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.

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