Saudi women set to make their mark
This column was printed in the Nov. 01, 2015 issue of Arab News:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
I was extremely pleased to read that 1,039 Saudi women have registered to stand as candidates in the upcoming municipal elections to be held on Dec. 12. This is an achievement that all Saudis should be proud of, both men and women.
After all of the doom and gloom stories that I had read over the last few months, telling of the difficulty of women finding voter registration centers and the apparent lack of interest of some women in the elections, I expected fewer women to register as candidates.
As Jadee Al-Qahtani, head of the Municipal Elections Executive Committee, pointed out, the participation of women in these elections are very important since the municipal councils deal with local issues that affect the daily lives of all citizens. He also noted that the female candidates would be competing for seats on 212 councils or 75 percent of the total 284 councils. Not bad since it is the first time ever for Saudi women to be involved in elections.
Of course, when you compare the number of female candidates to the 6,400 male candidates, it seems like just a drop in the ocean. But women participating in civic life have to start somewhere, and I’m sure that the number of female candidates and voters will grow greatly in future elections. This is just the beginning.
For sure registering to be a candidate is the easiest and cheapest aspect of participating in an election, be you male or female. It’s the advertising, campaigning, printing of campaign materials, rental of billboards and tents in which to meet potential voters that cost the big bucks. Already 31 female candidates have withdrawn from the polls, either because they felt they were not prepared enough to participate, or to yield their places to other women candidates. It will be very interesting to see how female candidates campaign and reach out to women voters. Will they use some of the same tactics that male candidates do? For sure yes, but they will also be able to use other means, and for sure their women-only campaign tents will be big draws for Saudi women and young girls curious to see what various female candidates have to say, offer and promise to improve the quality of their lives.
Saudi women certainly have many issues of concern to them, from the safety of their local streets and the lack of public playgrounds for their children to play in; to the high price of marriage dowries to inadequate garbage collection in their streets. These are all issues that Saudi women face collectively on a national level and on a local level in all of their neighborhoods.
Saudi women should remember that the suffrage of women around the world has been a long and hard battle, starting with New Zealand granting women the right to vote as far back as 1893, to the United States doing so in 1920; Brazil in 1932; Switzerland only in 1971; Jordan in 1974; Kuwait in 2005 and finally Saudi Arabia in 2011.
What is very interesting looking at the history of women gaining the right to vote around the globe is that land-owning, and therefore tax-paying, women were often the first allowed to vote. That was the case of Swedish taxpaying female members of guilds, who were allowed to vote in 1718. Property-owning women in the Australian state of South Australia were allowed to vote in local elections in 1861. In the United Kingdom, female ratepayers were allowed to vote in local elections in 1869, with universal franchise coming only in 1928. Individual US territories and states started allowing women to vote from as early as 1869 in the Wyoming Territory.
That the voting age in the Kingdom has been reduced from 21 to 18 years of age is a great development, as this will allow more young Saudis to participate in the elections. And the fact that two-thirds of the municipal council seats will be elected and only one-third appointed by the government is a great achievement for the Saudi people.
Hopefully Saudi women will grasp this historic opportunity to participate in our country’s civic life and make their mark on our society by heartily taking part in the elections. I am sure they will impress us with their dedication and hard work, and I look forward to seeing more and more Saudi women voting and running as candidates.
My interview with Al Jazeera English about Saudi municipal elections
This is the interview I gave to Al Jazeera English on August 30, 2015, about the upcoming Saudi municipal elections:
Saudi women making their mark
This is my column that was printed in Arab News on August 30, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
This year marks 10 years since the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia restarted in 2005. It also marks 10 years since I voted for the first time in the Kingdom, hopeful that this would herald the beginning of a greater voice for citizens in the day-to-day running of our cities.
The reality was far different, with lackadaisical candidates being elected to the councils across the country, and after the initial euphoria of the elections it seemed most people promptly forgot about their local councils.
In Jeddah the municipality embarked on a super-ambitious urban planning scheme of building tunnels, flyovers and bridges to cope with the ever-growing volume of road traffic. After years of annoying and often frustrating construction detours, Jeddawis are enjoying the fruits of such planning, whizzing around the city in greater comfort.
Of course, public transportation options are still very poor but with the planned metro, things should improve immensely. Riyadh on that front is already ahead with construction of its metro well under way.
Perhaps these municipal councils may have seemed rather boring in their obsession with urban planning concerns since these have traditionally been male concerns. And although these councils did have meetings that were open to the public, engagement with the electorate was sparse and not very rewarding.
Until this year Saudi women were not allowed to vote or run as candidates in the elections, but this year they are doing so.
Already foreign commentators have tried to diminish this achievement by saying that the councils don’t really do much to begin with. But we must ignore these usual Kingdom-bashers, who will never be pleased by anything we do.
For sure the women candidates for the municipal councils will bring new concerns to the forefront of public debate, which is long overdue. Hopefully they will talk about the many Saudi women that work for slave wages, as Al-Sharq daily recently reported about the ones working in the canteens of public schools making only SR300 a month each! What kind of exploitation wage is this?
It is outrageous that anyone, whether Saudi or not, can be paid that in our country and be expected to survive on it. It is impossible. There is a great need to debate a minimum living wage for all workers in our country. By all means allow higher wages for Saudis, but have a decent minimum wage that serves for everyone, with no exceptions.
I remember interviewing a candidate for the Jeddah council in 2005. He was a well-known businessman, had studied in the United States along with his wife, and was religious. When I asked him if he could work alongside women on the council he said “no,” maintaining that a woman’s makeup and perfume would be too distracting. I was surprised by his reaction, but times have changed and these same women are now both running for office and voting too.
The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) has long had many women members active within its ranks, helping Saudi women to become entrepreneurs and offering business ideas and support for women wishing to run their businesses from home. They have proven themselves to be excellent organizers and hopefully their participation in the municipal elections will give them another avenue to make their mark in civic and governmental affairs. May the best and most qualified ones win!
A huge sigh of relief
This is my column that appeared in Arab News on Feb. 01, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
I was very pleased to read the report this week of the announcement from the Ministry of Justice that courts in Riyadh have sentenced more than 65 men to prison terms ranging from two days to three months for refusing to heed court rulings in favor of their former wives. Finally, these women who have suffered from not receiving their alimony payments to not being able to see their children because of mean-spirited ex-husbands, are getting some long overdue justice.
In our country where men have the upper hand, many women and their children are made to suffer unnecessarily by vengeful ex-husbands who do not want to pay the alimony they owe them, and many times make it nearly impossible for their ex-wives to see their children if they have custody of them. And in our male guardianship system, an ex-husband can very easily make the lives of his ex-wife and children a living hell if so desires by refusing to pay alimony, blocking the ex-wife from seeing her children and refusing to do the necessary paperwork that children need for enrollment in schools and to get government IDs and services.
It is clear that this has been a problem for a very long time, and our government has recognized this now, signaling that its patience has run out with misbehaving ex-husbands, who cause wholly unnecessary suffering and embarrassment to their ex-wives and children when they pull such illegal stunts. For sure such shenanigans are not unique to Saudi Arabia. Divorced husbands, all over the world, have for decades been skipping alimony payments and trying to get away with it. Here in Brazil they also jail ex-husbands who miss alimony payments too many times, especially when minor children depend on the payments for survival.
The other piece of good news in the announcement said that the ministry has recently allowed, in cooperation with the Supreme Judiciary Council, single mothers the right to visit the Civil Status offices, Passport Department offices, schools and departments of education, and some government and private bodies to deal with formalities and transactions related to their children. This is an excellent development, as it will allow divorced mothers to take charge of their children’s lives and not be wholly dependent on ex-husbands, who may or may not be helpful. How many times have I seen single women in government departments trying to get some bureaucratic issue resolved, papers in hand, only to be treated as if they were lepers with a contagious disease and desperately being shunted from window to window. With this new regulation, hopefully single women, who do not have a husband to do these types of essential errands for them, will no longer be treated so badly or ignored.
Divorced women and their children have long deserved better treatment in our society. Perhaps with this new crackdown on errant ex-husbands and new rules that allow better access to government offices to these single mothers, their situation will improve. Being divorced is already hard enough, and to have to endure not getting alimony payments and possibly being blocked from seeing your own children can only make a bad situation unbearable. We should strive to be a modern, just and fair society that respects the rights of all. Punishing miserly ex-husbands is a good start in that direction.
Campus death: Could it have been averted?
This column appeared originally in Arab News on Feb. 09, 2014:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The recent death of Amna Bawazeer, a graduate student at King Saud University in Riyadh, after she suffered a massive heart attack on campus on Feb. 5, has led to calls for a full investigation and the implementation of protocols to be used in emergencies.
Two versions of what happened are circulating. The first one says that university officials panicked and waited for too long before they called an ambulance. They add that once the male paramedics finally arrived, they were allegedly not allowed quick access to the female section of the university to help her because university officials said there were uncovered women inside. The second version emerged when the rector of the university Badran Al-Omar denied this in an interview with The Associated Press, claiming that there was no hesitation in letting the paramedics in. He insisted that the university did all it could to help the student.
“They called the ambulance at 12:35 p.m. and the ambulance staff were there by 12:45 p.m. and entered immediately. There was no barring them at all. They entered from a side door,” Omar told The AP. That does indeed sound swift, but at what time did Amna have her heart attack? That is a crucial piece of information.
This brings back the bad memories of the 2002 fire at a Makkah girls’ school that saw 15 girls die and more than 50 injured after the male firefighters were barred from entering the school because not all of the girls had their abayas on.
Islam is a practical religion that has exceptions for many of its rules. My father used to tell me that it was a practical religion that allowed travelers to break their fast during Ramadan. In emergency cases like these, the authorities must remember this practical and merciful aspect of Islam and allow the male helpers in at once to help females.
If, for instance, university officials and the religious police are not going to allow male paramedics and firemen into all-female institutions then they should train female paramedics and firefighters. All universities that have female sections should have female doctors on call during school hours in order to provide medical assistance in case of emergencies. Why female professors did not try to move Amna to a hospital themselves is a question that should be asked of them. Many Saudis have asked these same questions in social media, suggesting that medical clinics be set up in all colleges, while others suggested that women be included in the paramedic staff of emergency services so that they could be used in certain situations. I hope the Ministry of Health will thoroughly investigate this sad case and institute mandatory measures that all female colleges will have to follow in medical emergencies. Incidents such as this one are outrageous and give Saudi Arabia and Islam a bad name in the international arena.
A good friend of mine pointed out a similar case in Washington, D.C., where a man last week was having a heart attack in the parking lot of a shopping mall across the street from a firehouse. His relatives ran over to plead for help from the firemen, but they refused to help, insisting that they could only help if they called the 911 and reported the emergency. The man died because of the heart attack.
The mayor of Washington, Vincent Gray, said this was an outrage and that a full investigation would hold those responsible accountable. He said the firemen who failed to help the man having a heart attack failed to show “common decency.”
Here in Saudi Arabia we need a culture of accountability, enforcement of laws and more training in how to deal with emergencies. University staff and students should be trained to deal with emergencies. When I went to college in the United States in the 1980s, we had monthly fire drills in the middle of the night where we had to leave our dormitories and stand outside in the cold until the all-clear signal was given to return inside. Let us learn from such tragedies so that they do not recur.
Read the original here: http://goo.gl/l2v9uR
US-India row: Misplaced outrage and sympathy
This column appeared in Arab News on December 22, 2013:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The outrage in India over the arrest last week of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul-general in New York after her runaway maid Sangeeta Richard filed a complaint against her claiming she was overworked and paid less than half the minimum wage, while understandable, is misplaced. In the entire hullabaloo of removing the barricades around the US Embassy in New Delhi and the refusal of Indian politicians to meet a visiting US congressional delegation, the plight of the maid seems to have been forgotten.
Wounded national pride is the explanation for the Indian outrage and demand that the US government apologizes publicly for the harsh treatment that Khobragade allegedly was subjected to. According to the diplomat, she was arrested in front of her children’s school and handcuffed. Thrown into a cell with drug addicts she further claims she was strip-searched several times was also subjected to a cavity search. Preet Bharara, the US prosecutor handling the diplomat’s case, insists that she was just given the same treatment as everyone else, and that she was treated with respect. This indeed is humiliating treatment for any person, and especially more so for someone who is supposed to enjoy the diplomatic immunity provided by the 1961 Vienna Convention. The US State Department is now claiming that Khobragade enjoys only partial diplomatic immunity due to her rank, which seems like willful misinterpretation of the convention. If you are a diplomat, whether you are a third secretary or the ambassador, the diplomatic immunity you are entitled to is one and the same.
Richard claims that she had to work 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, taking care of the two children of the deputy consul- general. Khobragade claims that her maid was given every Sunday off to go to church and meet her friends. To me this sounds like the cases of hundreds of foreign maids in the Middle East who are overworked, shouted at and underpaid by the employers from Beirut to Riyadh and Dubai. Yet abuse of domestic servants is not something unique to the Middle East, as this happens all over the world, from Africa to Asia to Latin America.
According to an International Labor Organization (ILO) report released earlier this year there are 52 million domestic workers worldwide, with 83 percent of them women. Brazil is the country with the most domestic workers, 6.7 million; India is second with 4.2 million and Indonesia third with 2.4 million domestic workers. According to the study, 29.9 percent of domestic workers are not covered by national labor laws and more worryingly a full 45 percent do not get a weekly day off or paid annual leave. The Gulf countries have the highest percentage of women domestic servants as compared to their overall female populations, with Oman at 59.3 percent, Kuwait 53.3 percent, Saudi Arabia 47.1 percent and the UAE at 42.4 percent.
The problem that all maids face is that they work in the private homes of their employers, making it very difficult for government inspectors to check their work conditions. In Saudi Arabia, domestic workers are still not fully covered by the labor law, which gives abusive employers a huge loophole through which they can abuse the rights of their maids. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff this year pushed through legislation that gives maids full labor law protections, including higher salaries and a limit to how many hours they can be made to work. If a maid or nanny needs to work overtime or through the night, they are now entitled to mandatory 1.5 times overtime pay.
According to simple calculations, Richard should have been paid $1,392 a month if she were paid the $7.25 per hour minimum wage and worked for 48 hours a week. Instead Richard claims she was paid only $633.60 a month, or $3.30 an hour. For comparison, Filipino maids in the Kingdom are now paid a minimum of $400 a month, and HK$4,010 in Hong Kong, or $517 (SR1,939) a month. In Brazil fulltime maids must be paid the minimum salary of R$678, which is the equivalent of $248 or SR1,066 a month. But the employer must also pay their monthly retirement and social security contributions, which can be an additional one-third on top of their salary.
Khobragade should be made by a US court to compensate her servant by paying her all of the back pay that she is owed. Handcuffing and strip-searching her went way beyond the diplomatic niceties that all diplomats are entitled to. The US should apologize for this behavior, but also make clear that anyone, be they a diplomat or not, must abide by US labor laws and pay their domestic workers decent pay that reaches the legal minimum-wage level.
— The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.
Exclusive: Nathalie Morin and family in financial distress
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
In an exclusive interview, Nathalie Morin told me that her Saudi husband, Saeed al-Shahrani, has been unemployed since May 2013, and that this has forced them to sell a refrigerator, washing machine, a television set and other household items in order to buy food and pay their bills.
I found out about their unfortunate situation after emailing questions to Nathalie about her relationship with the two Saudi women’s rights activists, Wajeeha al-Howaider and Fawzia al-Ayuni, who were sentenced to ten months in jail each, and a two year travel ban, earlier this month after being convicted of allegedly committing the crime of Takhbib, or inciting a wife against her husband. This sentence was for a visit of the two to the apartment building of Canadian national in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, in 2011, supposedly to give her food supplies. In the interview, Nathalie says she never talked or met Wajeeha.
I discovered that Nathalie does speak good English by visiting her blog called Saudi Real Life (www.saudireallife.blogspot.com), where she has posted several videos of herself speaking in English.
I also found out by watching the videos and interviewing her that Saeed until recently worked for Saudi intelligence services, and that Nathalie first came to Saudi on a wife’s visa even though she was not yet married to Saeed at the time, but already had given birth to their first child in Canada.
She claims that her husband is her best friend, and that they share everything with each other. She complains loudly that all of them are now on some blacklist that does not allow them to leave the kingdom, or for Saeed to find a job.
Here is the text of the interview, with the emphasis put in by Nathalie:
Q: Why has your husband Saeed been stopped from working as an intelligence agent? Does he have any other job in order to earn money? Have his relatives been helping him financially?
A: My husband worked actively for his country in the National Security department from 1995 to 2008. He has been officially off-duties since September 2008, with permission from Saudi government to stop service and to return to his real identity.
From 2008 to May 6, 2013, he had many hidden jobs in many sectors. On May 6, 2013, the Saudi government decided to cut-off his financial resources completely and he cannot work anymore. Also, all charitable societies have refused to help us for some weird reasons and we do not have relatives helping us.
For our survival since May 6th until today, we have sold:
– 3 air-conditioners;
– A washing machine;
– A dryer machine;
– A television;
– Furniture in two living rooms;
– A few electronic gadgets;
– A watch
Q: You say on your blog that the Saudi government has banned all of you from traveling outside the kingdom. Why?
A: Yes, my husband and our children are registered on the Saudi National black list. We’re not allowed to get a passport; to get an ID card without our blacklist data; we’re not allowed to get out of Saudi territories even just for tourism purpose within GCC countries. Why? Ask your question directly to Saudi government.
Q: When Wajeeha al-Howaider and Fawzia al-Ayouni went to your apartment in 2011, did they manage to get to your apartment and speak with you before being arrested? Did they bring you food?
A: No, I never spoke to them and they did not bring food.
Q: How did you first meet Saeed in Montreal? Did you know at that time that he was an intelligence agent?
A: I met him normally in Montreal as many others meet people. He was like an ordinary person and me, how do you want me to know about his work? Intelligence, espionage, spy are NOT subjects that most of people have knowledge. How do you want me to have clues? At the beginning he told me, “My name is Saeed Al Bishi and I’m a businessman from Saudi Arabia.” Me, I believed him.
I NEVER knew about his real identity and real work. I NEVER knew about his involvement with the Saudi government until March 5, 2005.
Q: I am amazed that you were able to get a visa the first time you visited Saudi, as you were not married yet to Saeed. How did he manage to do that?
A: Yes, my husband came back to Saudi Arabia in September 2002 and the Saudi government told him that he would not return abroad anymore. He met in person with the late Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz al Saud and he told his Royal Highness that it is impossible because he has a baby boy with a Canadian woman in Canada. Prince Naif decided to grant my husband a special reward and favor to marry a foreign national woman and to bring me on Saudi soil with a married visa WITHOUT any document of marriage and to bring our baby boy with Saudi nationality WITHOUT any document of paternity. We arrived in Saudi Arabia for a vacation in July 2003 and we met in person with Dr. Ahmed Al Salam in his office of the Ministry Interior Federal Headquarters in Riyadh. He gave us in person our official permission to get married and after that we went to Jeddah and we got a confirmation of marriage document from Jeddah Civil Courthouse.
Q: Do you have contact with the female relatives of Saeed’s family? Are they nice to you? Do they help you?
A: No, I do NOT have any contact with the female relatives of my husband and the last time I saw them is in 2010. They do not like me, because I have foreign roots, in my blood, from a western country.
Q: Does your husband allow you to go to the supermarket every week to buy food?
A: My husband allows me to do anything I wish to do. He is open-minded and we are in mutual agreement together. But, since May 6th, the Saudi government has cut off all our financial resources and so, we do NOT have any money to go supermarket.
Q: Do your children go to school? What are their names and ages?
A: Samir, 11 years old, has completed the 4th elementary grade. Abdullah, 7 years old, has completed the 1st elementary grade. Sarah, 4 years old, has not gone to school yet.
Q: Do you have any Canadian friends in Dammam or Riyadh?
A: No, I do NOT have any friend, Canadian or of any other nationality.