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Saudi Arabia’s gender hegemony in the new Arab world

February 16, 2012 1 comment

For a nation that measures success in black gold, Saudi Arabia hopes sending one female athlete to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London will pacify gender equality activists. But meeting the International Olympic Committee’s bare minimum requirement for female participation is hardly a bold stance.

Taken in context, this is still Salafist-dominated Saudi Arabia, the hallmark of gender inequality in the Arab world. Putting it in another context, however, spells bad news for the clean Arab Spring slate regarding human rights.

From The Jerusalem Post:

Saudi Arabia, which follows a male-dominated puritan form of Islam that bars women from driving or travelling aboard alone follows strict gender segregation, is the last to buckle under to IOC demands. Since it is seeking athletes who live abroad, Saudi Arabia’s most likely Olympic female athlete is reportedly Dalma Rushdi Malhas, an 18-year-old equestrienne who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics. At that time, Malhas did not officially represent the kingdom.

From Tunisia to Egypt, women hoped bringing down dictators would usher in respect for women’s rights. Unfortunately, the hodgepodge revolutionaries’ power was far too scattered to mount a cohesive political front or voice. Yes, women’s rights, they said. But how? The question remains largely unanswered as political realities threaten to minimize liberal groups’ impact in nascent democracies.

The Kingdom of Saud is the counterbalance to the revolutionary hoopla. An overwhelmingly Sunni nation — much like the rest of the Arab world — asserting social values across the Persian Gulf with recently empowered fundamentalist political parties will likely slow the women’s rights agenda.

The Muslim Brotherhood and conservative groups like Ennahda were poised to jump into the political arena because, though marginalized under former reigns, were still organized political groups. This much is known, is history.

The future will reveal them to be more moderate than fearmongers predicted one year ago. Playing in the political system does these things, and those groups didn’t wait decades on the backburner within their respective nations to throw it all away on unpopular, autocratic initiatives.

But to each Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda there are even more fundamentalist groups. Their strength — and, to the same extent, liberal parties’ weaknesses — will determine whether groups like the Muslim Brotherhood invite them into coalitions. The Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt especially, recognized doing so would blatantly dismiss the work of the revolutionaries whose views are not reflected in ultra-conservative parties.

Viewed through this Olympic snafu, the Arab Spring hardly has had a liberalizing effect on Saudi Arabia. While expected, the ramifications of this resistance should not be understated. Undoubtedly, fundamentalist groups in new Arab democracies will follow Saudi Arabia’s lead, which is as hegemonic a force for fundamental political Islam as anywhere in the world.

If strong liberal parties in other Arab nations fail to emerge, Saudi Arabian influence may continue to grow as Egypt’s prominence declines. That will make it ever harder for women’s rights to gain traction.

 

 

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Saudi women earn inheritance rights

The Saudi Justice Ministry says people who deprive women of inheritance may face imprisonment, an important shift that conflicts with the religiously rigid, patriarchal majority Salafi society.

According to ArabNews.com, denying women inheritance was more common among tribes. But in the Wahhabi-influence nation, the more fundamentalist customary rather than textual implementation of Islam prevails. Therefore, there is reason to believe this dynamic is more widespread than what ArabNews is letting on, even if it occurs discreetly.

The measure in part addresses a 2008 United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women report, which suggested codifying into law equal gender rights for inheritance and a host of other issues.

From the report:

concept of male guardianship over women (mehrem), although it may not be legally prescribed, seems to be widely accepted; it severely limits women’s exercise of their rights under the Convention, in particular with regard to their legal capacity and in relation to issues of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, property ownership and decision-making in the family, and the choice of residency, education and employment.

In the section of the Qur’an that discusses mahram, there is no mention of male supremacy over women. This is the crux of the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam — much of it is founded on customs that existed during the time of Mohammed. For comparison, and as I have said before, the United States would be considered a backwards place if this majority Christian nation based civil society on the customs at the time Jesus walked the earth.

In fact, the Qur’an precedes a section on mahram for women with equally moralistic instruction for men in their dealings with the opposite sex.

Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. (24:30)

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss. (24:31)

Clearly, the verse regarding women is more restrictive — such was society at the time. But nowhere does it mention that men have supremacy over women. So where does this interpretation come from? Fundamentalism, whether it’s Christian or Islamic, is rooted not in text but in an idea that the people interpreting that text today know what the prophets wanted better than anyone else does. And because of their immovable devotion to the faith, they are willing to be loud and use whatever force or tactics necessary to impress their views.

There is a sense of male supremacy in the Qur’an, that is for sure. But that’s only because it was written during a time when women were largely considered temptresses and second-class citizens. Those times need to change — 1,400 years is too long.

Oil-rich nations spend more at home, but it’s not sustainable

July 19, 2011 1 comment

Oil-rich Arab nations spent more at home this year as autocrats dished out one-time benefits to quell civil unrest. While it’s a good sign that such rulers responded to protesters, it falls short of a real policy change in how oil-rich states disburse revenue.

The fact protesters pushed autocrats to realize they needed to spend more domestically shows the effect the threat of losing power has on those rulers. So what then would create long lasting reforms in government spending on domestic programs and businesses? Democracy. Human rights. Better institutions. Anything that allows citizens to hold officials accountable, and one way of doing that is through an enforced electoral process.

In essence, this spending merely aimed to pacify those with only a lukewarm revolutionary fever and increase support among regime backers. These are not long term, sustainable spending programs.

From ArabianBusiness.com:

Following popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa, countries like Bahrain, Libya and Kuwait increased domestic spending or handed cash outright to their citizens in packages totalling as much as four percent of gross domestic product. Saudi Arabia alone is spending $130bn, or a staggering 30 percent of its GDP.

These countries can more than afford to do so, if Goldman Sachs’ estimate for petrodollar savings flows are anything to go by: the bank forecasts imply $840bn over the coming year, based on Brent oil at $126.50 a barrel by mid-2012.

Saudi Arabia, for example, doled $130 billion to its citizens this spring. But much of this came in the form of housing credits and other cosmetic fixes to superficially enhance quality of life without actually changing anything.

Institutions are rarely built from the top-down in such societies. Protesters coaxed benefits from tight-fisted rulers through their voices and actions. Imagine what would happen if they could do that every two or four years at the polls.

 

Social media and Saudi women driving

Rushdi Siddiqui wrote an excellent opinion this week about Saudi women drivers, the contradictions of the Qur’an that Saudis have used to legitimate unequal gender rights and social media.

Siddiqui argues that social media has given women a voice. That alone is a marked change in Saudi Arabia, he contends. So if that can change, why not the laws governing who gets to drive?

It’s plausible that social media alone allowed Saudi women to put themselves in the literal and proverbial driver’s seat in their fight for driving rights. Social media has given them a way to organize and protest like they never could before, as Twitter and Facebook exist in the physical world only if someone is looking for it. What I mean by that is passersby can see picketers on the street, but you have to really be looking for something on Twitter or Facebook. That has allowed Saudi women to operate in the shadows, more or less.

I encourage you to read the entire thing. From altmuslim.com:

The womens’ driving movement in Saudi Arabia has been articulated as violating the defined traditional roles of women, a slippery slope in the adoption of western cultural values that will result in increased road accidents, public mixing of the sexes with adverse consequences, and so on. There have even been comments by local religious conservative scholars or imams that a woman driving is a violation of Shariah rules.

The stated argument of sexual context could be applicable to anything, from instant messaging to mobile phones. One wonders what is on the mind of person making such statements. In the eyes of some people, global connectivity, via social media, is the beginning of the end of segregation of the sexes. In their eyes, the ability to legislate, regulate and enforce morality has been forever undermined to the detriment of society by social media.
…..

Women have been driving in many Muslim countries, from Turkey to Pakistan to Egypt to Malaysia, and, interestingly, women have been driving in the rural areas in Saudi Arabia without incident. Is the real issue, if women are officially allowed to drive in the Kingdom, a slippery slope of women gaining more rights and, conversely, men losing their dominance over women?

Is that a bad thing? Will it encourage qualified women to join the work force and contribute to the economy? Won’t allowing women with licenses to drive actually encourage more white collar executives to bring their entire families to the country?

Saudi private school teachers forced to take low wages or quit

While teachers in the United States are poorly paid, I don’t think they would settle for $533-$800 per month. But that’s what Saudi Arabian private school teachers are being forced to take, unless they’d rather quit.

Of course, the Saudi Arabia gross domestic product per capita was $14,799 in 2009 — about one-third of the U.S. And much of that GDP is locked into the royal family’s bank accounts. Saudi Arabia should put that money back into the economy in some way — funding education would be a good start — to ensure it doesn’t hang onto an unsustainable industry for its indefinite economic future.

From ArabNews.com:

Maha Al-Qadi, an elementary school teacher, said that she sees no justification for the school management to compel her to sign a new contract with a monthly salary of SR3,000 or resign.

“The order issued by the king should be fully enforced. It needs no further clarifications from the ministry or any other educational bodies,” she said.

Al-Qadi refused to sign the new contract and instead resigned.

“I tendered my resignation papers even though I am in dire need of money to support my family. But I have no regrets leaving the job,” she said while criticizing private school operators for their greed and exploitation.

This underfunding of education professionals will be a drain on one of the richest countries in the world. Saudi Arabia needs talented brainpower for the coming decades as oil reserves begins to deplete. It won’t necessarily be their own oil reserves running out, but if supply runs out around the world it will increase the cost of Saudi oil. That, in turn, could make importing oil too expensive and force more countries to turn to other fuel sources rather than being dependent on a foreign nation. And then Saudi Arabia will be left with an ancient industry and no backup plan.

This scenario is still decades away, but it is very real. Saudi Arabia should be using its oil revenues to support education, pay teachers and diversify the economy. Instead, the House of Saud keeps the revenues for itself.

Saudi women drivers still a hot issue

June 11, 2011 2 comments

Crossroads Arabia highlighted an opinion piece that originally appeared in Arab News about the Saudi government’s refusal to hear arguments allowing women to drive. And despite the Shoura Council’s call for women’s suffrage in local elections, it allegedly repeatedly denies requests for women to take the wheel.

Again, this is a classic example of a minority religious belief exerting disproportionate power over a country’s political machinery. It has happened in Saudi Arabia and it has happened in the United States — this is not uncommon around the world. In fact, Israel institutionalized disproportionate religious influence at the government level in order to get ultra-orthodox Jews on board with the Zionist movement and formation of Israel. Under that agreement, the state agreed to keep all state-run facilities kosher and permitted the rabbinate to set the standards for marriage and citizenship. Those institutions continue today despite immense resentment from Israel’s mostly secular population.

But as I noted last week, many people have interpreted the Qur’an through custom rather than text. In this customary interpretation, women are subordinated to men in society. Apparently the Shoura Council believes voting is a right but that driving is a privilege and can therefore be denied to certain groups of people that may be considered impure in some way.

It must be stressed, however, that this is a minority view. Islamic academics who study the Qur’an have continuously noted that interpretations denying rights to women are not stated in text:

Muhammad Abdullatif Al-Sheikh, a Saudi scholar, said that the ball was now in the court of the political leadership since the issue was political rather than religious.  “Islamic teachings, which did not prevent women from mounting camels and horses, would not forbid them from driving cars,” he wrote.

It’s another classic example of a loud, zealous religious minority with a strong hold on a nation’s political and social fabric. It’s important for Americans to understand this is indeed a minority. If the tides of revolution are truly mounting, then those minority groups could be swept in the undertow.

Saudi Arabia plans nuclear energy expansion, has oil implications

June 3, 2011 1 comment

Saudi Arabia, which has defined the term “rentier state,” has decided to expand its nuclear energy production so it can devote more of its crude oil to exports.

A Saudi official said the kingdom plans to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2030. The $100 billion project will help meet the country’s energy demands, which are rising between 7 and 8 percent annually.

With oil hitting $100 per barrel, Saudi Arabia is considering increasing its output to lower oil prices. That should raise consumer demand and potentially generate even greater revenues for the world’s largest oil producing state. The country will attempt to reduce its own energy consumption to accommodate the increase in exports. It seems it will try to make up for that loss through nuclear energy.

It’s safe to say Saudi Arabia isn’t at risk of Japan-like tsunamis and earthquakes — the Saudi kingdom can thank Yemen and Oman for being the geographical buffer between it and the Indian Ocean — so this move makes sense for Saudi Arabia.

But the question is what happens with increased oil revenues from devoting more of the nation’s main economic driver. Currently, the kingdom keeps most of those revenues already. It recently offered citizens $35 billion of economic relief in hopes of preventing revolutions that occurred in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere. But the only reason it was able to offer that abrupt aid was because it has such a vast pool of money tied up among political elite that does not get regularly redistributed throughout the rest of Saudi society.

Saudi Arabia knows the time is ripe for expanding oil output, especially if it will help lead to energy diversification — relying on oil is not sustainable and the Saudi economy is doomed if it expects that to be the cornerstone for decades to come. China is demanding more of it and nations that once allowed privatization by foreign companies have consolidated “black gold” into public control, therefore putting a damper on the international oil supply and driving up demand. But if Saudi Arabia is ever going to improve the lives of its citizens and become a truly modern nation, it needs to pump oil out of the Royal Palace and into Main Street.

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