Congratulations to Saudi Arabia as Saudi women take one small step into the 21st century by both voting and standing for council posts in last weekend’s municipal elections.
Right across Saudi Arabia from small villages to the largest cities, 20 women were elected to municipal council seats.
Of the 7,000 candidates who stood for election, 979 were women and 2,100 seats were up for the taking in 249 local councils, so 20 female winners represent only 1% of those appointed – but it’s a start when before you have had no representation at all.
The Saudi King also has a quota of 1,050 seats to fill with his appointees, so hopefully he will he will take the opportunity to let in a few more of the women candidates.
4 women were elected in Riyadh, the conservative capital and 2 in the predominately Shia Islam Eastern Province.
Another woman was elected in Jeddah in western Saudi Arabia, perhaps the country’s most cosmopolitan city, while one more gained a seat in the holy city of Medina, the site of Prophet Mohammed’s first mosque.
Another woman was elected in the village of Madrakah, 150 kilometres north of Mecca which over bad roads has the nearest hospital, pointing out that many women in her village ended up giving birth in cars.
Other issues raised by the women candidates were more nurseries to look after children while mothers worked, more community centres for sports and cultural activities, the aforementioned better roads, improved garbage collection and greener cities.
I suspect there might be some more directly feminist issues waiting to surface in the background, but with this tentative level of suppression release it is probably wise to save those for another day. Saudi Arabia’s extreme clerics will be enraged at the changes as it is.
Credit for the policies all go to the new Saudi leader, King Salman, the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef and the Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, plus a coterie of relatively young, well-educated Cabinet members who frequently travel to the West and other countries worldwide.
While I am no great believer in the inalienable rights or abilities of hereditary royals, when it’s all you’ve got and they hold all the power and the purse strings, that’s what you have to work with.
In an attempt to make the elections a more level playing field for women forced to wear the full face-veil the General Election Committee, presumably on orders from the Government, banned all candidates, male and female from showing their faces in promotional posters, advertising boards or online. They were also not allowed to appear on television.
In Jeddah, 3 generations of women from the same family voted for the very first time, the oldest being 94.
Her daughter reflected on how important it was to vote, saying, “I walked in and said I’ve have never seen this before. Only in the movies. It was a thrilling experience.”
That response, while understood, would probably be seen as “sad” in the West.
Especially as Saudi women are still not allowed to drive a car, go out on their own unless accompanied by a male chaperone (usually a close family member), go to a mixed swimming pool, compete in sports, or wear clothes or make-up that “may show up their beauty”.
Interestingly, in a show of support, Uber drivers in some of the major cities drove women to the polling stations in last weekend’s elections, for free (though I can’t help wondering how many men refused to accompany their wives or even let them out of the house?)
There is still a long way to go.
Saudi women who competed in the last Olympic Games were described as “prostitutes” by hardline clerics back home and the Saudi consultant to the Olympic Committee has even proposed this year, 2015, that Saudi Arabia be allowed to host the Games – but with no women at all taking part!
At a recent book fair in Jeddah, where books by female Saudi writers were displayed and women took part in Q and A panels (and even Donald Trumps’ books were on display), 2 men got up and protested when a female poet started quoting poetry from her new book.
One of the men, addressing the audience, asked, “Do you accept that a woman recites poetry?” Fortunately, the audience responded with an unequivocal ‘yes’ and the two men were escorted out.
In Saudi Arabia the roots of all this, on the surface at least, lie in Wahaabism the official religion of the State founded on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, an 18th century cleric from the remote eastern interior of Arabia.
The main tenets of this religious philosophy is that there is only one God, Allah, and any that do not believe in him are unbelievers or apostates. The sectarian philosophy also does not believe in the worship and revering of clerics or saints and that there should be no shrines or places of worship other than those purely devoted to the “one God” (as defined by them).
This therefore excludes the Shiite Moslems who have numerous shrines and places of pilgrimage. In fact, in the original Wahaabi doctrines, jihad, or holy war against all “unbelievers”, including all other Moslems, was fully permissible.
In its extreme form Wahaabism forbids the “performing or listening to music, dancing, fortune telling, amulets, television programs (unless religious), smoking, playing backgammon, chess, or cards, drawing human or animal figures, acting in a play or writing fiction” and even the keeping or petting of dogs.
As far as women are concerned, they are forbidden to travel or work outside the home without their husband’s permission on the grounds that their “different physiological and biological structure” means they have a different family role to play, and if the husband does give permission to his wife to work outside the home, it can be withdrawn at any time.
As mentioned before, Wahhabism also forbids the driving of motor vehicles by women and sexual intercourse out of wedlock may be punished with beheading – although sex outside marriage is permissible with a “slave woman” (though probably not a woman with a “slave man” of course?).
(Just as well as Prince Bandar bin Sultan [former ambassador to the US and director of Saudi Intelligence] was the result of a “brief union” between his father, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz and a 16 year old “black serving women” – though slavery has since been “formerly banned” in the kingdom.)
In all of this it is easy to see the where the Islamic State gets its basic tenets and “vindication” from, offering a “pure” form of Islam which is “justified” in taking over the world (See last week’s post on The Anatomy of an Islamic State Jihadist).
Wahaabism has been so successful because it formed an alliance with the militarily aggressive House of Saud back in the 18th century, eventually taking over the whole of the Arabian peninsular, and more recently because of the billions of dollars of oil revenue monies used to promote it.
The result however is a bloody and deadly sectarian schism in Islam between the Sunni (of which Wahaabism is a part) and Shia branch descendants of Prophet Mohammad. Until this is sorted the Middle East and many other parts of the Islamic world will remain a mess.
However, the apparent misogynist aspects of Islam, Wahaabi or otherwise, are not restricted to males of the Moslem religion, they are still too common in the rest of the world.
Here in the UK, British boxer, Tyson Fury, who became WBA World Heavyweight Champion in November 2015, recently caused controversy by declaring that “a woman’s best place is in the kitchen and on her back – that’s my personal belief.”
Undoubtedly, he should keep his “personal beliefs” to himself, but I suspect that covertly a lot of men, wherever they are in the world, think the same way.
Such beliefs, in my view, are based on fear, pure and simple.
Again, as I have often written, our values are formed in childhood and if we grow up with bullying mothers, for whatever reason, and/or are encouraged by other males in the absurd notion that somehow men are “superior”, then we are more likely to gravitate to a male ethos that tries to suppress women in adulthood.
In fact it may be that suppression of women in the Islamic world and elsewhere which contributes to the disdain and disrespect that males show as adults towards women, is sometimes started by frustrated women taking out there anger at exclusion from full participation in the world, on their male (and female) children. And so the circle of deprivation and loss continues into the future.
The key to accelerating change is female education, as Malala Yousafzai, the 18 year old Pakistani, Noble Peace Prize winner has championed and to which, unsurprisingly, the Taliban and the Islamic State remain fiercely opposed.
At the Jeddah book fair mentioned earlier, the Saudi Minister of Education and Information, Adel al-Toraifi, said that an Arab reads six minutes a day, compared to the world average of 36 minutes.
He also said that the Arab world prints 27,809 books a year, which translates into 12,000 Arabs getting one book.
Compare that with China which publishes 440,000 books a year and the United States and the UK which publish just under 500,000 books a year between them.
Hopefully, the spread of and access to the Internet (when its male viewers are not accessing pornography) can help to change all that.
Peter Clifford – 16th December 2015
21/2/11 Peter Clifford –
ARAB WORLD IN REVOLT
I was going to write my next post on something completely different from politics but the pro-democracy protests across the muslim world have continued to dominate the headlines and I feel compelled to comment further on what looks like (potentially) the most significant and powerful revolutionary movement seen in decades.
Firstly, congratulations to the people of Egypt, who not only got rid of Mubarak but succeeded in what has been, so far, a relatively peaceful transition towards democracy, with minimal deaths and injuries (though no less painful for the families and friends involved).
Whether the full transition to free and fair parliamentary elections and a true democracy with an independent judiciary, police and army continues, remains to be seen.
At the moment, the government of Egypt is in the hands of an army council, who to their credit enabled the revolution by refusing to be heavyhanded with protesters. However, governing army generals have a habit of developing a thirst for power, once tasted, and frequently annoint one of their number as the next president. Let’s hope better sense and justice prevails in Cairo.
Another interesting sideline to the Egyptian revolution is that the London Telegraph reports that the Mubarak family spent the 18 days preceding the President’s resignation moving vast amounts of money around the world and into safer havens where they continue to have access. Estimates vary from $7 billion to £70 billion.
Even if its the lower figure, this is an obscene amount of money to be accumulated by one family and undoubtedly obtained through corruption and the misuse of power. I hope that the new Egptian authorities go to great lengths to recover it and return it to where it belongs – in the service of widespread social welfare and reform in a country that badly needs it.
In my previous article on these extraordinary events (Democracy On The March) I asked the question – where next? Almost everywhere across North Africa and the Middle East and even further afield to East Africa and China, it appears that people are taking up the flame of courage from those in Tunisia and Egypt and carrying it forward, realising, perhaps for the first time, that there is enormous power in the scaling up of numbers.
Vast hordes of angry citizens, even if unarmed, terrify suppressive authorities it seems. And rightly so. The moment you suppress anyone you create the seed of anger and resistance that given the right nutrients will grow and expand into an unstoppable force, in the same way that fragile plants force themselves millisecond by millisecond, relentlessly, through concrete.
Clearly the most significant “nutrient” in the current political “soup” is the widespread use and access to, the Internet and the mobile phone network. The more these come into common usage and integrate themselves, one system with another, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, the Web itself, smartphones etc, the more difficult it becomes for repressive governments to control the information coming into and going out of their countries.
This is as it should be. The whole point of democratic systems is the protection of the rights of its citizens to freedom of expression and free access to information.
It is the young everywhere which have realised the potential and taken rapidly to the advantages of mobile communication. You may not have a job or much of a future under the prevailing system, but if you can talk to thousands of people about it there is the opportunity for creative change. The older generations, including myself, have been slow to realise this.
Watching celebrities making fatuous remarks on Twitter seemed like a huge waste of everyone’s time to me. Using Twitter to rapidly promote interest in this blog has been far more interesting and effective.
Clearly, it is how you use modern technology that makes a difference. The fact that in Libya for example the median age is 24.2 and the literacy rate is 88% adds power to the process.
Unsurprisingly, this electronic freedom to communicate scares repressive authorities half to death. Egypt tried shutting down the Internet, but then discovered it shut down business as well. Colonel Gaddafi in Libya is trying the same thing, in a country notorious for its lack of access to independent reporting.
Yesterday, the Chinese President Hu Jintao called for “stricter government management of the internet”. China’s Twitter website equivalent,”Weibo”, run by Sina.com, blocked discussion of Egypt and over the weekend, message chains using the Chinese word for “Jasmine” – as in the Jasmine Revolutions in the Middle East – were blocked as well.
This will not do gentlemen, the seeds against repression have already germinated and are growing fast.
If you would like to support freedom of communication in the circumstances described above, link with AVAAZ in their latest campaign to supply independent broadcasting equipment to pro-democracy groups worldwide ( I have supported previous AVAAZ campaigns on saving Sakineh Mohammedi Astiani from death by stoning and helping to bring about democratic change in the Ivory Coast)
Meanwhile, protests continue in Benghazi and elsewhere in Libya, in Algeria, in Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Syria,Yemen, Iran, China and the former French colony of Djibouti, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. Former President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union has even suggested it could happen there.
There have also been further deaths and demonstrations in the Ivory Coast where the losing presidential candidate Laurent Gbagbo refuses to stand down after three months.
Interesting times, which I will continue to watch closely. Particularly as it all may have significant messages for Western governments as well.
My support of Emmanuel Jal’s charity Gua Africa continues throughout February and by using any of my Amazon links I will ensure that 10% of any commission I earn goes to support Emmauel’s work with the child victims of war (your Amazon prices remain as normal). Thank you to all of you who have supported us so far.
Incidentally, southern Sudan which is where Emmanual Jal originates from (see previous posts South Sudan Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) has decided simply on the name South Sudan when it moves to full independence on July 9th, following on from the referendum last month.
The road to freedom is still not without serious problems as 200 people were killed this month in an attack by rebel leader George Athor in Jonglei State. Hopefully, peaceful solutions can still be found to end Athor’s conflict with the government.
Until the next time,
Peter Clifford: www.petercliffordonline.com
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