Equality in Saudi Arabia

I’m in Saudi again. In case you think stories about the place of women in the Kingdom are exaggerated, here are three items culled from the local newspapers in only two days.

Women no longer need identifiers at Saudi courts
The Supreme Judicial Council has decided that Saudi women no longer need to have males identify them at court hearings and would only require their identity cards. This isn’t primarily about cases involving sexual assault; the most significant aspect has to do with inheritance. It was not enough for a woman to turn up at court, present her ID card and say, “I’m Fatima X”—a man had to say, “Yes, she is Fatima X” and, not infrequently, he would say “No, she is not Fatima X” even though she was. The man in question would be her brother, he would have brought along his wife and he would point at her and say, “This is Fatima X” and the court was bound to accept that because he was a man and his evidence was therefore worth hearing while hers was not. The brother’s wife would then say that she felt her late father had been far too generous in dividing his estate equally between his two children and she would only feel comfortable if the court overruled the will and gave her “brother” the lion’s share of the inheritance while giving her the minimum the law permitted—“10% sounds about right”. The woman was in this way cheated out of her money. Now the SJC has decided that this behaviour is unfair. The decision is being hailed as a demonstration of the fairness with which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia treats half its population.

On death row for sorcery, maid spared by king
Do you believe in witchcraft? Me neither. But Ali binti Abeh Inan, an Indonesian woman from an impoverished region of Sukabumi in West Java who worked in KSA as a housemaid, was sentenced to death for using black magic against the Saudi family that employed her. How did the court know she had used sorcery? Well, her employer said so—and he is both a man and a Saudi while she is a woman and a foreigner, so obviously we believe him. Don’t we? Now the king has pardoned her, she has gone home to Indonesia and a spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy in Riyadh has expressed “its gratitude to King Abdullah and to authorities in Saudi Arabia for their cooperation in releasing Ali.”

Women’s visits to hospitals without male guardians banned
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Haia, but generally known as the Religious Police) has officially prevented women from visiting medical clinics without male guardians. A guardian can only be the next of kin—son, grandson, husband, brother, father or uncle. The ruling came after Qais Al-Mubarak, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, said “Unaccompanied visits by women to male doctors can have negative implications. Islamic law does not permit women to visit their doctors without male guardians. Women are prohibited from exposing body parts to male doctors, especially during childbirth.”  But the fatwa extends way beyond gynae wards—a nutrition centre has been forbidden to see women unless a guardian is with them. What’s that you say, lady? You’re ill and your husband is on a business trip outside the Kingdom? Die, baby, die. Seems to me that’s a negative implication right there—but I’m a foreigner and a woman, too, so wtf do I know?

Unwashed cars in Riyadh. (And Jeddah. And Khobar. And Mdina. And…)

The Saudi Arabian Government is deporting illegal immigrants in huge numbers. When I flew home to Abu Dhabi from Riyadh yesterday, there were more coaches than I could count outside Departures; more cardboard boxes and belongings wrapped in blankets than I have ever imagined on the sidewalk outside the terminal; and more lost-looking people being shepherded by more policemen than I ever want to see again. Saudi Airlines has laid on a colossal number of flights and chartered many more. The illegals are going, whether they want to or not (and–for the most part–they don’t want).

Officially, the deportation is to allow the 12% of Saudi nationals who are unemployed to find work. Really, the Government is concerned about the number of foreigners in the country who don’t like them, would rise up against them at the drop of a hat, and may well have been sent to Saudi (by Iran or some other country that wishes the Saudis ill) for exactly that purpose. Some illegals came as pilgrims on Hajj and Umraa visas and stayed on when the pilgrimage was over and the visas had expired. Many more simply walked or drove over this huge country’s long borders–Somalis, Ethiopians, Tanzanians, Kenyans and Yemenis came across from Yemen; others arrived on foot or in a four-by-four by way of Iraq and Jordan or by boat from Syria and Iran.

You can see the result in the state of the cars on the road. Saudis keep their wheels immaculate–but now more than half the cars are covered in dust and dirt because there is no-one to clean them. The cleaners have either been deported or gone into hiding until this latest clampdown is over (and that may take much longer than they hope). It’s the same with truck drivers, almost all of whom are here illegally, and construction labourers. The cost of getting something delivered has at least doubled (if you can get it at all) and building work has ground to a halt.

The dirty car problem, at least, is easily solved I hear you say. The Saudis can wash their own cars. My dear fellow! You must be joking.

Flying to Riyadh

I’m in Saudi Arabia and today I flew from Jeddah to Riyadh on Saudi Airways. Nice flight, an hour and ten minutes in the air, comfortable aircraft. I had an aisle seat (I always have an aisle seat) and there was another woman by the window. The middle seat was empty. Because we were going to conservative Riyadh from (relatively) liberal Jeddah, we both wore the niqab (full face mask) as well as the abaya (robe) so that only our eyes were visible because if you don’t do that your life when you get off the plane will be made a misery. If you want to travel in someone else’s country, be polite and behave as they expect you to (unless it involves removing your panties, of course). Just before takeoff, a Saudi man aged 60+ got on. He was assigned the middle seat and the plane was full. He stood in the aisle, summoned a stewardess and said, “How can I sit there?” What he meant was, ‘If I sit between two women, I’ll be polluted.’
Okay, this is how it is in Saudi—or how it can be—but consider the implications:
1. I (and the other woman) were left in no doubt that our presence was polluting to men. How do you think we felt about that?
2. This man will be married. How must it be for his wife and daughters to know that they are pollutants in his life?
I’d like to make it clear that not all Saudi men are like this—on balance they’d have been more likely to take the seat and even attempt to chat to us (which they are not supposed to do) and I might quite possibly have been obliged gently to remove a hand that had ‘accidentally’ strayed on to my thigh*. But, still, it was not an enjoyable experience.
*Some time ago, an Emirati man told me he hankered for the days before pantyhose, when a hand on a woman’s thigh would feel the excitement of a suspender like a little knob. I gave him a kind smile. What else could I do?

We’re getting addresses!

In common with most Middle Eastern countries, Abu Dhabi doesn’t have street addresses. That can be a bugger when you want someone to courier something to you from Europe or The States–DHL and their like hate it when they’re asked to deliver something and the only address you can offer is something like “Fourth Floor, The Abdul ben Jaffar Building, opposite the Bin Khaled Mall on the corner with the airport road”. It makes perfect sense to us and if the courier asked their local representative they’d find it makes perfect sense to them–but they don’t do that and they refuse to collect, so we’re reduced to inventing an address. As long as we make sure our phone number is on the package, everything proceeds without difficulty.
But now we’re going to have “proper” addresses, just like downtown (Toronto). Not till the year after next–but we’ll have them.
Maybe DHL will stop looking down their noses at us then.

Male = “Noble”

I was reading La Vie Quotidienne au Royaume de Kongo du XVIe au XVIIIe Siecle (“Daily life in the Congo from the 16th to the 18th Century”) by Georges Balandier. (Never mind why—I just was). My attention was caught by this, which I shall translate for monoglots: Symbolically, palms are male trees, and thus in a certain sense noble.
Ah, yes. Maleness equals nobility. Of course.
So when I’m crossing the road outside the Abu Dhabi Mall and two muscle cars scorch by within inches of me, one to my left and one to my right, I should understand that—because both are driven by men—the unsettling effect is actually the result of nobility.
If only I’d realised that before.

Wrong Target!

A headline in The Guardian today says: All four men found guilty in Delhi gang-rape trial.
We must hope they got the right four men; but the part of the story that caught my attention was this: The victim’s father, Badrinath Singh, told the Guardian he wanted the case to set an example to other women in India, where there has been a wave of sexual violence in recent years.
He wants it to set an example to women? It’s men who need to take note! Men who think it’s all right to have sex with a woman without her consent. Men who think “She wants it really”; or who simply don’t care what she wants or thinks, so long as their needs are satisfied.
There has been a lot of discussion in the Press worldwide about the number of Indian women who are raped. Listen up, fellas: This is not just an Indian problem. Women are being raped all over the world, and it isn’t by setting an example for women that this will come to an end. It’s men who carry out rapes, and men who have to stop.

Vacation Time

Tomorrow I fly to Heathrow for a month’s vacation. I’ll be back in Abu Dhabi on the 1st July. Between now and then:

  • My sister is flying in from Vancouver, where she now lives, to spend a week with me at my place in Highgate
  • I have tickets booked to see:
    • (With my sister) RainForest by Rambert Dance Company at the Barbican
    • (By myself) Othello at the National Theatre
    • (By myself) A Mad World My Masters at the RSC in Stratford
    • I shall be going to North Wales to visit friends I first met here in The Gulf

I’m really looking forward to it. And yet, I know I’ll miss The Gulf. There’s a politeness here that you don’t get any longer in Britain. Perhaps, if I went all the way home to Ontario, I might find it there—but Canada seems a long time ago and a long way away to me now.

When I talk about Akhlaq, people in the West are surprised, because what the West knows of Islam is distorted by biased reporting and film of faces distorted by rage and grief when someone close to them is killed. If I say that the commonest face of Islam is one of courtesy, people look at me in disbelief. And yet, so it is.

Muhammed said that religion is Akhlaq, and that Akhlaq is good conduct and morality. That not to be angry is Akhlaq. And, for people who live here, courtesy, good conduct and morality are what one encounters. I shall miss it when I’m not here. I shall be glad when I return.

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