go to women. As a result, voters elected 3,300 women to local district offices.

Less lucky are Egyptian women, who saw the parliamentary quota system from the Hosni Mubarak era abolished and female representation reduced from 64 seats to just five. For now, Egypt stands above other Arab Spring countries in implementing regressive measures that hamper women’s representation in government.

The government excluded women from the constitutional review committee appointed last year to ensure free and fair elections and create democratic safeguards. The amendments it proposed, which were approved in a referendum last March, made no reference to gender equity. When then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf fired 20 governors, no women were named as replacements.

Although the loss of Egypt’s quota system is a significant setback for women politicians, Islamic political parties, most notably Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, have demonstrated there is room for women at the governing table. What kind of role they play is another question altogether.

“Islamic governments can prove women have a voice in decision-making, although it remains to be seen how much they will do so,” Coleman, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Media Line.

Human Rights Watch in January urged Western governments to give burgeoning Islamic governments a chance to succeed and to support democratic elections whatever the outcome. HRW’s Kenneth Roth wrote in a report that the West “cannot credibly maintain a commitment to democracy if they reject electoral results when an Islamic party does well.”

In the Gulf, women have made some progress toward representation even if the bodies that can run for office have little actual power.  In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a woman won one of 20 elected seats and seven others were appointed to the consultative council by the ruling emirs of the confederation.  Kuwait has no quota system, but its National Assembly is 7.7% female, according to the IPU. Kuwaiti women won the right to run for office in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2009 that four women were elected to the legislature.

Last September, King Abdullah has announced that Saudi women were given the right to vote and run in municipal elections and would also have the right to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council.

Even appointments to consulting bodies – such as in Bahrain, which has 27.5% female representation in the upper chamber of National Assembly – are an improvement, says Maltbie, the attorney. “These bodies have no binding authority, but going through this is the first step,” she says.

Coleman argues that quotas help women overcome obstacles to obtaining fair parliamentary representation, help form coalitions and provide an entrée into politics. But they are undemocratic and go against the grain of equal opportunity. And, they threaten to taint female politicians by implying they won office because of their gender and not their qualifications.

To election observer Maltbie, getting a critical mass of women in parliament is the key to wining power and there is no reason not to use quotas to create it. “Quotas are really important. Empirical data show that the threshold for policy changes in a manner that is meaningful for women is 30%,” she says.

Numbers, however, cannot tell the whole story. Coleman cautions that how much influence women legislators have remains unknown. The experience of their sisters in Iraq, where the first democratic elections for parliament took place in 2005, is instructive. In her book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, Coleman found that Iraqi men routinely insult their female parliamentary colleagues and consign them to “women’s issues.”

Iraq’s legislative body is 25.2 % women, but one Iraqi female lawmaker, who is a member of the National Iraqi Alliance and spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Media Line the role of women in the Iraqi parliament is to boost the government’s image.

“How long has it been now?  Six, seven years?” the lawmaker says. “We have accomplished little because we are constantly pushed aside. We’re given meaningless duties and are expected to like it.”

©2012. The Media Line Ltd. All Rights Reserved.


October 19, 2011

For Saudi Terror Suspects, a Legal Fog

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

19 October 2011

Judges define terrorism on the fly, lawyers hesitate to defend them

The trials of suspected terrorists this month in Saudi Arabia bring good news and bad news. The good news is that accused extremists are getting their day in court after as long as five years of detention without trial. The bad news is that justice remains elusive.

Christoph Wilcke, the Saudi Arabia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The Media Line that kingdom has improved its approach to bringing suspected terrorists to trial. But he says continuing “flawed” court proceedings may deny justice.

“There were two major shifts in late 2008 to mid-2009 when Saudi Arabia decided to move [defendants] to trial,” Wilcke says. “All of these guys were put on trial and some were let out of prison. And earlier this year they [the Saudi government] decided to open trials.”

Saudi authorities see the new wave of public trials a huge step towards legal transparency. HRW sees the deck stacked against the defendants.

Wilcke says that terror defendants lack competent legal representation, a clear-cut understanding of the charges against them and due process.

In Riyadh, 16 Saudis and one Yemeni are on trial in Specialist Penal Court on 97 charges of belonging to a terrorist cell with links to Al-Qaeda in Syria. Prosecutors allege the defendants, who the court does not identify, plotted attacks in Saudi Arabia to destroy oil wells. The cell also allegedly planned to assassinate a Shiite cleric in an effort to spark sectarian violence.

In a Jeddah court, a top member of the notorious Turki Al-Dandani extremist cell admitted to unspecified terrorism charges against him. The cell leader rejected an offer for a lawyer and asked for the death penalty in order to become a martyr. Saudi authorities say the Turki Al-Dandani cell is responsible for the bombings of three residential compounds in May 2003 that left 239 people dead and injured.

In a separate trial underway in Jeddah, seven men face charges of plotting bombing attacks against U.S. military installations in Kuwait and Qatar. They are also accused of operating a training camp near the Yemen border.

The current, public trials are in stark contrast to the largely secret proceedings held between 2003 and 2009. In those trials, 327 convicted terrorists received prison sentences of up to 30 years.

Saudi Arabia has garnered international praise for its counterterrorism efforts. Yet it appears the Saudi courts define terrorism much like the U.S. Supreme Court defines pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Wilcke says a fair trial is not possible when the crime of terrorism is not defined.

The international community has yet to agree on a criminal law definition of terrorism. United Nations members in 2005 rejected a panel’s recommendation that would establish parameters to define terrorism as an unlawful act. Consequently, Saudi terror defendants face a double whammy. There are no international laws available as a precedent and Saudi judges, instead of relying on codified law, make up the definition as they go through the proceedings.

“We find that people are convicted of rebellion on earth, which is a Qur’anic concept and not a definition of terrorism,” Wilcke says. “In Saudi Arabia, the judge defines the crime to fit the crime.”

A draft anti-terror law proposed earlier this year was sharply criticized by Amnesty International, which obtained and published a copy last July. The law defines “endangering… national unity” and “harming the reputation of the state or its position” as terrorist crimes and allows suspects to be held incommunicado for an indefinite period, if approved by a special court. It also calls for a minimum 10-year jail sentence for anyone questioning the integrity of the king or crown prince.

Since then, the kingdom has hinted that a revised law is in the works, although it hasn’t released any details. An activist told Reuters in August that the amended draft changes the offense to taking up arms against the king or crown prince or abandoning loyalty to them.

Meanwhile, the absence of codified laws has long plagued the Saudi judicial system, although the quasi-legislative Shura Council this year is nearing completion of a codified system. Domestic courts in particular have bedeviled Saudi women who must contend with tribal customs superseding sharia (Islamic law). Accused terrorists face vague charges of belonging to Al Qaeda or working with foreign agencies plotting against national security. Although specialized sharia legal assistance is essential for defendants to make their cases, the court’s inability to rely on written law tips the scales of justice in the government’s favor.

“It’s just the Saudi way of saying in essence, ‘trust me,’ ” Wilcke says.

Add to the mix the lack of legal representation and defendants are engulfed in a perfect storm of a flawed trial leading to flawed justice.

Wilcke expresses doubts that having a lawyer can even help. “Some lawyers in normal, non-political trials tell me that the judge can kick out a lawyer if he doesn’t like him,” he says. “It raises the question of whether lawyers are any good in trials.”

Indeed, attorneys have complained to HRW that Saudi courts sometimes pressure them not to represent defendants. Other lawyers have no qualms about not representing terrorism suspects.  Sultan bin Zahim, deputy head of the Saudi National Lawyers’ Association, told Al Watan newspaper that it’s “a national duty and a professional objective” not to defend accused terrorists because the “investigation and trial methods are very precise in terrorism cases.”

However, a Saudi lawyer, who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line the courts attempted to recruit him to represent a terror defendant but he turned it down because the legal fog surrounding cases. “I didn’t want the job because I never know what to expect when I go to court.”

International observers also have no access to trials. Wilcke says that since 2009 the Saudi government has banned his organization entirely from the kingdom. Requests for HRW to attend trials have gone unanswered, he said.

Although the inconsistent approach to dispensing justice rankles human rights activists, Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts have been generally successful. Saudi law authorities view the trials as a successful coda to ending the reign of terror wielded by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from 2003 through 2006.

Maj. Gen. Mansour Al Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Interior, told The Media Line there has been little extremist cell activity inside the kingdom since trials started earlier this year. In August, the Interior Ministry reported that 5,696 people remain held in militant cases. Nearly 5,100 of those individuals have appeared in court.

“We are continuing our efforts and really keeping a preventative stand to any more activity,” Al Turki says. “We have our police ready, but here is really nothing to react to for the time being.”

Al Turki adds that the “terrorism threat remains a major concern to prevent Al Qaeda from continuing terrorists crimes, but the group continues to keep a low profile in the kingdom. The success is due to Saudi Arabia’s “soft” rehabilitation program to de-radicalize militants. The program has only 10% recidivism rate due in part to a post-release monitoring system of freed prisoners. The move by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Yemen also has contributed a reduction in extremist activity in the country.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.


July 10, 2011

Saudi Maids Become Battleground

By Rob L. Wagner
The Media Line/The Yemen Times
10 July 2011

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The standoff between the Saudi Arabian and Indonesian governments over the treatment of Indonesia’s domestic workers has put both potential housemaids desperate for work and Saudi households desperate for help between a rock and a hard place.

Indonesia has increasingly been critical of Saudis’ treatment of its workers as a steady stream of reports of housemaid abuse, and in some cases slayings, reached Indonesian authorities. Relations between the two countries reached a low point when Saudi Arabia beheaded an Indonesian maid on June 18 following her conviction for the murder of her employer. Saudi Arabia failed to notify the Indonesian ambassador in Riyadh.

Indonesia responded by issuing a moratorium on sending workers to the kingdom effective Aug. 1. Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia slapped a ban on issue Indonesians visas starting on July 8.

In 2009, the Saudi Shoura Council, the quasi-legislative body, recommended to the Council of Ministers new protections for expatriate workers in the kingdom’s labor laws. The Council has yet to approve the recommendation. But Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division in Berlin, says there has been no improvement in worker conditions since then..

“The Shoura Council’s recommendation has had no impact at all, either as a legal situation because there is no law yet or as a signal to employers or the government to improve working conditions,” Wilcke told The Media Line.

Most Saudi employers prefer documented domestic workers because they are cheaper to hire than illegals. They also have complete control over the employee. Illegals can walk off the job anytime without consequences. Perhaps most important for Saudi employers is the ability to travel abroad with their maids.

“I can hire an illegal maid any time,” says Fauzia Muhammad, 47, a Saudi housewife who employs three Indonesian housemaids to help run her villa. “But I travel to Europe every year for holiday and I can’t take an illegal maid with me. Hiring maids the right way is my only option to control my house.”

Hiring illegal maids presents a whole new set of problems for employers, who face fines of 10,000 Saudi riyals ($2,700) if caught.

Fatmah Al-Harbi, a 36-year-old teacher, says she never hired a documented maid because obtaining a visa is a difficult and expensive process. She doesn’t want to take the risk that a maid will run away. But taking the path of least resistance comes with its own risks. “I do have problems with illegal maids,” Al-Harbi says. “One was sexually harassing my child, and I only found out after she quit. I couldn’t take her to court.”

Saudis prefer Indonesian maids because they are devout Muslims, easy to work with and industrious. Although there are many examples where longtime maids become an integral part of a Saudi family, a prevalent fear among many employers are maids teaching Saudi children their native language at the expense of Arabic, theft and practicing witchcraft to bring harm to the family.

Justified or not, these fears create tension between maids and their employers. It also leads to exploitation of the maid with no time off and withholding salaries.

“I have a good relationship with my madam,” says one maid employed in the Muhammad household. “But I know many friends who never have free time and never see their money. One friend works all day then her madam tells her to go play with the kids, although she’s exhausted.”

For decades, Indonesia enthusiastically sent hundreds of thousands of women to Saudi Arabia to work as housemaids. There is no work for them at home in Indonesia and there are few jobs outside of domestic service available in Saudi Arabia. In April alone this year, Indonesian recruiters sent 58,335 workers to Saudi Arabia and 228,890 throughout 2010, according to Bank Indonesia.

Wilcke says the visa ban will have no impact on the flow of maids to Saudi Arabia. He notes that many Indonesian and Saudi recruiters develop informal procedures to get around Saudi work visas by issuing visitors visas and have laborers enter the kingdom from Dubai.

“If there is ever a problem with the worker, she is not registered with the home country and has no copy of a contract or residency permits. It’s hard to follow up,” Wilcke says. He adds that workers arriving at shelters have difficulty receiving aid because the home country’s embassy has no record of them.

Saudi Arabian authorities have also indicated that they plan to go elsewhere to recruit maids, including Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam. Wilcke says these countries pose even more risks for potential housemaids because they have fewer protections from their home governments in place than does Indonesia. “There is little pre-departure training other than how to use an iron or a washing machine,” he says.

Countries providing labor to Saudi Arabia wield little clout to demand that Saudis provide protection for its workers. The labor-exporting government can’t agree to a minimum wage standard, and this remains the weak link in developing a coalition to create labor standards that Saudi Arabia is willing to following.

Wilcke says the Philippines wants its workers receive a minimum salary of $410 per month. However, Vietnamese workers are willing to work for as little as $130 per month. Countries like Indonesia want worker remittances returned home to feed laborers’ families. Saudi Arabian salaries, for example, account for 44% all remittances to Indonesia.

“Salaries are tricky, but these countries could agree on some issues, such as obtaining more access to the [Saudi] courts and agree on labor protections, such as helping set up a joint labor inspection system,” he said.

Wilcke also suggests that countries providing laborers should employ more labor attaches at their embassies to handle the large caseload of workers seeking protection.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

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