Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

March 22, 2012

Saudi Women on Their Way to the Olympics

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Gulf Times

22 March 2012

Kingdom to field female athletes, assuaging critics aboard, spurring controversy at home

Crown Prince Nayef’s surprise announcement that Saudi Arabia expects to field at least one woman athlete in the Summer Olympics in London has sparked optimism among some women that the door to female participation in sports has opened a bit wider. Yet some Saudis caution that women should not sacrifice religious faith to appease Western critics of Saudi culture.

Saudi Arabia has come under withering criticism in the past year for its failure to provide physical education opportunities for girls at public schools and for preventing professional women’s sports teams from organizing. Human Rights Watch has been especially critical of the Saudi government, issuing a 51-page report in February documenting systematic discrimination against women in athletics.

Last year, Anita DeFranz, chief of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Women and Sports Commission, threatened to ban Saudi Arabia from the games if it didn’t send women athletes.

However, Crown Prince Nayef, regarded as a hardliner who maintains that Saudi Arabia adheres to the ultra-conservative Salafist ideology of Islam, followed King Abdullah’s game plan to broaden women’s rights. Women in recent months were given the right to vote, run for public office and to work in lingerie shops.

But women still do not have the right to drive an automobile in urban centers or travel abroad without a male guardian.

By participating in this summer’s London Olympics, Saudi women move a significant step closer to gaining rights that by competing on the international stage in football, basketball and other fields. The IOC will make a final decision on Saudi Arabia’s proposal in May.

Tara Umm Omar, a popular Riyadh-based blogger who advises women on Islamic and marriage issues, contends that the earliest Muslim women routinely engaged in sporting events.

“Islam encourages modesty for women, and to my knowledge there is nothing in the Qur’an and Sunnah [the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad] that discourages sports or exercise,” Omar told The Media Line. “The prophet raced Aisha, his wife, twice in their lives. Women rode horses in jihad excursions. Doesn’t that count for exercise? In fact, they are doing so in full view of men, albeit while covered.”

Fouzia Muhammad, 51, a teacher in Madinah, told The Media Line, that she now sees possibilities for her youngest daughter to compete in organized sports.

“I never had the opportunity to play sport when I was a teenager, and neither did my oldest girls,” Muhammad said. “But my youngest is 12. Hopefully by the time she is in secondary school, the government will see the benefit of having girls play sport.”

A likely candidate for the summer games is 18-year-old Dalma Rushdi Malhas, a Saudi equestrian who captured the bronze medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics.

Malhas’ medal win followed years of training. There are few, if any, Saudi women capable of competing at the Olympic level in any sport. However, the IOC often provides waivers to allow developing nations to send athletes under special conditions.

Although Saudi sports broadcaster and amateur footballer Reema Abdullah announced this week that she was named as one of 8,000 people to carry the Olympic torch in pre-games events, not all Saudis are convinced female participation is a good idea.

Saudi women who have made inroads in generally regarded masculine professions have not fared well. Saudi race car driver Marwa Al-Eifa and film director Haifaa Al-Mansour have garnered little support or attention from the Saudi media for their groundbreaking efforts to help Saudi women gain a foothold in sports or the arts. Both woman work in Dubai, where they can freely pursue their professions.

“There’s nothing special about these kinds of women, who show off to gain fame,” said Maryam Abdulkader, 41, a marketing professional based in Jeddah. “Why should Dalma Malhas be a role model for girls when every curve of her body is exposed for the world to see? My husband could never show his face to his family again if our daughters chose this path.”

Abdulkader echoes a wide-held belief among conservative Saudis that public displays of athleticism by women is shameful. Female role models should be limited to religious figures, such as the prophet’s wives, Aisha bint Abi Bakr and Khadija bint Khuwaylid, she said.

“Saudi Arabia is being pressured by the West to conform to their idea of morality,” Abdulkader said. “They have taken the hijab and made it a weapon against us. There can’t even be a discussion of Islamic modesty without Westerners turning it into some kind of extremist thought perpetuated by crazy Saudis. They [the IOC] will slowly chip away at a woman’s modesty to conform to their idea of what a athlete should wear and soon women will be stripped of all dignity.”

Umm Omar sees it differently, noting that Islam allows wiggle room. “As long as Muslim women are not compromising their religion and observing hijab, why not take advantage of concessions in Islam where it does not explicitly prohibit them from participating in sports like the London Olympics?” she said.

Umm Omar pointed to many sporting events that allow women to remain modest yet competitive.

“There are some sports where Muslim women can observe hijab and not be encumbered by their sports outfits, provided it is designed in a specific way to not impede their movements yet maintain modesty, like in the martial arts, fencing, skiing, equestrian, archery and shooting,” she said.

Prince Nayef said as much when he told the London-based Arab newspaper Al-Hayat that Saudi women can participate in the Olympics as long as the events “meet the standards of women’s decency and don’t contradict Islamic laws.”

Christoph Wilcke, Human Right Watch’s senior researcher in Germany, remains unconvinced. “While tokenistic participation is welcome, it wouldn’t change our position that the IOC should affect more systemic change,” he told The New York Times this week.

Umm Omar said that getting Saudi women into the Olympics is only the first step.

“It really depends on the woman’s understanding of what constitutes hijab and covering the ‘awrah [intimate parts of the body],” Umm Omar said. “This varies from different sects down to the individual. If she believes that wearing pants is haram [forbidden] unless covered by a garment that doesn’t show the shape of her legs, how will she compete in this way? Can she compete this way? Would the IOC allow her to complete this way?”

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.


January 16, 2012

Saudi Women Target Guardianship Laws to Ease Employment Restrictions

By Rob L. Wagner

Eurasia Review

16 January 2012

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – When Shroog Talal Radain sought employment as a teacher’s assistant at King Abdulaziz University, her husband signed the necessary guardianship forms granting her permission to take the job.

It’s the law of the land. A woman must carry around a permission slip from a man to function in Saudi society.

“To me getting permission wasn’t a big deal because it felt like a piece of paper and that’s all,” Radain said in a recent interview. “But unfortunately to others it’s a big deal, especially to those who do not have a close guardianship like a father, brother, husband or son.”

As violent protests roil through the Middle East with ruling monarchies facing uncompromising demands from its citizens for a greater voice, women’s rights is emerging as Saudi Arabia’s own Arab Spring, albeit in a less demonstrative manner. Emboldened by the role women played in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, Saudi women are beginning to challenge the core of the kingdom’s interpretation of guardianship in Islam. A male family member supervising all aspects of a woman’s life is a belief among Saudis who view guardianship as a sacred duty.

It is also perhaps the most abused tenet of Islam. The Qur’an is clear on the issue of employment of women: Islam permits women to work with some conditions. Women can work as long as the job does not interfere with being a wife and mother. The job should also not force women to mix with men. Women should also have special skills, such as in teaching or medicine. Islamic scholars generally agree that women seeking employment do not need a guardian’s permission. Nor does a government have the authority to demand that a woman receive such permission.

Last fall, a group of Saudi women launched a campaign to abolish the Ministry of Labor’s rule that women must have guardian approval to seek employment. Alia Banaja, a spokeswoman for the group, told the Saudi media recently that the Saudi constitution affirms women’s equality by stating in gender-neutral language that, “Equality, justice and consent are the basis for ruling.”

“For women to have the chance to work in the profession of her choice, obstacles must be eliminated out of her way,” Banaja told the English language newspaper Arab News.

By challenging the Ministry of Labor’s guardianship rules, the group is doing what was unthinkable just a few years ago.

“It has nothing to do with Islamic concepts simply because our society is tied up where they throw every issue on Islam,” Radain said. “Guardianship in Islam [refers to] a person who protects the woman, and seeks shelter, love and protection for her. It’s not a person who is in control of her and her life actions.”

Writer Tara Umm Omar, who blogs about Islamic and women’s issues in Saudi Arabia, told me that blanket guardianship rules are not practical given the varying dynamics of Saudi families. Guardians are often too busy to help with paperwork or they use the right as a weapon. “Some of these male family members abuse the guardianship law out of spite and use it to their advantage, inconveniencing their female relatives as a result,” she said.

According to a survey conducted by the global consulting company Booz & Co., nearly half of the Saudi population is female and 56.5 percent of the kingdom’s women hold university degrees. However, just 14 percent of the women are in the workforce, In contrast, women account for 25 percent of the population in Qatar with 89 percent holding university degrees. Qatari women make up 30 percent of the country’s workforce.

The study notes the Gulf region’s “mix of local norms and traditions, social beliefs and principles emanating from the GCC’s patriarchal system still, to some extent, exert an influence on young women’s lives.” The study also found that only 22 percent of Gulf women believe they must devote their lives as wives and mothers before taking on a job. It marks a dramatic shift of Arab women’s attitudes from how their parents view their roles in society.

Yet Saudi women walk a tightrope between demanding their rights within the context of Islam while at the same time being perceived as challenging those very precepts as defined by the government.

US-based Muslim women’s rights activist Raquel Evita Saraswati, a frequent lecturer on religious and human rights issues, said that petitioning religious authorities might be seen as aggressive by Saudi authorities.

“But it really isn’t all that aggressive or extreme in the context of Islam itself as a religion with a rich history of debate and dissent among the faithful,” Saraswati said in an interview. “However, Saudi Arabia has implemented a specific interpretation of Islam as state law, effectively banning any other interpretation of the Sharia (Islamic law).”

Mark Sedgwick, coordinator of the Arab and Islamic Studies Unit at Aarhus University in Denmark and a historian of modern Islam, said it makes sense that Saudi women want rights grounded in Islam. It does not make sense, he said, when it is incorrectly implemented.

“So many of the practical problems for women in Saudi Arabia derive from the way in which the concept of guardianship is interpreted there — ways in which it is not interpreted almost anywhere else in the Muslim world — that it makes a lot of sense to start with those interpretations,” Sedgwick said.

Saraswati said the guardian rules are simply a mechanism to control women.

“I do not argue that the Qur’an grants the sexes complete equality,” Saraswati said. “However, I find Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women in the workplace to be a conscious, calculated interpretation on the part of religious authorities, rather than absolute mandates set down by the religion.”

Saraswati said the Labor Ministry’s guardianship rules are so egregious that it renders Saudi women to the status of a child. “Islamists have burned embassies and murdered film directors over insults to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, while Muslim women live under rules more insulting to Prophet Muhammad than any cartoon could ever be,” she noted.

If push comes to shove, few Saudis will argue the religious validity of the kingdom’s guardianship rules. Umm Omar, however, said Saudi woman must shoulder some of the responsibility for their predicament.

“There has to be a line drawn as to how much a government and employers can interfere in peoples’ lives,” she said. “That goes for those Saudi women who think they know that what is best for them is also best for others. Sometimes I think that these types of women are their own enemies.”

Still, working women and young university students seeking employment are aware that abolishing the Labor Ministry’s requirements will only poke a stick in a hornet’s nest.

“If the Ministry of Labor had to loosen up the guardianship issue, then other ministries will have to loosen up as well, which will start a whole new dilemma,” said university teaching assistant Radain. “But for them to abolish it completely, believe me it will never happen.”

October 17, 2011

Belief in Witchcraft Runs Deep Despite Bans

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

17 October 2011

When Tara Umm Omar was a young bride in her first marriage, she and her Moroccan husband took into their home the youngest sister of a family friend. On the day the young Moroccan woman arrived, she gave Umm Omar a doll, which Umm Omar promptly placed in a dresser drawer.

When Umm Omar told a friend of the doll, the friend suspected it was an item for black magic and suggested the doll be destroyed. Instead, Umm Omar tossed it in the garbage. That’s when household items disappeared, the family dog barked incessantly, Umm Omar started fighting with her husband and she began seeing strange insects in the house. When the guest finally moved out, the couple found their bed sheets and an identical doll to Umm Omar’s among the woman’s discarded belongings.

The message to Umm Omar was clear: The woman she invited into her home sought to destroy her happiness through black magic.

Umm Omar is since remarried to a Saudi and now lives in Riyadh. She runs the popular blog, Future Husbands and Wives of Saudis, a help website for non-Saudis marrying Saudis. As a quasi-marriage counselor for brides and grooms nervously entering Saudi society, Umm Omar dispenses religious and practical advice to help ease the cultural shock. That includes providing insight to the real world concerns of black magic and evil eye.

“The truth is that all magic is haram (prohibited) and only leads to bad ends,” Umm Omar told The Media Line.

Belief in black magic runs deep in Saudi society. The issue was raised last month when the quasi-legislative body Shoura Council granted permission for Moroccan women to work as maids in Saudi households. Hundreds of Saudi women complained to the Council that granting Moroccan maids permission to work was tantamount to allowing the use of black magic in their homes to steal their husbands. Saudi wives complained the issue was not lacking trust in their husbands, but their men were powerless to ward off spells.

While greeted with skepticism in western societies, Saudis would no more question the existence of black magic than they would Islam. Two surahs (chapters) in the Qur’an under Al Mi’wadhatyan address black magic and are often recited during or after prayer. Simply, part of being a Muslim is believing in the existence of magic.

In April of this year, members of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice underwent special training in the Eastern Province to investigate black magic crimes.

Although also found in Christianity and Judaism, casting spells is particularly common in Oman, Sudan, Yemen, Morocco and Indonesia. Turkey is a secular Muslim country, but protection against evil eye is deeply rooted in virtually all aspects of daily life. Tools of witchcraft include using lizards, dead birds, photographs, hair, thread, dirt, blood and red ink. Hiding places to place the “spell” may be in bedrooms and under beds. Written spells generally contain the intended victim’s name and one or two words to state the intention to do harm.

In 2007, the religious police in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, removed 23 black magic tokens, including knives and written spells on paper, from two graves in a cemetery. Black magic artists placed the tokens at the heads and feet of the corpses.

The Saudi press reported recently that evil eye was suspected in causing the death of Mastoora Al-Ahmadi, the Saudi poet who garnered international attention for her performance on “The Million’s Poet” on Abu Dhabi TV. She was the first woman to reach the semifinals in the Arabic poetry contest. Al-Ahmadi died unexpectedly on Oct. 2 in Madinah after falling into a coma.

Howaizan Muhammad, 26, of Madinah told The Media Line that she had difficulty finding a job and failed in many interviews. And she hated the jobs she did find. She broke up with her fiancé and couldn’t find a husband. “My sister told me to read the surah Al-Baqarah to protect me against any spells,” she says. “After 14 days, my father found a spell written on paper and in blood with my name on it on the roof under our water tank.”

Muhammad says she had Indonesian maids at the time, but notes that anybody could have left the spell.

Sheikh Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, an Islamic scholar based in Qatar and the author of The Exorcist Tradition in Islam, told The Media Line that Muslims must not fight witchcraft with their own magic but refer to the Qur’an. “There are a number of Qur’anic texts that the Prophet said should be read with reflection as a means of removing or reducing the effects of black magic,” he says. “Eating adjuwah dates from Madinah is also a means of protection.”

He notes there is a tendency to fight magic with magic, but it’s prohibited. “People should avoid charms, amulets and other things that people have proffered, which has become something of a business in the Muslim world.”

Philips acknowledges that Moroccans have an “international reputation” among Muslims for practicing witchcraft, but cautions against overemphasizing Moroccans as master artists of voodoo. “Historically they (Moroccans) are most noted for it. But they are not much different than most in the Muslim world. Chechnya and Bosnia probably engage in it more.”

Although Saudis may claim that witchcraft is at the heart of their distrust of foreign maids, Umm Omar suggests that old-fashioned power struggles and jealously play vital roles in conflicts.

“There is a factor that Saudis are more well-to-do than Moroccans and magic can be used to remove those blessings (of wealth) if (maids) dislike them,” Umm Omar says. “Saudi women are used to feeling superior over maids, and in some cases look down on them. Moroccan women do not like to be pushed around and will defend themselves. My experience with Moroccan and Saudi women is they both like to be in charge of the household and are naturally bossy.”

Umm Omar adds that if a maid feels threatened, she could resort to black magic. “Of course that is not to say that a Saudi woman won’t seek out magic to harm a Moroccan maid.”

Left unsaid in this battle of wills between Saudi and Moroccan women is the consequences of practicing black magic in Saudi Arabia. Practicing witchcraft is an offense punishable by death.

Saudi religious police arrested popular Lebanese television personality and fortuneteller Ali Sabat in May 2008 on charges of witchcraft while he was on a pilgrimage. A Saudi court sentenced him to death. But an appellate court threw out the sentence in 2010, citing lack of evidence that Sabat harmed anybody. According to Amnesty International, the last documented execution for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia was in 2007. A Saudi court sentenced Egyptian pharmacist Mustafa Ibrahim to death for casting spells in order to separate a married couple.

“Fortune telling is not just sleight of hand tricks, but involves the spirit,” says Philips. “As evil, it’s the same thing as black magic. Sharia (Islamic law) proscribes the same punishment for both.”

Umm Omar points to ignorance and the absence of a strong foundation in the teachings of Islam that lead some Muslims to practice magic and evil eye.

Although Philips says that ignorance is no excuse for breaking laws, forgiveness should be considered. “God does forgive ignorance,” he says. “We should be more tolerant in some cases because some people are not doing (harmful) things deliberately.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

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