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Fighting for Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia By: A. Dankowitz
MEMRI | Monday, January 01, 2007


Saudi-born writer and journalist Wajeha Al-Huwaider is one of the Arab world's most prominent campaigners for human rights, particularly women's rights. She holds an MA in Reading Management from GeorgeWashingtonUniversity. [1] In August 2003, the Saudi Interior Ministry banned her from writing in the Saudi press; since then, she has published her articles on the reformist Arabic websites, and has gained international recognition. In November 2004, Al-Huwaider was awarded the 2004 PEN/NOVIB Free Expression Award at The Haguefor her work for freedom of expression and advancement of women's rights. [2]

On August 4, 2006, on the occasion of the first anniversary of Saudi King Abdallah bin Abd Al-Aziz's accession to the throne, Al-Huwaider staged a public protest: She stood in the street with a sign saying "Give Women Their Rights." That same day, she was arrested briefly, and police made it clear to her that they did not agree with her self-expression. On September 20, she was summoned for additional questioning, and detained for six hours.

During questioning, the police demanded that she answer, in writing, a number of questions about articles she had published and about her human rights activism. In exchange for her release, they demanded that she sign a pledge that she would cease and desist from all her human rights activism - including writing articles, organizing protests, and maintaining contacts with foreign newspapers and organizations. Security personnel told her that if she violated this pledge, she would lose her job with Aramco. She was also not permitted to return to her home in Bahrain, and was forced to remain in Saudi Arabia. This ban was lifted on September 28.

Al-Huwaider's public protest marked the beginning of a new phase in her struggle for human and women's rights. She planned a women's public protest for September 23, 2006, the day of a Saudi national holiday, but the women who were supposed to participate changed their minds, fearing repercussions from their families or the government. [3]

Despite the obstacles placed in her way by the Saudi government, Al-Huwaider continues to promote her ideas, mainly through her writings on the reformist Arabic websites. Her articles analyze the Arab social situation, criticize the status of human rights, and vehemently protest against the attitude towards women. The main problem, in her view, is that the law in Arab countries does nothing to protect women from violence and discrimination.

The following are excerpts from the writings of Wajeha Al-Huwaider:

The Vital Pathfinding Arab Elite is Persecuted and Cannot Advance Arab Society

In an article critical of Arab rulers who persecute and repress the elites in their countries, Al-Huwaider wrote: "Any natural distribution of kinds of creatures on the earth includes five percent of those called pathfinders, pioneers, or elites. They have a penetrating glance, and the capability to push societies forward. This special trait is not limited to human societies... it is also found among animals, birds, and even tiny insects... The existence of this five percent is inescapable; it plays a real part among the members [of the group to which it belongs] in the continuation of the life of every species, and in dealing with the challenges that these groups face from time to time...

"Today's developed countries have succeeded by virtue of utilizing the pathfinders and elites among their intellectuals, scientists, researchers, commentators, authors, and educated, to handle problems and unanticipated events in their countries and to present real and effective solutions for them... For example, Japan did not need long decades to become one of the eight economic superpowers - even though 50 years ago it was covered with the wounds of World War II. This is because its government invested all its resources in [its] people, by instructing and directing the elites. Today, we see countries like South Korea, Malaysia, India, and China following the same path. Their governments make room for the elites, so that they can drive the train of progress for the good of their peoples...

"The questions concerning those dealing with the affairs of the Arab countries are: Where are the pathfinders of the Arab peoples, and where are their elites? Why have the Arab peoples become herds and rabble? Where is someone to direct them and drive the train of revival forward? What happened to the five percent? Why doesn't it play a role in Arab countries? Why aren't they holding the steering wheel of development, so as to pull the nation out of the darkness?

"There are several interconnected factors that answer these questions, and the most important of them is that many of the Arab pioneers, men and women alike, are persecuted in their countries, have emigrated from them, or are hidden away in the darkness of prisons. Likewise, [the activity of] some of the elites residing in their countries has been completely frozen.

"Accordingly, our problems [that have continued] for a very long time remain unsolved, and are still brought up wearily in Arab committees and national dialogues. These matters and difficulties are still the talk of the day - even though solutions were found decades ago, and one would think that they could have been settled long ago - like implementing human rights; struggling against discrimination against women; espousing children's rights; fighting unemployment, illiteracy, and administrative and financial corruption; developing education... separating religious authorities from political authorities; and other matters that seem like an unachievable dream to every Arab citizen...

"The first reason for the backwardness, ignorance, and atrophy in the Arab countries is that the important minds among the bright elites and the wise pathfinders are still struggling on all levels and in all classes. What Arab rulers must understand before they miss the opportunity, and before a flood of enraged peoples reaches them, is that they are digging their graves with their own hands. The day will come when these graves will swallow them and their thrones, without mercy, if they persist in repressing and eliminating the pathfinders and national elites.

"The deeds of Nelson Mandela... who spent 28 years of his life in the prison of the oppressive South African regime, are the greatest proof that the time for oppression and tyranny... even if their violence increases and their evil expands - is brief in the history of the nations and the peoples..." [4]

Better to Be an Old Maid than to Marry an Arab Man

In a discussion of a very disturbing social phenomenon in the Arab world - the large number of women past marriageable age whose chances of finding a suitable man to marry are slim - Al-Huwaider explained various psychological complexes that, in her view, afflict men in the Arab countries. She concluded that it was "a thousand times" better to be an "old maid" than to marry one of them:

"Many Arab women wear, in shame, the garb of the old maid, and stand humiliated... at stations through which the train of marriage does not run. Many of them allow sorrow to gnaw away at their freshness and vitality. But few of them realize that men in the East have nothing to offer them to realize their dreams...

"Ladies, don't wait for the trains. It doesn't matter not where the man comes from, or from which car [of the train] - because he's hopeless, from head to toe, as long as Arab blood runs in his veins...

"Let us look together at the Arab men, beginning with their original land - the Arabian Peninsula. One of the most prominent traits of the men in this region is that they have an inferiority complex... and therefore, the embarrassing malady of impotence is widespread among them. [Saudi men] are the ones who spend the most in the world on aphrodisiacs, so as to achieve a sense of the potency that is in crisis...

"With regard to the sons of the Gulf countries, and particularly the men from the oil countries: They were raised to think that they are the best, and that there is nothing in front of them or behind them. What they aspire to more than anything else, after sitting in a chair labeled 'manager,' is [the finer points of dress]... They are narcissistic, and suffer from a malignant and chronic tumor - that is, [they think that] maintaining guardianship [of women] is manly...

"Let us proceed a little further. We come to the lands of Al-Sham - from the land of Syria, which is oppressed to the marrow, through Jordan, where rotten tribalism prevails, to Lebanon... all countries with peoples who are eroded economically. The pennies are grabbed by the wealthy... but poverty is not the flaw, ladies. The flaw is their lack of awareness of their grave ignorance, due to their despicable treatment of the other, and due to the connection that they draw between the nation's honor and the blood of its women [as manifested by "honor killings"]...

"Let us move now to 'the mother of the world' [Egypt]... Status gnaws at the hearts of its men, and they sum each other up by material things; all they are interested in are titles such as 'Bey,' 'Pasha,' and 'Your Honor.'

"And now to the North African countries... to the land of the brother commander [Al-Qaddhafi]. The men there have no tongues. They swallowed their tongues decades ago... and are chewing on the nonsense of the Green Book [by Al-Qaddhafi]...

"Let us look also at the country where the culture of death prevails [Algeria]. [This is] a country of massacres that continued for 10 years, where men enjoy shedding the blood of innocents... Cold weapons are the means sacred to them and to their winding path, which they believe will lead them to Paradise and set them among the black-eyed virgins and men who remain young forever [as mentioned in Koran 56:17, 76:19, and who, according to tradition, serve those who dwell in Paradise]...

"What else is there to talk about, ladies?... Nothing can make you feel shame in spinsterhood, or to regret the years you spend alone... No!... It is a thousand times better to be an old maid than to marry a man in this miserable East..." [5]

Discrimination Against Arab Women Begins in the Womb

In another article, Al-Huwaider discussed the unending cycle of discrimination to which women are subjected during the various stages of their lives: "Among the Arabs, the cycle of discrimination against the woman usually begins at home. From a young age, the son receives the lion's share (the share of two women), in love, in outlay, in status, and even in education. Many families send their sons to private schools while their daughters attend state schools, so that the son will get a better education. The boy grows up to be an engineer, doctor, officer, or whatever he wants - while the daughter grows up to be a wife, mother, and then a grandmother. The young man has opportunities, while the young girl has obligations...

"The second stop in the cycle of discrimination against the woman is at school. In the vast majority of Arab schools, boys and girls are separated. Usually, the Arab schools, and particularly the state schools, have the job, for both sexes, of redesigning the learners, and of working to change [their thinking] so that they become submissive citizens. But the portions of submission and thought-prevention for girls are double and triple [those for boys]...

"The last stop in the cycle of discrimination is at work. Obviously, the woman who works in the Arab world is nothing but a 'maidservant' who toils outside her home and cooks and raises the children within it - except for the Gulf women, who have household help. But the discrimination that controls them, particularly the Saudi women, in all areas of life is more severe and more cruel. Most labor laws do not treat the Arab woman fairly... in addition to the racist treatment she suffers in the clerical sector...

"In Arab countries, and particularly in the Gulf countries, the cycle of discrimination against the woman begins when she is a fetus in her mother's womb; [it continues] when she emerges into the air of the world, and goes on until her death. According to men's interpretation, the woman is always 'lewdness' and sometimes 'impure'... The woman is [flawed in mind and in religion] - yet it was the Muslim mothers [i.e. the wives of the Prophet Muhammad] who taught the people a great deal about the commandments of the religion and its foundations. The woman is 'weak and her emotions rule her' - yet at the same time she has the responsibility for educating the younger generation, the basis of the pride of the homeland... The woman is 'temptation' - yet she was created for the man to trust, and to bring him serenity. The woman's 'tricks are greater than the tricks of Satan' - yet a man takes two, three, or four wives. The woman is a '[delicate] vase' that must be treated gently, so it will not be scratched - yet [if she is disobedient, her husband] keeps her away from [the marital] bed and beats her soundly. From cradle to grave, the woman cannot be her own guardian - because she is 'limited and incapable of taking on responsibility for her affairs' - yet the Prophet's dearest and most beloved wife ['Aisha] headed the first opposition in Islam, led an entire army, and waged an historic and critical battle [the Battle of the Camel]...

"This abhorrent cycle of discrimination in which the Arab woman lives began hundreds of years ago - but it still exists, wraps itself around her neck, and restricts her movements as if she were a newborn baby. It is a strangling cycle that wastes the abilities of half of society..." [6]

Arab Women Are Worse Off Than the Prisoners in Guantanamo

In an article published May 25, 2006 on the reformist website www.rezgar.com, [7] which Al-Huwaider signed "The Second Rosa Parks," she drew a comparison between the lives of the prisoners in the "terrible inhuman prison" of Guantanamo and the lives of the Arab women: "...Anyone who examines and analyzes the lives of the prisoners in Guantanamo, and compares them to the lives of the Arab women - particularly in the Gulf states, and especially in Yemen, Oman and Saudi Arabia - will discover that there are very many similarities... First, in some Arab countries a woman is a prisoner in her [own] home, and can only move with the permission of her guardian, or, more accurately, her jailor. Her situation is similar to that of a prisoner in Guantanamo.

"Second, in some Arab countries, the woman's guardian is her owner, and the one who has the legal right to use her. He controls all her affairs, great and small. His role is very similar to that of a jailor in Guantanamo.

"Third, a prisoner in Guantanamo, like many Arab women, is not the master of his own body. He has no power to control his own fate, and his personal freedom has been taken away, along with his right to protest his situation.

"Fourth, the prisoners [in Guantanamo] are not protected by law, and their lives are the property of their jailors, just as the lives of the Arab women are in the hands of their guardians. When the guardian feels that his wife has crossed a red line, she is doomed to a die terrible death.

"Fifth, many Arab women have tried to escape or to kill themselves as a way out [of their plight], but they failed just as the Guantanamo prisoners [who tried to escape] failed.

"Sixth, some Arab women are forced to wear impractical and suffocating garments in colors that do not suit the scorching climate of our [region]. [In this respect] the prisoners in Guantanamo are better off [than the Arab women], since they wear practical, light-colored clothing suitable for the climate [in which they live].

"Seventh, a prisoner in Guantanamo [can] see the sun, feel its rays and enjoy the caress of fresh air on his face, even when he is physically in chains, whereas the women in some Arab states are shackled [both] physically and spiritually. They carry these chains around all their lives, beginning in childhood... The minute the girl enters her teens, she no longer sees the light of day, and she cannot breathe fresh air except through a veil, since she is covered from head to toe in black garments.

"Eighth, all human rights [organizations], up to and including the U.N., have condemned what is happening to the prisoners in Guantanamo, and have demanded that the Pentagon release them. But nobody has lifted a finger for the Arab women who have been kept prisoner for hundreds of years. No organization, local or international, official or unofficial, has bothered to expose what is happening to them in the dungeons incorrectly referred to as 'their homes.'

"Ninth, the plight of the Guantanamo prisoners is temporary. They might be released at any time, and then they will return to their ordinary lives as Arab men, and may even receive a medal of courage. The Arab women, on the other hand, will remain prisoners until the day they die, and their tragedy may also continue in the coming centuries, until the women... [Finally] manage to seize their rights, attain [equal] status and restore the dignity that has been taken away from them.

"Finally, the female Arab Guantanamo prisoners [i.e. the women] have never been warriors or suicide [bombers]. They never joined any terrorist organization and have never harmed anyone, but they nevertheless live as prisoners all their lives, and their situation is, in some of the respects mentioned above, far worse than the situation of the prisoners on that island. There is nobody in the U.N., or in any other [organization], who takes an interest in their [plight]; nobody protects them or presents their grievances to the world's judicial bodies. This is even though there are millions of them, as opposed to the 500 prisoners in Guantanamo, who knew, [when they set out on their operations], that they might be killed or arrested.

"I wish I knew why the situation of the women in certain Arab states is not condemned by the countries of the world, and does not enrage their citizens. Why do the human rights activists ignore their suffering as though they do not even exist? Why isn't the cry of these millions of women heard, and why isn't it answered by anyone, anywhere [in the world]? Why? Why? Why? Is it because they are women, while our patriarchal world is ruled by men without an ounce of compassion in their hearts? Maybe that is [indeed the case]."

Saudi Women Must Act Now - The "Right" Time for Demanding Their Rights Will Never Come

In a recent article, Al-Huwaider attempted to encourage public protest by women in Saudi Arabia by calling on Saudi women to take the initiative and demand their rights, and not to wait in vain for "the right time": "The high hopes and the promises that they have given you, Saudi women, are many - but your situation is still as wretched and miserable as it has been for decades. Many of you enjoy a quiet, good life, but many others... must deal with violence and alienation, of various kinds. You must not dismiss the possibility that those of you who enjoy [a good life] today may tomorrow be in a miserable situation if you lose the man who handles your affairs - because there are no laws to protect you and no safe shelter you can turn to when time betrays you. This is because you are not persistently and seriously demanding your rights.

"Some of you are postponing demanding your rights, and explaining [the postponement] by the timing. You say, 'The time is not right to raise our voice and demand our full civil rights, because our people in Lebanon are in a state of barbaric war, and the entire [Muslim] nation is in crisis.' My question to you, Saudi women, is: When will the time be right to open up the issue of women in any Arab country? When will the Arab wars cease? And when will our nation not be in crisis?

"Aren't we at war in every decade, for whatever reason?... [Further,] our societies do not settle for these disasters, and during the ongoing wars there are conflicts, battles and bloodshed in the Sudan, Somalia, Mauritania, and of course Palestine. In addition, every Arab country has internal conflicts, aimed at shaking the regimes - and all have ended tragically, like in Black September in Jordan, in Hamat in Syria, in Halabja in Kurdistan, in the intifada in southern Iraq, and in the struggle against terrorism in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia... That is, the Middle East is always on the boil, and its men, women, and children are subject every day to the catastrophes of war.

"The question to be asked is whether the vulnerable women in the Arab countries will wait until the clouds of violence and cannon smoke dissipate to improve their situation. Clearly this is not the case. Let us take, for example, the Palestinian woman... the bravest of all Arab women, who is subjected to violence and death more than any of you. She has managed to obtain many rights that women in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states can only dream about. Did the Palestinian woman say, 'No, I will not demand my rights [now] because my country is under occupation and at war?' Of course not...

"With regard to the Lebanese woman... Without her active role in her society, and had she not obtained many of her rights, Lebanon would not have held out for a single day in facing the Israeli army, with its stockpile of deadly weapons, [as it has] for over 20 years. The Lebanese woman stands alongside the Lebanese man, in every decline in the country's situation, and in all its catastrophes. She helps the emigrants; she cares for the wounded; she provides supplies; she cares for families; and she helps the homeland with all her might. These are the women who should serve as an example, and whose paths should be followed.

"And you, Saudi women: What are you waiting for?... You do not hesitate at all to help and support others - and the proof of this is what you did for Lebanon. But you hesitate greatly to help yourselves... I would like to understand why you hesitate to initiate the demand for your rights. Is it because there are no statistics that reveal the miserable situation of many Saudi women? Knock on the doors of the courthouses, and you will know the magnitude of this catastrophe. Is it because the blood of the Saudi woman who is a victim of violence flows in complete silence, so that no one pays attention? Or is it because the lives of the Saudi women are dirt cheap, and so they breathe their last without anyone noticing?... I do not know why you wait, or how long you will wait." [8]

The Heart of the Problem: Women Are Not Protected By Law

Another article includes collected statements that Al-Huwaider heard from Saudi women "who know that their rights are stolen, but haven't the courage to demand them back": "'I'm afraid of the regime's reaction and of its oppressive laws'; 'I'm afraid of the violence of the fanatics and ignoramuses in my country'; 'I'm afraid my husband will divorce me and I will find myself defenseless'; 'I'm afraid my husband will punish me and take another wife...'; 'I'm afraid of my father's wrath and violence'; 'I'm afraid of my brothers' hold [over me], and their domination [of me]; 'I'm afraid that my guardian will take all meaning in life away from me'; 'I'm afraid that my sons will be angry with me and become embittered against me...'; 'I'm afraid of losing my good name, and then of not being able to find someone who wants to marry me...'; 'I'm afraid for my future and the future of my daughters and children'; 'I'm afraid of hurting my parents'; 'I’m afraid that if I do this, my family and tribe will see it as shameful and be angry with me'; 'I'm afraid of losing everything I have, that I have built over the years'... 'I'm afraid of everything around me...'"

Al-Huwaider writes that "Saudi women are weak, no matter how high their status, even the 'pampered' ones among them - because they have no law to protect them from attack by anyone. The oppression of women and the effacement of their selfhood is a flaw affecting most homes in Saudi Arabia. Most Saudi women, whether educated or illiterate, realize all too well that their lives are in the hands of the men. If a Saudi woman enjoys 'a life of pleasantness and well-being'... it depends completely on the good nature and good intentions of the man with whom she lives."

From what the Saudi women say, Al-Huwaider concludes that every Saudi woman has two types of fear: internal fear, which originates first and foremost in the family's or tribe's control of her, and external fear, of the control of the political, religious, and social institutions that usually work together against her.

Al-Huwaider writes: "The reason most women who are depressed, submissive, and subject to various types of injustice accept their wretched situation is their increasing fear. The fear gnaws away at their sense of being independent entities, and harms their self confidence every day. Thus they always fail at removing the oppression. The real reason for this fear among Saudi women is that there is no law to protect them from violence and discrimination.

"In a world of technology, rapid globalization, and continuous international challenges, improving the lot of Saudi women and mobilizing them is no longer a matter of choice and luxury; it is a necessity. The Saudi government must increase its efforts to remove the fear from the hearts of the women, who are half of society, so that they can participate in building [society]...

"We must open our eyes to the truth... and that is that all the men, the oil revolution, military force, and financial liquidity [in Saudi Arabia] cannot build a strong homeland when the role of the woman is ignored..." [9]

In another article, analyzing the situation of women in the Arab countries, Al-Huwaider further elaborates on her conclusion that the source of Arab women's problems is not religion, but discriminatory legislation in the Arab world: "All the Arab regimes are U.N. members, and have ratified the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which clearly decrees justice, equal rights, and equal obligations for all citizens. Nevertheless, in our chauvinistic country, the woman is still considered the property of her family...

"Legislation in the Arab countries overtly discriminates against women, overtly oppresses their rights, and harms them as human beings. They are still treated as though they contaminate purity, and arouse temptation and immorality. What is amazing is that most Arabs, on all levels and of all classes - whether government, institutions, or individuals - still view the woman's problem as a religious problem. Thus, they think that her concerns must be dealt with using outdated chauvinistic interpretations...

"Improving the woman's situation will not be via solutions that are outdated and proven to be ineffective. The laws giving only half a voice to citizens [that is, ignoring the voices of women] detract from the rights of women; they classify [women] as having less sense, detract from their importance, cast doubts about their abilities, let them be beaten and divorced, let them be imprisoned within four walls, allow them to be treated as their husbands see fit, let them be bought and sold by legal agreement, and, when [the women] fail [and violate religious law] they welcome their barbaric killing. These laws are most certainly no longer right for an era in which dogs and cats in the developed world have more rights than Arab women - or even Arab men...

"The unresolved problems of women are not religious, but purely legal. Women must be treated in accordance with the international conventions guaranteeing human rights, freedoms, and dignity... Legislation that takes away the rights of the woman as a citizen must be replaced by legislation guaranteeing her full rights [as a human being]... The time has come to annul the chauvinistic interpretations that incite to violence, and incite to discrimination against and persecution of women, and to the removal of their rights..." [10]

ENDNOTES:

[1] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), August 15, 2003, http://www.arabnews.com/?page=9§ion=0&article=30304&d=15&m=8&y=2003.

[2] http://www.metransparent.com/texts/wajeha_al_huwaider_international_prize.htm, December 23, 2004.

[3] http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/10/20/saudia14461.htm October 20, 2006.

[4] http://www.metransparent.com/texts/wajeha_al_huwaider_5_percent.htm,July 15, 2006.

[5] http://www.metransparent.com/texts/wajeha_al_huwaider_alonousa.htm, May 1, 2004.

[6] Elaph.com, February 5, 2006, http://www.elaph.com/elaphweb/ElaphWriter/2005/2/38710.htm?KeyWords=vZjHNMUVQ+0S+WDM66+mqg .

[7] Rezgar.com, May 25, 2006,http://www.rezgar.com/debat/show.art.asp?aid=65733.

[8] http://www.metransparent.com/texts/wajeha_al_huwaider_until_when_saudi_women.htm, August 10, 2006.

[9] http://www.metransparent.com/texts/wajeha_al_huwaider_i_am_afraid.htm, August 26, 2006.

[10] Elaph.com, March 7, 2005, http://www.elaph.com/ElaphWriter/2005/3/45862.htm.




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