Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

November 29, 2011

Deadly Blaze Throws Spotlight on Saudi Girls Schools

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

29 November 2011

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The scene was chilling to watch: Three young girls, clad in their black abayas, dropping one by one from the third-floor window shrouded in billowing black smoke as their school went up in flames.

The fierce fire that burned Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School in the Al-Safa District on November 19 left three teachers dead and 56 students and school personnel injured. It was reminiscent of the 2002 Makkah Intermediate School No. 31 fire that killed 15 girls after members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice forced the victims back into the burning building to retrieve their abayas, the long black cloak that covers women from head to toe.

Killed in the Jeddah blaze were teachers Souzan Al-Khaledi, Reem Al-Nahari and Ghadeer Katoua. Al-Khaledi was fatally injured after jumping from a third-floor window. Al-Nahari and Katoua died from smoke inhalation. Katoua was also deputy director of the primary school. Civil Defense investigators determined that five students playing with matches started the fire in the school’s basement.

This time the commission didn’t interfere in evacuating the building, but the issue of school safety, first raised after the 2002 Makkah blaze, remains today. It also points up the significant difference between the resources allocated to boys’ and girls’ education even as the kingdom has promised to improve the status of women. Two years ago, King Abdullah opened the first co-educational university and appointed Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez as deputy education minister, the first women to ever hold such a post.

According to teachers employed at Saudi girls schools, little has changed in nine years.

Like the Makkah School, Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School was in an aging rented building not designed to accommodate school students, that crowded some 750 students inside. The two schools lacked safety equipment and adequate emergency exits, and its ground-floor windows were barred, according to Civil Defense officials.

A teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to speak for the Ministry of Education, said there are significant differences in safety features between boys and girls schools.

“Most of the boys schools are specifically designed to be schools,” the 40-year-old teacher told The Media Line. “Boys schools are not rented, and are all equipped with big yards for sports to play football and basketball. They are surrounded by huge open areas.”

She added that classroom doors are usually left open and classes are often held outdoors.

Privacy concerns by the Ministry of Education require a different environment for female students, the teacher says.

“Girls schools are usually rented and redesigned for privacy,” the teacher said. “Though they say there is a rule against it, the windows usually have bars. The girls don’t have allocated spaces for sports, so the yards are very small. It’s like a prison.”

A defining feature of virtually all Saudi public schools for girls is the tightly controlled access to school grounds. Fathers routinely drop off their children at the front gate, but rarely enter school grounds. Mothers have greater access, but still must pass muster from the guard at the gate to enter. Many Saudi girls schools feature high walls surrounding the building with no other entries or exits other than the main gate. Likewise, female colleges and universities have strict rules that prohibit students from leaving campus without authorization.

Hannan Al-Harthy, a former student at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah, told The Media Line that it is policy at virtually all female universities to lock students in their dormitories for the weekend unless they have permission to leave the university. Guards padlock all exits and only male guardians pre-approved by the university can retrieve the student to leave campus for a social visit.

“I never thought about the safety implications then, but in retrospect we were locked in a big box cooking food, lighting candles – basically playing with fire, if you will – without thinking of the consequences,” Al-Harthy said.

An estimated 4.6 million Saudi children attend public primary through secondary schools. About 2.2 million are girls, a jump from 33% of the student population in 1975 to about 48% in 2009. Girls schools accounted for about 48% of the Ministry of Education’s schools budget of 122 billion Saudi Riyals ($32.5 billion). Although the education ministry has spent considerable money on infrastructure improvements, many girls schools still lack the larger modern campuses and more comfortable environment boys enjoy.

However, Arwah Aal Al-Asheikh, owner of Baraim Al-Watan, told the Arabic-language daily newspaper Al-Madinah that her school had up-to-date safety equipment and features, including emergency exits, fire hoses and sensors. She said the building meets the standards of an educational facility.

Yet Civil Defense fire investigators reported the emergency exits were not used to evacuate teachers and students. They said safety training appeared inadequate because the children panicked when they attempted to board a rescue helicopter hovering over the roof the building.

Taif Saeed Al-Qahtani, 12, who jumped from Baraim Al-Watan’s third-floor window, told the Saudi newspaper Al-Arabyia that she remembers nothing after her leap to safety. Her father, Saeed Al-Qahtani, said he learned from his daughter that school officials had no proper crisis-management plan in place to allow school staff to organize an “orderly and safe” evacuation of the building.

Perhaps most evident in skirting safety guidelines were bars placed on all first floor windows.

An investigation is underway to address the school’s safety issues. Prince Khaled Al-Fasial, emir of the Makkah Governorate, appointed a five-member panel consisting of representatives from the Saudi General Investigation Department, the Makkah Governorate, Criminal Investigations, the Saudi Electricity Company and Civil Defense to conduct a probe of the causes of the fire and the events leading to the deaths.

Meanwhile, Abdullah Alami, an economist and women’s rights activist based in the Eastern Province city of Dhahran, and Saudi journalist Jamal Banoon in Jeddah launched the National Safety Campaign to address commercial and educational building safety issues.

“School officials claim their facilities have all safety measures, including emergency exits, in place as specified by the Civil Defense,” Alami said. “Our task is to review defects related to electricity, roads leading to the school buildings, emergency exits, fans, lighting and wirings. We intended to look at distribution panels, iron fences on windows, gates, gas cylinders, air conditions and refrigerators in school.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

October 4, 2011

Tussle over a Textbook

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

27 September 2011

New Saudi high school text prompts controversy with attacks on West and UN

A power struggle usually ends with winners and losers. If a new religious textbook critical of Western culture is any indication of who is winning the role of guardian of young minds in Saudi Arabia, then Islamic conservatives are the clear victors.

In what amounts to a rebuke of a scholarship program under the aegis of none other than King Abdullah himself that sends thousands of young Saudis to foreign universities, a new secondary school textbook called Hadith argues that Western culture exposes students to corruption.

“The conservatives have the upper hand and have made sure that it’s their voice that says what is permitted in Islam,” Ehsan Ahrari, a Middle East analyst based near Washington DC, told The Media Line  “The conservatives have the loudest voice in making a persuasive argument within the Saudi context. Saudi Arabia is truly concerned about modernization in its educational institution, but even the king doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

The publication of the book comes at a sensitive time for Saudi Arabia as it struggles to scrub its textbooks of derogatory language of other religions and cultures. The Ministry of Education has made progress to eliminate some passages, including controversial definitions of jihad.

More than 100,000 Saudis have obtained King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship to pursue studies in universities in professional fields such as medicine, computer science, engineering courses and administration and finance. About 30% study in the U.S., 15% in Britain, 11% in Canada and 8% in Australia. Only about 6% study in a Muslim country, Egypt. Saudi Arabia has the largest number of citizens studying aboard of any country in the world.

The textbook, which warns students of democratic countries’ attempts to Westernize Muslim countries by advancing the United Nations’ human rights agenda, has received little attention in the media, where restrictive laws passed in response to the Arab Spring. The Saudi government can levy fines and jail sentences for criticizing government institutions

As a result, few Saudis are willing to publicly criticize for the record the Ministry of Education. Religious conservatives, Ahrari says, are taking advantage of the chilling effect of those laws to broaden their power.

But the book has lit up the social media with complaints – mostly anonymous – that politics have no place in teaching hadith, sayings attributed the Prophet Muhammad.  The authors are accused of attempting to politicize Islam by slipping criticism of the West into religious texts just as students are preparing to enter foreign universities.

Saudis have also expressed bewilderment that the Ministry of Higher Education, which administers the scholarship program, and the Ministry of Education, which published Hadith, do not have a shared strategic education plan.

However, Hadith has brought renewed scrutiny to how the ministry vets textbooks that contain political opinion. The controversy also renews focus on how much influence Saudi conservatives wield at a time when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Ennahda Party in Tunisia are also flexing their political muscle.

The textbook details the “risks” scholarship students face. “A lot of them [student] have returned laden with the spirit of the West, breathe with its lungs and think with its mentality,” the book states. “They echo their Orientalist teachers in their own land and spread their ideas and theories with deep belief, increasing enthusiasm and eloquence so they become a burden on their society.”

“The percentage of those who survive from this influence is a very little one,” the book’s authors say.

Another section in Hadith, entitled “Westernization,” targets the UN. The section characterizes the international organization as a tool for “dominating” Western powers to apply political pressure on Muslim countries to adopt more aggressive human rights legislation. The West, the textbook argues, uses “the United Nations, the Security Council and its different committees, on weak countries, especially the Islamic ones. This is done for the sake of westernization under slogans such as reform, democracy, pluralism, liberation and human rights, in particular those related to women and religious minorities.”

In fact, some of the views expressed in Hadith are widely held by Saudis.

Maha A., a 33-year-old Jeddah native and university student studying in Newcastle, England, says the UN entry in the book is legitimate. She points to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) as meddling in the Kingdom’s affairs and with sharia, or Islamic law. Saudi Arabia ratified CEDAW in 2000. “I have no problems with the way the United Nations is portrayed in the book,” she told The Media Line.

The schoolbook also warns of Western attempts to subvert Islamic culture by distributing “immorality” through the media. It considers the media tools to advocate western values.

Turki Al-Dakheel, a journalist and presenter on Al-Arabiya television, complained in a column in the Arabic-language daily Al-Watan that the textbook’s “extremist” portions are not consistent with the changes taking place in the international community and in Saudi society.

“The same educational institutes that send students abroad also criticize the scholarship [program],” Al-Dakheel argues. “We should take out the mentality of disagreement from our curriculum in order to protect our students from being politicized or being slaves to one single notion.”

Ahrari, the Washington-based analyst, told The Media Line that the book’s content is less a challenge to King Abdullah and more of “classic bureaucratic” infighting in the Ministry of Education

A Saudi Ministry of Education official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the textbook, agreed. He told The Media Line that there are two factions in the ministry struggling to implement their ideology: Western-educated liberals and Saudi-educated conservatives.

Many of the ministry’s decision-makers hold postgraduate degrees in education from the U.S. and Britain. These supervisors often square off with mid- and upper-level managers educated in Islamic studies from Imam Mohammed Bin Saud University in Riyadh and other Saudi universities.

“There is a great debate between conservatives and liberals. The conservatives are in the minority, but they are very active,” says the official, although he notes the ministry’s policy requires moderation in texts.

The infighting is so intense, he says, that the ministry recently began publishing school textbooks without authors’ names to prevent accusations of extremism. Yet the anonymously authored books have also led to the lack of accountability within the ministry’s ranks for authors failing to adhere to moderation guidelines.

One 22-year-old Riyadh student studying in Britain says there is little merit in warning scholarship holders of the dangers in the West.

“Saudi students are already asked to attend a two-week course on Western culture. The scholarship program selects the highest qualified students to go abroad. If a student is weak in religion and cultural values, he won’t be studious and he won’t be allowed in the program,” Muhammad A. told The Media Line.

But the student also says that human rights issues advocated by the UN are consistent with the pillars of sharia. “Sharia talks of human rights and it’s no different than the United Nations’ human rights. It’s compatible, and there are no negative effects on Saudi Arabia,” he says.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved

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