Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

November 5, 2011

Op-Ed: Firebombed Newspaper Charlie Hebdo a Victim of its Own Making

By Rob L. Wagner


5 November 2011

A thug is a thug. And thugs who firebomb newspaper offices deserve the harshest punishment under the law. But do I sympathize with the editors of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo when someone firebombed their offices after publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on its cover?

No. The violence is inexcusable and the bombers must be brought to justice. But Charlie Hebdo hardly deserves victim status.

Do I believe the attack was an assault on freedom of speech?


Charlie Hebdo decided to publish an edition “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammad as an attempt at satire to “celebrate” the Islamist Ennahda Party’s victory in the recent Tunisian elections.

This celebration took place in the form of demeaning cartoons of the Prophet and women in burqas, spoofs on Sharia and such fanciful lines as “100 Lashes if You Don’t Die Laughing.”

All in the spirit of good, clean fun because, you know, Muslims need to lighten up.

I have been a working journalist for more than 35 years. The First Amendment is the most vital component of what I do for a living. Without it I’m not reporting news or giving an opinion, but just someone writing advertising copy. One cannot work effectively in journalism without the legal protection of free speech. So it is not without considerable soul-searching that I reject the idea of pushing for solidarity on the issue of free speech for Charlie Hebdo’s editors who insist on mocking the religion of 1.5 billion people.

There are still enough news people out there who consider journalism a calling. We take the words we write seriously, and we carefully weigh those words that have an impact on our readers and community. And power to all those opinion writers who believe that being offensive is the best way to deliver their message.

Yet it is no excuse for publishing offensive material just because you can publish it. There’s no excuse for promoting racial, ethnic and religious hatred and say it is okay because it is just satire. Playing the free speech card is a cop out. It is nothing more than an excuse to perpetuate stereotypes and stoke the flames of bigotry. Islamophobic bloggers argue that republishing the Danish newspaper cartoons is a display of solidarity to fight for our free speech rights. They argue that since Christianity is fair game, so should Islam. Why, Islamophobes whine, should there be a two-tiered approach to mocking and ridiculing religion if one religion gets a free pass and the other doesn’t?

The mainstream media have managed to steer clear of mocking Jews, but many publications revel in portraying the Prophet as a dirty, hook nosed Arab or having a bomb in his turban. The ugly stereotypes of Jews in Nazi propaganda are still fresh in our minds. Today, publishing such hateful images is unacceptable under any circumstances. However, Charlie Hebdo and its supporters believe it is just fine to demean Muslims in the same manner.

Charlie Hebdo chose to publish its Prophet Muhammad edition because it could and because its editors knew that it would anger and hurt the Muslim community. In a seriously twisted effort to encourage Muslims to assimilate in French society, the government banned the hijab in public institutions and the burqa everywhere outside the home. These laws have done nothing but to marginalize a segment of French society. Charlie Hebdo’s editors are well aware of a disaffected Muslim community, but decided to further marginalize them by publishing images of Muslim stereotypes. The newspaper has a history of this kind of behavior when it faced criminal charges in 2008 for “publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion” after Muslim groups had complained. A French appeals court acquitted the publication of the charges.

The editors knew of the consequences of publishing the Prophet Muhammad edition. There are plenty of nasty people willing to do harm over the smallest slight. But when bad things happened, the newspaper’s editors, in a cynical ploy to gain attention and in a bid to become free speech martyrs, cried that it was an assault on free speech. It was really an assault of their own making. Now they are milking their suffering to create an image that they are champions of a free press.

Enacting censorship laws certainly would certainly stifle press freedoms and I have grave concerns over the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s efforts to pass anti-blasphemy legislation. But Charlie Hebdo’s editors and their ilk abuse the privilege of being journalists. Their behavior only strengthens the OIC’s argument that anti-blasphemy laws are necessary to keep bigotry out of the news media.

The newspaper’s staff can boo-hoo all they want – ultimately it they who are the bigots, manipulating their victimhood to gain undeserved support of the journalistic fraternity.


October 21, 2011

Obstacles Likely to Remain in Voting Rights for Saudi Women

By Rob L. Wagner

Peace and Conflict Monitor (University for Peace)

21 October 2011

Saudi King Abdullah’s royal decree giving women voting rights and issued just days before the Sept. 29 municipal elections, upstaged the kingdom’s second round of polling in six years. The decree, if implemented in 2015 as promised, helps legitimize a flawed election process that only allowed men to vote. It also promises to bring significant change to the lives of Saudi women if government authorities charged with its implementation follow the spirit of the decree as the king had intended.

The Sept. 29 municipal elections, in which 1.2 million Saudi men were eligible to cast ballots for 5,323 candidates running for 2,112 council seats, were to demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s commitment to developing a democratic process at the local government level. It was only the third round of elections since 1962. Voter turnout in September, however, was light. Campaigning by candidates paled in contrast to the onslaught of text messaging that dominated the 2005 elections. In addition, enthusiasm among voters waned since 2005 as it became apparent that public participation at municipal council meetings failed to materialize. [1][2]

Attention among Saudis and Western observers now turns to what role female voters will play in the 2015 municipal elections. The chief concern among Saudi women activists is whether the four-year wait will jeopardize the implementation of the king’s decree. The ramifications of King Abdullah’s decree giving women voting rights are immense. Yet activists are wary that reform is really underway. [3]

Saudi Arabia has long ignored external pressure to implement wide-ranging reforms that would bring the kingdom closer to the Western ideal of democracy. A $38 billion social benefits package announced in March was King Abdullah’s perceived response to the then-burgeoning Arab Spring movement. Western media interpreted it as a bribe to encourage Saudis to stay off the streets. Most Saudis recognized the benefits were in line with annual packages awarded usually each December. [4] [5] [6]

Saudi Arabia, however, is not immune to the Arab Spring. The Saudi government, no matter how much it wished to isolate itself from the growing clamor of regional protests, soon interfered in Bahrain’s domestic affairs to contain protesters demanding constitutional reforms. The kingdom also provided support to Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen as anti-government protests continued to gain momentum since January.

The unexpected beneficiary of the Arab Spring on kingdom’s domestic front is the fledgling Saudi feminist movement that has made gains since March. These advances culminated with women winning the right to vote, run for election to municipal council seats and accept appointments on the quasi-legislative Shoura Council.

More than any ruler in the Middle East, King Abdullah has always been in touch with his feminine side. Since he assumed the throne in 2005, he has taken steps towards reform despite considerable resistance from religious conservatives. Part of his efforts was to shift Saudi women from the margins of society to more prominent roles.

Laying a Foundation

Consider two critical steps Saudi Arabia is taking that directly impact women’s rights:

  • The Shoura Council is close to finalizing a codified Sharia system that will be an immense boon to women struggling for equal rights in domestic courts. Codified gender-neutral Sharia would severely restrict Saudi judges’ reliance on tribal customs and traditions in rulings. Under the proposed codified new system, but remaining true to Islam, guardianship rules face revisions that could allow Saudi women to obtain divorces without patriarchal meddling and to pursue more business and educational opportunities. The caveat to this proposed landmark legislation is just who will interpret Sharia. Religious conservatives could cement their authority over the rights of women, although there are enough liberals on the Shoura Council to provide a more equitable interpretation. [7]
  • King Abdullah’s university scholarship program starting in the 2007-2008 academic year gave virtually every qualified Saudi female student the opportunity to study abroad. In 2010, Saudi women undergraduate and postgraduate students accounted for 25 percent of the 15,600 Saudis studying in the United Kingdom. Approximately 6,000 women are studying at universities in the United States. Worldwide, 20.5 percent of all Saudi students on full government scholarships are women. An estimated 56.6 percent of all Saudi university students in the kingdom are women. Nearly 60 percent of Saudi businesswomen have university degrees with one-third of those degrees earned at Western universities. [8]

Assuming the Shoura Council does indeed follow through with its plan to codify Sharia, these gains establish a foundation for the new series of women’s rights prompted by the Arab Spring and implemented by King Abdullah. Following the king’s return from medical treatment in Morocco in March, the Saudi government dithered over its next step in women’s rights as it engaged in its passive-aggressive relationship with religious conservatives. The Ministry of Labor’s attempts to minimize gender segregation in the workplace and allow women to work as clerks in lingerie shops faced indifference if not outright obstinance. And the coeducational King Abdullah University of Science & Technology opened in 2009 still rankles clerics to no end.

Although Saudi Arabia rarely accedes to the demands for reform from the international community, King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, among other more liberal-minded royals, recognize that the government can’t treat women as chattel.

However, whatever modest gains Saudi women have made are by no stretch of the imagination guaranteed to remain. Rather, all that Saudi women have achieved could very well be wiped out if religious extremists replace older liberal Saudis in high-level ministerial positions as recent changes in high-level shuffling indicate.

Driving Ban

Still, the Arab Spring knocked down some long entrenched barriers. A case in point is the driving ban that denies women the ability to enjoy affordable and convenient transportation. Saudi women initially viewed the West’s demands to end the ban as a tempest in a teapot. But the Arab Spring emboldened them to make the issue a rallying point to insist on greater rights that would help erase the indignities Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal society heaps on its women.

The arrest of Manal Al-Sharif in May for driving in the Eastern Province and the subsequent June 17 women driving demonstration proved the necessary catalyst for change. Al-Sharif was the icon for the burgeoning Saudi feminist movement. [9]

The government has done little to prevent women from driving since June 17. There has been no crackdown, and no arrests or harsh punishment meted out that echo the 1990 Riyadh driving protest led by 50 women. With the exception of a rogue judge who sentenced one Saudi woman to 10 lashes for driving without government permission, which was vacated by King Abdullah, few women driving cars have run afoul with traffic police. The Saudi government’s apparent indifference puts in doubt whether the driving ban even exists anymore. In essence, Saudi women have won the right to drive given the government laizzez-faire attitude. Eventually Saudi women must drive, but Riyadh seems to have thrown the ball in the women’s court. [10]

While Riyadh sees no need for a royal decree to decisively end the driving issue, it took a different approach when King Abdullah gave women voting rights. This is a consolation prize in lieu of a royal degree granting women driving rights, but it’s also more significant. Riyadh saves face by not succumbing to international pressure on the driving ban and it gives women modest, but still restrictive, rights that tacitly acknowledge the calls for democratic reform brought on by the Arab Spring.

The problem is that women don’t vote until 2015 and won’t take a seat on the Shoura Council for another 18 months. The lengthy time it will take to implement the decrees makes them vulnerable to unwanted changes that could lead to no voting rights at all. It’s no easy task to rescind a royal decree. Only another royal decree can do that. King Abdullah is not likely to rescind his own decrees and he prefers to ignore the complaints from the religious conservatives of giving women too much. [11]

However, ministerial authorities charged with the implementation of the decrees could very well erect roadblocks. Interior Minister Prince Naif, for example, has gone on record as saying the need for women to drive is exaggerated. He is a champion of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. He consistently aligns himself with religious hardliners. [12]

If Saudi women rest on their laurels following their hard-fought battle to win the rights they achieved, then they may find themselves tucked away inside their homes. In the view of Saudi women’s rights activists, the battle is not just winning rights, but organizing efforts to keep them. One concern is that religious conservatives continue to interpret Sharia, the wants and needs of Saudi society, and, ultimately, the rights of women.

By taking seats on the Shoura Council, women can create an organized lobbying effort to push for a more gender-neutral interpretation of Sharia, particularly on issues of male guardianship and travel rights. [11]

Saudi journalist Samar Fatany notes that appointments to the Shoura Council allow women to address “the challenges that have hindered their progress, such as the ban on women driving, the reluctance of the public to support women in leadership positions, the strict culture of segregation within society …” [11]

Flawed Elections

Regardless of King Abdullah’s intentions and the future of women in the electoral process, there is little evidence that the kingdom is ready for a Western-style democracy.

Hendrick Jan Kraetzchmar was an adviser to the Saudi government to help develop a municipal electoral process in 2004 for the 2005 elections. In a report for the London School of Economics’ Public Policy Group, Kraetzchmar wrote that Riyadh adopted some Western electoral procedures and rejected others. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the elections was the implementation of cross-district voting that allowed religious conservatives to win contests by attracting large numbers of voters.

In his January 2011 report, Kraetzchmar wrote, “Specifically, the Saudi case demonstrates that, by putting a premium on cross-district efforts at voter mobilization, the electoral system provided the institutional backdrop against which it was possible for Islamist candidates and their backers to coordinate successfully their campaigns and achieve impressive victories across the Kingdom.” [13]

Voter Interest Declines

The lack of voter interest in the 2011 had less to do with the victories of Islamic conservatives, and more with the virtually non-existent participation of Saudi citizens to influence council decisions. Council meeting dates, locations and agendas are rarely publicized and members could selectively choose who attends.

About 1.2 million Saudi men registered to vote, but some regions witnessed significant drops in voter participation. In Riyadh, the number of registered voters dropped from about 800,000 for the 2005 elections to just 300,000 in 2011. [14]

A poll conducted by the Saudi English-language daily newspaper Arab News found dissatisfaction among Saudis over the performance of the Jeddah Municipal Council. The newspaper found that 71.6 percent of the 387 polled Saudis characterized the council’s performance as “very bad” while only 15.2 percent the council’s conduct was “good.” Survey respondents complained of poor services and the “catastrophic” reaction to the November 2009 and January 2011 floods that left more than 100 people dead. [15] [16]

During the Sept. 29 election, Saudis also faced confusing instructions for polling center locations.

In Jeddah, the Complaints Committee of Municipal Elections voided the results of election in the city’s District 3 because poll center officials moved the district’s polling place to a different location just hours before voting began. The switch caused confusion when voters arrived at the original location and found it closed. [17]

Polling officials also reported that winners in some districts garnered few votes. Abdullah Al-Muhammadi, for example, received just 381 votes in the voided District 3 election in Jeddah. Abdul Aziz Al-Suraie earned 239 votes in Jeddah’s District 2. Khaled Bajammal received 163 votes in District 4 and Fouad Murad in District 5 garnered only 71 votes. In Riyadh, 177 candidates won seats on 45 municipal councils. Yet candidates fell well below in receiving 50 percent of the vote. In one Riyadh district, Fuad Abdulrahman Al-Rashid was the top vote-getter by receiving 44 percent of the vote. Waleed Abdullateef Sweidan took second place with 42.9 percent. [14]

Voter turnout was relatively low in the Eastern Province with 30 percent of the registered voters casting ballots. In some rural areas, such as Tabuk and Najran, turnout was closer to 50 percent.


The 2005 and 2011 municipal elections were experimental at best. The true test of a democratic election comes in 2015 if women cast ballots with no conditions attached. Voter enthusiasm is likely to increase if for no other reason than the novelty of voting for a woman. The 2015 elections are also likely to ignite the passions of Islamic conservatives who will not allow the issue of women’s voting rights to go unchallenged. Saudis can expect a concerted effort to tamp down female participation by appealing to male voters’ perceived religious duties.

Saudi women have demonstrated exceptional organization skills with such social media groups as Women2Drive, Saudi Women Revolution and the Baladi Campaign. By capitalizing on these skills, women are likely to rival the religious conservatives in organizing campaigns for public office to ensure women sit on municipal councils. These skills will also help women develop a strong, single voice in the Shoura Council to push legislation addressing equity in Saudi society.

[1] “Municipal Elections in Saudi Arabia in September” Arab News, 3 June 2011 [,%20%2012,000%20Candidates%20Registered.htm] (Retrieved 06-06-2011)

[2] “Men-Only Election Shows Limits of Saudi Reply to Arab Spring” by Glen Carey, Businessweek, Sept. 29, 2011 [] (Retrieved 30-09-2011)

[3] “Saudi Women, Israeli Women Both Need Social Change” by Elana Maryles Sztokman, The Jewish Chronicle, Oct. 7, 2011 [–Israeli-women-both-need-social-change—?instance=lead_story_right_column ] (Retrieved 10-10-2011)

[4] “Voters Disenchanted with Upcoming Saudi Elections NPR” May 8, 2011 [] (Retrieved 12-07-2011)

[5] “Saudi Women’s Vote: Does it Go Far Enough?” by Juan Cole, Informed Comment, Sept. 26, 2011 [] (Retrieved 18-20-2011)”

[6] “Saudi Women’s Vote Great News – If This Were 1911” by Susan Jacoby, The Washington Post, Sept. 28, 2011 [—if-this-were-1911/2011/09/28/gIQAdWgf5K_blog.html] (Retrieved 30-09-2011)

[7] “Saudi Arabia Gets Ready to Put Order in Its Courts” By Rob L. Wagner, The Media Line, Feb . 24, 2011 [] (Retrieved 19-10-2011)

[8] “Women in Higher Education: Saudi Initiatives and Achievements, Saudi Ministry of Higher Education” 2010 [] (Retrieved 19-10-2011)

[9] “Manal Al-Sharif Released” by Siraj Wahab, Arab News, May 31, 2011 [] (Retrieved 11-08-2011)

[10] “Saudi Woman Driver Sentenced to 10 Lashes after King Grants Women the Vote” by Donna Abu-Nasr, Bloomberg, Sept. 27, 2011 [] (Retrieved 9-10-2011)

[11] “Women in Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, What Next? By Samar Fatany, Global Arab Network, Oct. 18, 2011 [] (Retrieved 19-10-2011)

[12] “Driven” by Ebtihal Mubarak, Foreign Policy, June 17, 2011 [] (Retrieved 09-09-2011)

[13] “The First Democratic Local Elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005: Electoral Rules, the Mobilization of Voters and the Islamist Landslide” by Hendrick Jan Kraetzchmar, LSE Public Policy Group Working Paper No. 6, January 2011 [] (Retrieved 19-5-2011)

[14] “New Municipal Councils by Oct. 16” by MD Humaidan, Arab News, Sept. 30, 2011 [] (Retrieved 15-10-2011)

[15] “Dissatisfaction High Over City Council’s Role” by MD Humaidan, Arab News via, Sept. 15, 2011 [] (Retrieved 20-10-2011)

[16] “After the Flood, Rising Saudi Anger Getting a Response” by Rob L. Wagner, MidEastPosts, January 29, 2011 [] (Retrieved 08-08-2011)

[17] “Election Result in Jeddah District Nullified” by MD Humaidan, Arab News, Oct. 2, 2011 [] (Retrieved 6-10-2011)

September 10, 2011

Saudi Arabia’s Municipal Elections: Tough Lessons Learned from Islamic Conservatives

By Rob L. Wagner

Eurasia Review

9 September 2011

The Sept. 29 municipal elections in Saudi Arabia mark the second round of polling in six years and the third in almost 50 years. The latest scheduled elections ostensibly will bring Saudis closer to developing democratic ideals espoused in the West. However, the elections also have prompted criticism from Saudi activists who assert that the electoral system prevents half the population from representation by denying women the right to vote and that it gives an edge to religious conservatives.

The September elections followed a voter registration drive in May and a short period through early June that permitted candidates to register their campaigns. Ultimately, voters will go to the polls in September to elect men to 1,632 seats in 258 municipal elections. Half the municipal council seats throughout the Kingdom are appointed by royal decree. In 2005, 1,212 seats were open on 179 councils. Saudi authorities have banned women from voting or registering as candidates.

Although the Arab spring continues with violent clashes in Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, Saudi Arabia appears virtually immune to demands from Western nations and Saudi dissidents for more aggressive democratic reforms. Saudi King Abdullah’s announcement of the September elections followed his return from Morocco and coincided with the Tunisia and Egyptian uprisings in late February and March.

Yet there is little evidence to suggest that the municipal elections will become a Middle East template for Western-style democracy as envisioned by the United States and the European Union. The U.S.-backed 2006 elections in the Palestinian Territories that brought Hamas to power foreshadowed what the Arab spring brought to North Africa. In Tunisia, the conservative Islamic Ennahda Party has gained considerable power by using Friday prayers at neighborhood mosques to solidify their base despite warnings from the Tunisian government against using political propaganda in sermons. And in July, thousands of religious conservatives descended on Tahrir Square in Cairo in a show of solidarity. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had kept a low profile during the Egyptian revolution, has emerged as the strongest political party. If Saudi Arabia’s 2005 municipal elections were any indication, religious conservatives will also prevail in September, although in a much quieter fashion.

Long before the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia had been on a reform binge, albeit by modest Saudi standards. In 2003, King Abdullah helped established with then-King Fahd the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue to encourage free expression on domestic issues. Since 2005, King Abdullah inaugurated a new system of succession. He also created the National Human Rights Society, broadened women’s role in the workplace, and revamped government institutions to streamline bureaucracy and reduce corruption.

Perhaps the most radical reform was the establishment of an electorate not seen in Saudi Arabia since the early 1960s. However, few Saudis have seen tangible results from the elections since municipal council meetings are largely inaccessible to the public.

Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, who with the London School of Economics’ Public Policy Group, was part of a Riyadh team in 2004 to help Saudis establish democratic municipal elections. The Saudi government, he reported, embraced some Western electoral procedures and eschewed others. Most notably was implementing cross-district voting that enabled religious conservative candidates to secure large numbers of votes and win elections they otherwise would have lost if voting were limited to their own districts.

“Specifically, the Saudi case demonstrates that, by putting a premium on cross-district efforts at voter mobilization, the electoral system provided the institutional backdrop against which it was possible for Islamist candidates and their backers to coordinate successfully their campaigns and achieve impressive victories across the Kingdom. It also posits that it was this level of coordination, facilitated by the electoral rules that gave the entire campaign a distinctly ideological flavor, even though the elections were formally run on a non-partisan, individual-candidacy basis, Kraetzschmar wrote in his January 2011 study, “The First Democratic Elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005.”

Previous Elections

The 2005 municipal elections were not without precedent. Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections in 1939, just seven years after the founding of the country. Little is known about this fledgling attempt at democracy, but King Saud bin Abdul Aziz permitted municipal council elections again, starting in about 1954, in part to blunt criticism from Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. These early efforts inexplicably ceased around 1962.

The Arabian American Oil Co., a consortium of U.S. companies that developed the Saudi oil industry and now owned by Saudi Arabia as Saudi Aramco, kept some records of the early elections process. Islamic scholars and reporters employed by Aramco monitored the elections from the beginning. Registered voters elected candidates to councils that had real power. Councils had the authority to build roads and acquire routes through eminent domain. Some councils had authority over electrical hookups.

How voters cast ballots depended on the region. Shiites in the Eastern Province often found themselves on the short end of the stick when pitted against the Sunni majority. In one election, voting took place similar to the U.S. Electoral College in which about 50 men represented about 20,000 residents in the region. Although Shiites comprised of about half the population, none of the 50 representatives were Shiites. Predictably, the election resulted in a Sunni landslide.

In other regions, older conservative landowners easily beat young businessmen, and middle-class entrepreneurs and mid-level managers. The minimum voting age was 18 or 21 depending on the district. In some districts, the local Emir determined who was eligible to run for office. The total number of votes, not percentages, elected candidates. In one election, 5,000 voters cast ballots among scores of candidates, but the winner received only 115 votes.

Poll monitoring by candidates’ supporters kept voter misconduct at a minimum. In Dammam, for example, monitors suspected several illiterate voters of casting ballots filled out by other people. Monitors ordered them to cast their votes a second time after voiding the first ballots. Not unexpectedly, the most organized candidates won council seats. Many candidates acknowledged the influence of the 1960 John F. Kennedy/Richard Nixon U.S. presidential race in how they approached their campaigns.

2005 Elections

For a country that had not experienced a municipal election in more than 40 years, voter enthusiasm for the 2005 municipal elections was remarkable. According to the Riyadh-based ASBAR Center for Studies, Research and Communications, older Saudis took the most interest in the elections. An estimated 73 percent of the registered Saudis voters over the age of 46 cast ballots. About 55 percent of registered Saudis voters between 30 and 40 years old went to the polls, while 43.5 percent of registered men between the ages of 21 and 29 voted. An estimated 55.5 percent of the registered voters held Bachelor of Arts degrees and 54 percent were government employees.

ASBAR painted a bright portrait of the 2005 elections. The study reported that 72.7 percent of the polled Saudis voted because it was an act of national pride and patriotism. Nearly 63 percent of the Saudis polled said they voted because the elections assured “every citizen’s right to vote.” And 48.3 percent said they voted because they wanted to encourage and support the elections.

However, the study also found that in some regions a high percentage of registered voters never went to the polls. In Al Baha, 41.9 percent of the registered voters didn’t cast ballots. In Makkah, 38.3 percent of the registered voters didn’t vote and 39.1 percent of registered voters in Riyadh failed to go to polling stations.

The study did not provide details of its methodology. Yet ASBAR reported that 59 percent of the surveyed Saudis opposed women voting and 72.5 percent didn’t want them on municipal councils. The study concluded that “there was a clear increase in the percentages showing the lack of support concerning women’s participating in the elections, whether in voting or as candidates. This was attributed to reasons related to traditions, norms and the weak qualifying of women.”

Architectural consultant Nadia Bakhurji, the first Saudi women to register her candidacy for 2005 elections only to have her application nullified, argues that female voter participation legitimizes the election. “In the past two years there have been positive steps in the progress of women and this would have been a natural step,” Bakhurji said. “There is no excuse for us not to participate.”

Bakhurji pointed out that contrary to the ASBAR study men are ready to vote for women candidates. She said the 13,000-member Saudi Council of Engineers has only 200 women on its membership rolls. Bakhurji said she was the only woman among 75 candidates running for a board seat, yet her male colleagues elected her to a second term. She also noted that Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez’s 2009 appointment as deputy education minister and the women elected to seats on the Jeddah and Riyadh Chamber of Commerces illustrate substantial progress. “Obviously women are on the path to higher decision-making,” she said.

Bakhurji’s allies like Dr. Hatton Al-Fassi, an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, wrote on the Arabic-language website that the government is doomed to “repeat past mistakes” by not permitting women to participate in the September polls.

Golden Lists

Saudi electoral regulations ban candidates sharing similar political views from creating alliances, slates or campaigning on issues outside of their local council districts. Yet a Golden List, sometimes referred to as the Recommended List, emerged in the weeks leading up to the 2005 election.

The lists featured candidates “approved” by local clerics or Islamic scholars and played upon the religious emotions of the voters. One Saudi journalist noted that Saudis are “weak” when pressed on matters of Islam and susceptible to ideological arguments. According to LSE Public Policy Group’s Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, telephone text messages bombarded voters with statements that convey such messages as, “These are the candidates who follow the principles and line of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). If you want the better for our Islamic and Arab society, vote for them.” Older voters were less likely to reject such arguments, thus keeping the Islamic slate of candidates from fragmenting.

This strategy had a stunning impact in every municipal council district. Candidates running on the Islamic Golden List ticket scored overwhelming victories in Jeddah, Makkah, Madinah, Riyadh, Dammam, Tabuk and Qaif.

Further, candidates on the Golden List greatly benefited from cross-district voting. Many candidates who won seats garnered significantly more votes than there were registered voters in their district. For example, a winning candidate in Jeddah received 9,090 votes, far more votes than the number of registered voters in his own district. More than half of his votes came from other districts.

The Golden List and the informal collaboration between candidates also illustrate the power of new communication technology and its influence on vote getting. While social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, played a minimal role in the 2005 elections, it’s likely to have a significant presence in the September 2011 polling.


Islamist electioneering, council transparency and the marginalization of women have prompted opposition from some Saudi liberals and women’s groups. A group of Saudi writers and intellectuals, which includes Saudi human rights activist Mohammed Fahad Al-Qahtani, released a statement in March 2011 that the group would boycott the September elections because the Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs failed to address concerns of the 2005 elections. The ministry also failed to explain why it cancelled scheduled elections in 2009.

The group complained the councils had no effective role in even the smallest issues affecting local municipalities. Election opponents also said the process diminished democratic practices because half the council members received their seats by appointment. The group also cited the exclusion of women for the second time in six years and the lack of public participation in council decision-making.

The primary reason for keeping women from voting is that the infrastructure and electoral procedures to allow women at polling stations were not ready, according to Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. Authorities cancelled the 2009 elections, claiming they needed more time to evaluate how women should be included in the process.

However, the failure to allow women the right to vote sparked the launch of the Baladi Campaign by women activists. The Facebook-driven Baladi Campaign encouraged Saudi women to challenge the ban by attempting to register at local registration offices and demand voter identification cards. Two women successfully registered in the Eastern Province, but registration officials in other Saudi regions refused to issue women voter identification cards. Two women filed claims with the Board of Grievances to overturn the registration officials’ decision, but they failed.

The Baladi Campaign group argues that a woman’s role in Saudi society has “surpassed traditional limits” and that the ban violates international charters ratified by Saudi Arabia that prohibit gender discrimination. The group also cites religious texts and legislation. The group appealed to Saudi authorities to consider the negative perception of the Kingdom in the international community.

“Women in Saudi Arabia have a negative stereotypical image as being oppressed, completely marginalized, and incapable of being productive members of society. It is important to change this negative image in order to show that Saudi women are like all other women in the world, with their own concerns, hopes, capabilities and potentials and can express themselves in their own ways,” the Baladi Campaign said in a statement.

Saudi Women Revolution, another group of women activists using social media to garner support to overturn the driving and voting bans among other gender rights issues, has taken a more aggressive approach. Ignoring some Islamic requirements, Saudi Women Revolution seeks an end to the male guardianship laws in which a male member of the family has complete legal control over a woman’s right to seek higher education, a job or to leave the country.

The group is not seeking the “equal but separate” Islamic concept of women’s rights. Instead, the group embraces some feminist Western ideals. The group states: “Saudi women should have their complete political rights which are guaranteed Saudi men, such as running and voting for elections in municipality councils. Women should also be part of the Shoura Council and all state institutions, foundations, firms and ministers including ministers of justices and foreign affairs.”

In June, Saudi women activists won support from the Shoura Council, the Kingdom’s quasi-legislative body. The Shoura Council issued an advisory ruling that women be permitted to vote and run for municipal council seats. The Shoura Council determined that, “the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs should take the necessary measures to include female voters in municipal elections, in accordance with Islamic Sharia.” However, the recommendation does not include the September 2011 polling but future elections.

Council Transparency

Saudi’s enthusiasm for the 2005 municipal elections turned to indifference when it became clear that there would be little transparency as to how newly elected council members went about their business.

Nadia Bakhurji characterized council members conducting municipal business as a “complete blackout.”

A telling incident of how a fledgling municipal council works was broadcast in the 2010 MTV “Resist the Power! True Life” documentary. One segment chronicled Jeddah youth activist Ahmed Sabri’s attempts to have the Jeddah Municipal Council grant an audience to a group of women to discuss the lack of transportation available because of the country’s female driving ban. Following lengthy negotiations, the group received permission to attend one meeting. However, the council spent most of its time debating whether the men and women should be segregated in the council chambers. Sabri finally made his statement to the council. Several women in the audience followed with specific comments on their inability to conduct family business without adequate public transportation. The council made no decision and did not meet with the group again.


The Saudi municipal elections can be best described as ongoing experiment in political reform. To be sure, sidelining women is the central flaw in the electoral process. A separate, but equally important, weakness is the Shoura Council’s failure to pass clear-cut open-meeting legislation guaranteeing council transparency. The elections are meaningless without public access or participation in the council decision-making process.

However, the elections should to be placed within the context of Saudi Arabia’s attempts at reform following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Until the formation of the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue in 2003 under King Fahd, public discourse of domestic matters was largely taboo. The municipal elections broadened freedom of expression by creating a new relationship between Saudis and their government. The elections encourage public participation in government matters and demonstrate the Saudi government’s neutral position in the outcome of the elections.

Equally important to Saudis is that the elections comply with the tenants of Islam. Although the elections may not be a model of Western democracy, they are an important step towards fulfilling the requirements of Islam. The Holy Qu’ran, for example, twice cites Shoura, which is essentially mutual consultation. The Ash-Shura Verse 38 states, “And those who answer the call of Allah, and perform regular prayer, and who [conduct] their affairs by mutual consultation, and spend out of what we have given them.” In Al-Imran, Verse 159 states, “Thus it is a mercy of Allah that thou art lenient unto them; had you been cruel and hard-hearted, they would have surely dissipated around you; therefore, ask forgiveness for them, pardon them, and consult them on the conduct of [their] affairs, and when you are resolved, put your trust in Allah, Allah loves those who trust [in Him].”

For the first time in more than 40 years, Saudis enjoyed the right to register to vote or run as a candidate, vote in secret, have access to polling stations and public debate the elections’ outcome.

Discussion of social issues such as government corruption, women’s rights, health and even the development of cinemas, have only surfaced in the past six to eight years. Although the government tightened its control of the news media in 2011, the Saudi press had enjoyed relative freedoms in covering domestic and foreign policy issues. Municipal elections were a logical step in furthering public discourse.

Although religious conservatives managed to skirt some election rules regarding candidate alliances and exploit others such as cross-district voting, most voters did not take issue with the overall credibility of the election process.

Many Saudis remain critical of the lack of transparency in the municipal council and the failure of municipal employees to be held accountable for their decisions. This was evidenced during the 2009 and 2011 Jeddah floods that left scores of people dead and more than 10,000 buildings damaged. Saudis used Facebook and Twitter to criticize Jeddah municipal officials. Ultimately, Saudi law authorities arrested 50 municipal officials and businessmen on corruption charges stemming from mismanaging construction projects. While the criticism was not directed specifically at the Jeddah Municipal Council, Saudis sent a message that municipal leaders’ conduct is under scrutiny.

The 2005 and 2011 municipal elections are tentative steps towards a democracy within the context of Islam and shouldn’t be misunderstood as failing to embrace democratic ideals advocated by the West. Rather, if Saudis learn from both elections and implement changes to include women and develop municipal councils as true consultative bodies, then the Saudi Islamic electoral process will become compatible with Western-style democracy.


[1] Municipal Elections in Saudi Arabia in September [,%20%2012,000%20Candidates%20Registered.htm] Arab News, 3 June 2011 (Retrieved 06-06-2011)

[2] IPS: Islamic Forces Rise in Tunisia, IPS News, 31 July 2011 [] (Retrieved 08-01-2011)

[3] Egyptian Uprising: Islamists Lead Tahrir Square Rally [] BBC, 29 July 2011 (Retrieved 01-08-2011)

[4] Reform in Saudi Arabia: The Case of Municipal Elections [] by Mishal Fahm Al-Sulami, associate professor of Comparative Thought, Islamic Studies Department, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp: 113-135 (2008/1429 A.H.) (Retrieved 01-07-2011)

[5] The First Democratic Local Elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005: Electoral Rules, the Mobilization of Voters and the Islamist Landslide [] by Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, LSE Public Policy Group Working Paper No. 6, January 2011 [Retrieved 19-5-2011)

[6] Saudi Arabian Elections [] by Thomas W. Lippman, Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service (SURIS) 19 November 2003 (Retrieved 16-07-2011)

[7] Evaluation of the Elections that Took Place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [] ASBAR Center for Studies, Research & Communications (Retrieved 16-06-2011)

[8] Author interview with Nadia Bakhurji, 30 April 2011

[9] Saudi Election News [] (Retrieved 12-07-2011)

[10] Voters Disenchanted with Upcoming Saudi Elections [] NPR, 8 May 2011(Retrieved 12-07-2011)

[11] Declaration of Municipal Elections Boycott by Group of Saudi Writers and Intellectuals [] Jadaliyya, translation by Ziad Abu-Rish, 26 April 2011 (Retrieved 05-15-2011)

[12] Saudi Women Revolution Facebook [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011)

[13] Saudi Women Respond to Exclusion: Baladi Campaign (My Country Campaign) [] Jadaliyya, 16 May 2011 (Retrieved 30-05-2011)

[14] Women Launch Facebook Campaign to Participate in Municipal Elections [] by Walaa Hawari, 6 February 2011 (Retrieved 20-05-2011)

[15] Saudi Council Calls for Women to Get Local Vote [] Reuters, 6 June 2011(Retrieved 07-06-2011)

[16] Poll Panel Dismisses Woman’s Complaint [] Arab News, 27 May 2011 (Retrieved 27-05-2011)

[17] Rowdy Saudis: MTV’s “Resist the Power – Saudi Arabia” [] Muslimah Media Watch, 7 June 2010 (Retrieved 08-06-2011)

[18] MTV: Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia [] MTV, 24 May 2010 (Retrieved 08-06-2011)

[19] The Foundation for Democratic Advancement Electoral Fairness Research [] by Davood Norooi, 29 July 2011 (Retrieved 2 August 2011)

[20] After the Flood, Rising Saudi Anger Getting a Response [] By Rob L. Wagner, MidEastPosts, 29 January 2011(Retrieved 8 August 2011)

August 11, 2011

Women’s Football Making Headway in Saudi Arabia

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Yemen Times

11 August 2011

Dream of competing in Olympics despite sexist barriers at home

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Shaima Sabri, 12, dreams of the day when she plays football on a stadium field of green grass with her father and brothers in a crowd of thousands cheering her on to victory.

On the first day of Ramadan after Maghreb prayer, Shaima was running barefoot through a hardscrabble patch of dirt off Madinah Road in Jeddah. Playing with the neighborhood kids, she was kicking a frayed football. Her dreams at that moment of playing before thousands were as elusive as the sweeping green fields that she hopes to play on.

“Some day I will play like Salem Aldawsari with Saudia,” said Shaima, referring to one of Saudi Arabia’s leading footballers. “But sometimes I think this is as far as I will get.”

Yet Shaima, and girls and women like her, have an unlikely ally in helping them organize football leagues: the men’s Saudi Arabian Football Federation.

Ahmad Eid Al-Harbi, vice president of the Player Status Committee for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, which plays under FIFA, has been quietly visiting university campuses to help women develop football teams. Al-Harbi said meetings have included consultations on how to negotiate with the international football unions from Germany, Brazil, the United States and the United Kingdom in order to help women qualify for trainer positions. The Federation has also developed a physical education curriculum for women’s university campuses.

“Three weeks ago I visited CBA (College of Business Administration) University in Jeddah and we had long conversations with officials there with regard to women’s sports,” Al-Harbi told The Media Line. “We formed a group of women who are willing to play basketball and volleyball. We also convinced another group of women to form a football team. Now, they are considering organizing a league among all women’s universities in the region as a step towards participating in the Olympics Games.” At least seven Arab countries presently have women’s football teams.

The meetings mark the first acknowledgement from a sanctioned Saudi sports body that women could someday compete in the Olympics Games. Competing in the Olympics is a tantalizing goal for women athletes who believe that Saudi society might never recognize that women should have equal footing with men in sports. In the past two years, young Saudi women decided that they could no longer wait for government permission and funding to start their own football league. Instead, they organized their own teams and paid trainers out of their own pockets to develop competitive teams. One such team is the fledgling all-women’s Kings United Football Club in Jeddah.

Al-Harbi cautioned that although he wants to see women on the playing field, the road to government-funded leagues still is fraught with many obstacles.

“Saudi Arabia is a tribal society that doesn’t believe in speedy change,” Al-Harbi said. “However, I believe there is a quite sizable number of the society that is ready to accept women social sports that contribute to women’s good health and her main role in the family as a leader. When it comes to competitive sports, this needs quite longer time to be accepted.”

Although Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal joins Al-Harbi in supporting the right of women to play football, Al-Harbi characterized the atmosphere in Saudi Arabia as “hostile” to competitive women’s sports. “I’m all for [women’s football leagues] if we prepare the right atmosphere for such participation. We need to build a very strong infrastructure and we need human resources. Above all, we need to prepare the social atmosphere to accept such competitions to make it friendlier than it is now,” he said.

Indeed, Rima Abdullah, the founder of Kings United, told the Dubai-based Al-Arabyia TV last month that she has been criticized for organizing her football team.

“As for society as a whole, when we first appeared in public, we were attacked,” Abdullah said. “One of the most vehement attacks against me was during a Friday sermon. The entire sermon was about Rima Abdullah, as if I were pushing Saudi women towards promiscuity, or something.”

Kings United began playing in secret around Jeddah in 2005. The team rented secluded football fields to keep away the curious. Players paid their own expenses. Each player must have written permission from a male guardian to participate. The team then initiated a publicity campaign to drum up support. Last year, the team sought to participate in a women’s tournament in Bahrain that included teams from Oman and Kuwait. The Saudi team did not receive permission to play because FIFA and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation do not formally recognize the team.

Al-Harbi advised patience. “One should first work on providing suitable places such as playgrounds or stadiums that are specially equipped for women in our segregated society,” he said. “Second, women’s organized leagues should be operated under a very strong umbrella that protects women and the ultimate goals of which leagues are formed. I suggest it should be at least as a first step operated under Ministry of Education. It should also follow the Islamic regulations so it doesn’t upset the religious authorities.”

And there-in lies the obstacle. Religious conservatives have not only railed against women’s sports leagues as unseemly and undignified activities, but as a threat to players’ virginity. As perhaps the leading voice in domestic matters, religious leaders hold considerable sway over what is permissible and what is forbidden in Saudi society. Earlier this year, clerics demanded the resignation of the dean at the all-women’s Princess Noor University for Women in Riyadh for implementing a physical education program.

A 2009 Al-Riyadh newspaper survey of 2,250 Saudis reported that only 4 percent opposed female physical education. But Saudi Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul Aziz Al-Asheik told Al Eqtisadiah TV that, “Women should be housewives. There is no need for them to engage in sports.”

Kings United has been careful not to rock the boat. Players wear the hijab, sleeveless jerseys and shorts at mid-thigh in front of all-female crowds, but long white clothes and the hijab that complies with Sharia, or Islamic law, for male audiences.

Jeddah-based blogger Susie’s Big Adventure, who prefers to be identified only as Susie and writes extensively on Saudi women’s health issues, told The Media Line that physical education and participating in organized sports can improve Saudi women’s health. The Salman Medical Center at King Fahd Health City in Riyadh reported last year that half of the Saudi women between the ages of 30 and 45 suffer from obesity.

“If Muslim men truly cared about the health of Muslim women, they would encourage and support physical activities for women,” Susie said.

The good news is that government funding for women’s leagues may be more than just wishful thinking with the backing of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. The bad news is that it might not be what women footballers want.

Al-Harbi noted that women’s groups should receive government-funding equal to men, but money should first be allocated for physical education or “soft” sports, such as basketball and gymnastics, as a means to integrate Saudi women into competitive international sports.

However, as for a FIFA-approved Saudi women’s team like the Iranian Football Federation, Al-Harbi doesn’t see a quick solution. “Saudi society is a very conservative one, even when it comes to men’s clubs. No one can imagine his daughter playing in front of thousands of people wearing shorts, such as in football.”

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.

June 2, 2011

News Analysis: Intimidation Tactics Attempt to Silence Saudi Women Journalists

By Rob L. Wagner


June 2 2011

Tucked low in Manal Al-Sharif’s statement to the media this week was a plea to individuals to resist attacking her religious and moral beliefs after she sparked a public debate about Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban.

Saudi municipal police in the Eastern Province released Al-Sharif from jail on May 30. Law authorities had charged her with “violating the public order” by driving in Khobar and then posting a video of her driving on the Internet. In her statement, Al-Sharif said she would leave the driving ban issue to the discretion of King Abdullah. However, trailing in the wake of her release is a tattered reputation.

Al-Sharif said in her statement that she “was stunned to learn of the accusations hurled at my religious and moral beliefs” and the allegations had caused “serious harm.”

“I held my breath for those speaking in the name of religion and others —May Allah guide them rightly — to do me some justice, and that if I had done wrong to blame me only accordingly and fairly, without defaming my faith, creed, and moral system,” Al-Sharif said.

The statement has become an increasingly common refrain among Saudi women activists and journalists who write and blog about women’s rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

Conservatives anonymously attack outspoken women by questioning their morals and beliefs in Islam. Long-held speech freedoms in democratic countries have made Western journalists relatively thick-skinned to personal attacks. But Saudis view allegations of improper behavior as scandalous and creating great shame among family members. Publicly questioning a Saudi woman’s moral ethics damages not only her personal reputation, but also her professional credibility. Public shaming hurts marriage prospects and the ability to find employment.

As more Muslim women create blogs and write for newspapers and websites, online attacks — particularly in the comments sections of news websites — have grown in proportion.

“Whenever I write an article, I can expect some comments from readers raising questions about my sex life, or they comment on how I look in my photograph. They say I’m not a good Muslim girl,” a Saudi woman journalist told me recently. “Why? Because I wrote an article about equal justice for women in the courts.”

The newswoman said that her brother once read comments about a video interview she gave, and he “cried” about the effect the personal attacks would have on their parents.

“Obviously, some people feel that by attacking women’s religious beliefs and morals, they can silence them into submission,” the journalist said. “It’s almost as if it’s an organized effort to sideline us.”

The smear campaign became apparent in 2009 when 13 Saudi women journalists filed complaints with the Ministry of Interior accusing a local online newspaper of “defaming and distorting the image of the Saudi media.”

According to the English language daily newspaper Arab News, the Kul Al-Watan news website alleged, “that prostitution, alcohol and drugs have become widespread in Saudi society, and that women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.”

Suad Al-Salim, one of the complainants, told the Arab News: “The report is offensive to Saudi media and Saudi women journalists. Saudi media have been able to build a relationship of trust and integrity with society. How will this relationship sustain after the publishing of this report?”

Last March, the highly respected Arabic language daily newspaper Al-Watan banned popular journalists Amal Zahid and Amira Kashgari from writing. Zahid and Kashgari often write on women’s rights issues. The newspaper cited no reason for the ban, but both women had complained of attacks on their morality without elaborating.

Kul Al-Watan, the same news website accused of defaming women journalists, reported that the firings “followed growing attacks through the Internet against Saudi female journalists as some consider this (writing about women’s rights) against Islam and local traditions.”

Many women journalists and activists continue to write about social causes despite efforts to marginalize them through slander. However, some Saudis have ratcheted up the rhetoric to encourage violence against women. A prominent Saudi sheikh recently announced that women demanding their right to drive a car deserve death, and a group of men created a Facebook page to wage a campaign to beat women who get behind the wheel.

Tougher media laws enacted in Saudi Arabia earlier this year include new standards for slander. The regulations ban individuals from writing “anything affecting the reputation or dignity of, or slandering or personally insulting, the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom or members of the Board of Senior Ulema, or dignitaries of the state or any of its employees, or any person of ordinary standing or any legal person.”

Yet journalists and people like Manal Al-Sharif that fall in the category of “any person of ordinary standing,” receive no such protection under the new law.

March 20, 2011

Saudi Women Embrace Feminism — On Their Own Terms

By Rob L. Wagner
The Media Line
Published Sunday, March 20, 2011

Most reject Western ideas, but seek formula that blends with Islamic faith

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Perhaps one of the most significant developments emerging from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions is the growing Arab women’s rights movement that has spread to the anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain and Yemen.

Absent, however, from the chorus of women’s voices demanding equity in the workplace, freedom to travel and a role in government are Saudis, who have done little to join their Arab sisters to create a feminist movement. In fact, no such organized movement exists in Saudi Arabia.

“I don’t see signs of a feminist movement,” says Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “I see signs of rising consciousness among women—a questioning of why things are they way they are.”

Rasha Alduwaisi, 30, a Saudi mother, is a leading force behind the first tentative steps to galvanize women through the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page. She acknowledges a feminist movement is an uphill battle.

“There’s almost no organized effort whatsoever to try to obtain these rights we’re seeking,” Alduwaisi told The Media Line. “Saudi women are raised to be subordinate, and grew up with the society drilling in them that their issues are marginal. This upbringing in my opinion is playing a huge role in the reluctance and hesitation in taking the steps that such a movement calls for.”

Saudi Arabia has long stood apart from other Arab nations in how it treats its female population. Older generations of Saudi women through most of the 20th century were largely content with gender roles imposed by the patriarchal religious establishment. Post-secondary education for women was elusive until a minority of wealthy Saudi women began studying abroad in the 1980s. University education blossomed in the years following 9/11. Today, more than 60% of Saudi Arabia’s university students are women.

The rapid shift to educating Saudi women has given them a voice, but it also created a divide between today’s young females and their mothers’ generation. Disparate views on the role Saudi women play in society have contributed to a lack of unity. In addition, the ambitions of rural women, who may focus on economic survival in farming communities, contrasts sharply with educated urban women who may seek positions in government and business.

These differences have prevented the development of a grassroots to campaign.

“Public demonstrations and mobilization are treated criminally in Saudi for just about anything, so it’s particularly hard for women to form a robust movement,” Coleman told The Media Line. “Here, social media will help.”

Marwa Al-Saleh, founder and general manager of, a web design and online marketing company in Al-Khobar, promotes the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page with Alduwaisi. Al-Saleh says most Saudi women are unaware of their rights. “Sometimes they think their rights are against Islam.”

The definition of feminism remains a sticking point with young Saudis who say they want a feminist movement on their own terms, which includes Islam as a major component. Alduwaisi says she prefers a “Saudi-Islamic” feminist movement, noting that she wants rights that consider religion and a Sharia-based judicial system.

Coleman, who authored the book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, which examines Islamic feminism, says Western feminism appears threatening to Saudi men because it’s perceived as leading to high divorce rates and promoting promiscuity. She noted the portrayal of women in American films and television feed negative stereotypes of Western women. “Islamic feminism provides a more comfortable alternative path toward change,” she says. “It can be seen as more culturally relevant and less threatening to core Islamic values.”

Alduwaisi and Al-Saleh reject the Western definition of feminism, although there is no shortage of Arab women speaking to the Western media on behalf of Saudi women.

For example, some prominent Saudi women, such as Wajeha Al-Huwaider and Mai Yamani, frequently address Saudi women’s rights on Western news shows. Yet they have little traction with women living in Saudi Arabia because their idea of feminism reflects Western concepts not compatible with Islam.

“These women represent the opinion of a minority,” Alduwaisi says. “So I don’t think many Saudi women would want to have them be the face of the movement. I believe if we want this movement to be a success we’ll need a more moderate or conservative face.”

A 29-year-old Saudi woman journalist, who asked not to be identified, says few young women have role models beyond the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Aisha bint Abu Bakr and Khadījah bint Khuwaylid. “If I was looking for role models, I’d want women who looked and talked like me, covered with the hijab and addressing me as a Saudi woman. Not some Western ideal of what a Saudi woman should be.”

Al-Saleh says women’s rights critics who wave the warning flag of Western liberalism are looking for excuses to deny Saudi women a role in society. She points to neighboring Arab countries that have found room for women in the workplace and government. “Is Saudi Arabia the only Islamic country? Look at the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.”

Yet even an Islamic feminist movement faces significant challenges. Much like the Western suffragette movement of the early 20th century, the most vocal critics of Saudi feminism may be women. Rowdha Yousef and 15 other women, for example, launched the “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me” campaign in 2009 in reaction to calls to eliminate guardianship laws.

The push-pull of differing agendas makes empowering women slow going, although there are potential allies in powerful places to help create momentum. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal complained in February that Arab women were “economically and socially marginalized.” He routinely hires women in key corporate positions and makes it a point to showcase female entrepreneurial talent.

Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal has been a powerful ally in furthering the integration of Saudi women in the workplace and education by lending her support to several women’s groups. Princess Fatimah Kulsum runs a slew of welfare and charity groups for women. Princesses Adela bint Abdullah Al-Saud and Seetah bint Abdullah Al-Saud have emerged as the female representation in King Abdullah’s reform agenda by lending their names to various programs.

However, the larger issue should a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement succeed is just how to interpret women’s rights guaranteed in Islam.

“There are more progressive interpretations that can get women very far, but there will always be those who want a more conservative interpretation that will impede rights for women,” Coleman says. “Protecting those universal rights ultimately depends on a separation of the religious and legal spheres.”

Pending codification of Isalmic law (sharia) in the Saudi judicial system may resolve issues of interpretation, but the basic premise of sharia is that’s always applied in the context of time and place. Male guardianship, for example, is outmoded in the 21st century kingdom, according to activists.

Abuses of guardianship over travel issues also play an important part in the future of a woman’s movement. A hadith, which contains the words and deeds of Mohammed and pertain to matters of Islamic jurisprudence, states that women must not travel without a guardian if the journey takes longer than three days. Travel in modern society no longer takes three days. If an Islamic feminist movement were to take root, reinterpreting the hadith would be a core issue on the table.

“The first priority is to get rid of male guardianship on woman after 18 in everything: Education, travel, work, business, finances, medical services, government and marriage,” says Al-Saleh.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

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