Posted in Articles،English Content

When will Saudi women drive?

Every time I meet someone from outside Saudi Arabia, the conversation always ends in the same question: “How long do you think it will be before women in Saudi are allowed to drive?”

I wish I had a simple answer for this issue, which should, by basic human rights, be much less complex than it is. But before I address this, I will answer another common question: “Why don’t – or rather can’t – women drive in Saudi Arabia?”

In fact, the Saudi government has never issued a royal decree stipulating the ban, nor even imposed a system. (In Saudi Arabia, there are systems rather than laws: from a religious point of view, laws are considered to be in violation of Shari’ah, because they come from a human perspective).

The ban is merely based on the Ministry of Interior, which was issued in 1990 in response to the first women’s movement demanding the right to drive. The decree, which forbids women to drive on Saudi Arabian territory, did not specify a punishment.

It was reasserted by the Ministry on October 25, 2013, one day before the date on which Saudi women had chosen to launch a third driving campaign which is still held on a monthly basis.

As represented in statements given by the new Interior Minister Mohamed bin Naif and his father who was the former Interior Minister, Naif bin Abdulaziz, both insist that the Interior Ministry is an executive and not a legislative body, that it is not responsible for the ban.

If we examine the Basic System of Governance, which corresponds to something like a constitution in the rest of the world, Article 8 states “governance in Saudi Arabia is to be conducted on the basis of justice, equality and consultation in accordance with Shari’ah”. And if we look at the Saudi system relating to traffic, we do not find any provision or stipulation preventing women from obtaining a driving licence.

These are the only two sources we have to consider in connection with this issue. The statement released by the Ministry of Interior in 1990 is rendered null and void by the fact that it was not based on the governing system.

But on the occasions that I and many others have tried to obtain a driver’s licence from the traffic department, we have been surprised, upon entering our identification numbers into the relevant system, to find an error message appearing on the screen: “The ID number entered belongs to a woman, it is not possible for a woman to obtain a driving licence”.

When I raised the issue with the administrative court in November 2011, wishing to make a case against the General Directorate of Traffic, and pointing out the lack of legal ban preventing a licence being issued to me, my case was referred to a special committee at the Ministry of Interior. In other words, to the very party I wished to prosecute.

When you hear the words “special committee” in Saudi Arabia, you know your case has been relegated to oblivion. And this has remained my fate until today.

We can conclude from all this that the Interior Minister is the executive body as well as being the issuer of the ban and the body that upholds it, which contradicts the statements made by both the Saudi Interior Ministers.

Now, a review of some of the reasons people give for the ban. Firstly, financial: influential families control the visa market for drivers. If they allowed women to drive, these families would lose huge financial returns from a market in which official figures indicate the existence of around a million drivers and which unofficial numbers suggest could contain as many as two million.

And secondly, a fatwa issued by Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, issued concurrently with the Ministry of Interior’s 1990 decree and forbidding driving based on the Islamic principle of prohibiting that which might eventually lead to sin.

The justifications cited by the prohibition fatwa are nothing more than suppositions about what will happen to society if women are allowed to drive.

This has led to a situation in which denying women the right to drive, something which has no basis in the Muslim law, has taken precedence over prohibiting women to be alone with a non-Mahram male (which is prohibited in Shari’ah), as the woman inevitably must be chauffeured around.

In my opinion, the real reason is much simpler than all this. If a woman had asserted their right to drive since the day cars arrived in Saudi Arabia, it would by now be a routine matter and we would be dealing with none of the current clamour and uproar.

This is the reason that Bedouin women and women from the countryside drive comfortably outside of the city without being subject to hindrance or criticism. The banning of women from driving in the city is a result of the system of state that has been systemically imposed upon it; women in Saudi Arabia are considered minors under the law until the day that they die.

We will return now to the question that, in recent times, has become an ever more frequent topic of discussion: when will women in Saudi Arabia be able to drive? Many assume that the issue of allowing women to drive will be resolved with a royal decree, as happened with the appointment of 30 women in the Shura council in September 2011.

This decision, which was followed closely by many parties interested in the Saudi state of affairs, represented an attempt to improve the image of Saudi Arabia after a scandal involving an imprisoned woman driver garnered widespread attention.

But those who know anything about the distribution of power in Saudi Arabia know that there are several different competing parties within the royal family, each with its own ideologies and interests.

They also recognise that King Abdullah does not have the powers required to issue such a decree, and that the subject of women driving is entirely in the hands of the Interior Minister Mohammed bin Naif; the King has no authority when it comes to this department.

Will a positive decision be issued by the Ministry of Interior? That seems improbable. More than 24 years after the first attempt to abolish the women’s driving ban, there seems not to have been a single breakthrough; there are no driving schools for women, nor any female traffic police.

Saudi police are still intent on stopping any woman who dares to drive, booking her car and summoning her guardian-in-charge to sign a pledge not to allow her to do so.

The authorities, in effect, show no leniency towards women drivers, as we who were demanding the right to drive hoped they might have done. The authorities also worry that responding to demands to allow women to drive will damage the prestige of the state and open the door to other popular demands for social and perhaps political change.

When will women be able to drive? We must recognise that the Bedouin woman never ceased –since the horse and donkey were replaced with the car, or the side-dagger with a rifle – to use new inventions to ease her life and affairs. Whether in the farmlands or the desert of Saudi Arabia, not one of her fellow men dared to doubt her chastity, her morals or her religious belief.

Meanwhile, the woman of the city has willingly parted with her rights and allowed everyone to compromise them, or else to use them for political gain or as a red herring to distract people from more salient issues.

In my opinion, freedom is a personal decision, not a political one. When the Saudi woman realises this fact, she will get in her car and drive it as many times as it takes for it to become a common sight, forcing the authorities to regulate the phenomenon rather than prosecute it.

And when she learns that rights are seized rather than granted, she will recognise how to eliminate the male dominion that has been imposed on her and cast her as a minor her whole life.

Posted in Articles،English Content،منال الشريف

Karama Has No Walls

Despite the disappointment which I felt – and which I’m confident was felt by every Arab who followed the Oscars this year – when not one, but three Arab films were beaten to the prize for “Best Foreign Film” by Italian film The Great Beauty, the consolation was that the themes explored by the trio revolved around the Arab struggle for freedom and dignity.

This gives an idea of the far-reaching nature of the Arab voice that has inspired the rest of the world through its continuous struggle; and through this voice, the world continues to bear witness to one of the most important eras in recent history.

The film Omar by Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad addresses the issue of Palestinian sufferings under the Israeli occupation and explores the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The film Karama Has No Walls by Yemeni director Sarah Ishaq was about the Friday of Dignity massacre that sparked the Yemeni revolution and ended 33 years of dictatorial rule. And last but not least, The Square by Egyptian filmmaker Jehane Noujaim documented the two years following the January 25 Revolution in Egypt.

I’ll pause for a little while at The Square, since my frequent visits to Egypt before and after the January 25 Revolution, along with my knowledge of a number of young revolutionaries who lit the fuse of revolution three years ago and ended up mostly in prison, have led me to feel a certain connection to Egypt: emotionally, mentally, and even in a revolutionary sense.

I will tell the story of these revolutionaries as embodied by one man, Omar Hazek, a poet and novelist from the Egyptian city of Alexandria, who spent his thirty-sixth birthday – the 31st of January this year – behind bars. Omar is neither a thug nor a corrupt official, a thief nor a criminal. He is simply a man who had dreamed since a young age of being released from the claws of dictatorship and lifting his head, if for only once in his life, to live in dignity.

I met him in 2012, when I visited Egypt to attend the conference “Change Your World” organised by Yahoo. Full of pride, he told me how he and his comrades had, after a bitter struggle, toppled the dictatorship that had relentlessly suppressed and humiliated them for decades.

He told me of how, after the torture-to-death incident involving his fellow Alexandrian, Khaled Said, they staged a protest: standing and looking toward the sea without a word, they announced their rejection of the injustice with their silence.

“We were a handful of young people, numbering not more than a few dozen,” he told me. Whether they went out in the cold of winter or the heat of summer, “Not one person believed us. We were exposed to ridicule from passers-by; we dealt with the frustration of our classmates and colleagues and the worry of our families. But we went out every day; we were prepared no longer to feel like victims of lifelong suffering, but like tigers, ready for martyrdom and sacrifice.”

“Weren’t you scared?” I asked him. “Was demonstrating allowed where you were?”

“Who said that demonstrating was allowed?” he replied. “We had lived under emergency law for decades. Because of the emergency law, we lost young people like Khaled Said.”

“But when the chance arrived for you and your friends to reap what you had sown, why didn’t you take it? I mean, why haven’t you founded a party for the revolutionaries and stood in elections?”

“It’s not that simple a matter. I’m a writer and proof-reader; I have my job at the library of Alexandria, and among the rest of the youth that led the revolution, we have a doctor, an engineer, an artist […] We all have jobs, and we have no interest or experience in politics. We started the revolution to end the dictatorship and corruption and enslavement which has humiliated us our whole lives, and afterwards we intended to return to normality; we had no political organisation or leadership, nor any funding for a political fight.”

A year after this conversation, Omar succeeded in toppling a second regime – that of the Muslim Brotherhood. We had a second conversation.

“We went from hearing slogans of ‘Down, down with military rule!’ to chants of ‘Come and help us, Sisi!’”How did that happen?” I asked Omar, recalling the memorable day of June 30, 2013. “Didn’t military interference represent a second disaster and a return to what we were fighting in the first place?”

“The Brotherhood left us no other option,” Omar replied. “They rode the wave of the revolution that we started and reaped its benefits for themselves. They began to consolidate power and carry out the orders of the morshid (supreme leader of the MB) rather than working to build a nation which brought all strata of society together instead of pushing them further apart. The Brotherhood and the military: each is dirtier than the other, and after the army’s intervention, we now have a long road ahead of us.”

Omar has represented his country in many international forums; he has won numerous awards as well as participating in the Arab poetry talent competition Amir Alshu’ara contest, which is judged annually on Abu Dhabi television.

He says he fought the rampant corruption occurring in the Library of Alexandria – his place of work – and was subjected to trial for exposing it.

He was also a weekly writer in the newspaper al-Dustoor (The Constitution). Omar was arrested on December 3, 2013 in a demonstration condemning the initial verdict against the killers of Khaled Said, whose death galvanized the youths in late 2010 and eventually helped spark the January 25 Revolution.

Omar was sentenced to two years in jail and a fine of fifty thousand Egyptian pounds, and wrote his first novel I Don’t Like This City whilst incarcerated. Omar and his comrades are victims of the law on demonstrations, and they represent nothing but a continued revolution, undeterred by walls.

Their official crime is that they breached the recently enacted law on demonstrations, but unofficially, they possess weapons of mass destruction: the mind, the pen and their dignity.

Published Monday March 24, 2014

Posted in Articles،English Content،منال الشريف

The Muslim Atheist

The American newspaper Washington Post published a study by the WIN/Gallup Association WIN/GIA (not the same Gallup Institute that is famous in Washington) about ratios of atheism in the world. 

The study, which was conducted in 2012 across 40 countries, stated that the number of atheists in Saudi Arabia has now reached 5% of the total population. This puts it on the same level as some European countries, as well as making it the first country in the Islamic world to see such figures emerge.

According to the study, 75% of Saudis are religious and 19% non-religious, the latter figure exceeding the numbers of self-identified non-religious citizens in the secular Muslim countries of Tunisia and Turkey.

Saudi writers, thinkers and religious clerics received the study with a great deal of scepticism and disbelief, penning articles about the credibility of the WIN/GIA Association and its work and questioning whether the study might have come from Pakistan or Egypt.

Unsurprisingly, all of their writings concluded with a rejection of the study’s facts and an assertion that the percentage of practicing Muslims in Saudi Arabia stands at 100%.

Anyone who writes otherwise, they contested, is either delusional or spiteful.  One writer went so far as to claim that “the study’s aim was to increase the number of ideological delinquents in Saudi and create centres of convergence for them, perhaps even a ministry”.

Another maintained that there are secret bodies and organizations being funded to promote atheistic ideology in the country as part of a foreign agenda and the traditional conspiracy theory.

Some, however, swam against the tide of accepted opinion and openly admitted the existence of atheists in the Arab world, especially in hardline Islamic states.  One such person was the Saudi writer Najeeb al-Zamil, who responded to an article on the subject by prominent Saudi cleric Sheikh Ayed Al-Qarni during one of his interviews.

In the article, entitled ‘The Winds of Atheism Are Blowing Over the Country’, the Sheikh accused foreign bodies for the promotion of atheism in his homeland.

Najeeb Al-Zamil’s response: “If Sheikh Ayed thinks that the winds of atheism emanate from abroad, he is obviously in need of discussing the issue further.  Here, we are saturated by preaching. The amount of preaching we receive in Saudi Arabia is far surplus to requirements; it happens in any place, in schools and on any occasion. Young people are exposed to a superfluous dose of it, and it is carried out in a forthright and unfavourable manner.  Anything that increases beyond the degree to which it should will eventually turn against itself, and the historical Kharijite sect are an example of this: nowadays they are terrorists and militants, they have religion in excess.

“It has been proven repeatedly throughout history that instances of religious excess cause many of the world’s problems; the wars in Ireland and the Balkans are just two examples of this.  The second problem is that religion is divorced from any kind of logical thought; questioning and skepticism are not allowed to be part of the belief-forming process, and this is when problems arise: when religion disrupts thinking.  In Islam, a person’s mind is what drives him or her and guides them to belief.  Science without religion is crippled, religion without science is blind.”

But why does atheism exist in the Muslim Arab world? And if it exists, why don’t we see or hear about it?  The website Your Middle East published an interview with a Saudi atheist who went by the nickname of Jaber, and I have quoted some of his thoughts here:

I found some religious teachings and rules didn’t make any sense. So, I started asking questions about small things like why music is Haram (forbidden) or why women have to cover their faces. Then I started reading about the way Islam scripts and Hadith were gathered … I had a group of people and we would discuss books in regular meetings…After a while I came to believe that the whole of religion is nothing but man’s invention to fight reality and impose order.

If someone declared that s/he was a non-believer, regardless of whether the government took action or not, s/he would be cut off by his/her family, s/he would be fired from his/her own job, people everywhere would talk about him/her and warn others about him/her. It would be highly likely that people would hurt him/her physically, perhaps murder atheists altogether.”

If we continue to deny reality and threaten atheists with ostracism and even death, this makes it impossible to find solutions and open channels of dialogue with those who have lost their faith.

There have been some attempts at solutions by cultural elites and Islamist thinkers like Saudi scholar and researcher Abdullah Hamid al-Din, who arranged lectures and seminars with himself and a number of other scholars and researchers at Jusoor or Bridges bookshop, Jeddah.

The aim of these lectures and discussions was to open the subject of religion up to young people by allaying their doubts and fears and by addressing the issues that concerned them.  Due to the fact that education by dictation and the disabling of minds prevails in the Muslim world today, young people are forced to conceal their questions or ultimately to become atheists.

These seminars were widely opposed and were accused of promoting atheism amongst young people, since they opened the door to questions and acknowledged the doubt that was felt by many but which they hadn’t previously been allowed to express.

The hardline Islamist Khadher Sanad commented the following about Jusoor Bookshop seminars in a series of tweets published by the site Said al-Fowa’ed:

“In the city of Jeddah, there was a bookshop and a cafe called Jusoor. It was a hotbed for the dissemination of deviant ideas, held lectures and seminars, and attracted young people of both sexes.  The lectures at the cafe and bookshop Jusoor exceeded all reasonable and logical limits; they were gathering boys and girls to discuss religion and God and to criticize religious heritage.  Many parents were hit by the emergence of a wave of skepticism in God and in his messages and books; it was the fashion to adopt thoughts and beliefs that go against the norm.  That was Jusooor.”

The Saudi religious police raided Bridges cafe and arrested Abdullah Hamid al-Din, and even managed to have a formal order issued for the closure of the library, since Khadher Sanad tweeted that it had “become a hotbed for atheists and sceptics in God.”

Sheikh al-Ghazali said once: “Half of the sins from the spread of disbelief in the world will be borne by religious men. They are the reason God is hated by people, because of the terrible manner of their actions and speech.” I couldn’t agree more.

Published March 15, 2014

Posted in Articles،English Content،منال الشريف

Are Arab Muslims Ready for Democracy?

The frustration experienced by peoples in the Muslim-majority Arab world during the fateful period of the Arab Spring, which has brought about consecutive failed democratic experiments and instability in the Arab Spring countries, has forced some to lament its occurrence and even to call for the return of dictatorial regimes.

Moreover, it has fortified the presence of surviving dictatorships and provided them with a degree of popularity and legitimacy based purely on the principle that “what we know is better than what we don’t.” 

This period of time has indeed divided advocates of totalitarian regimes into two parties. The first believes that nothing can work with the Arab peoples but a repressive rule of iron and fire. Such a rule is deemed most suitable in light of an Arab culture which, according to their view, believes in the absolute rule of a person or party and that any objection to this rule is tantamount to sedition or rebellion.  The other party justifies the importance of continuing dictatorial rule and the delaying of democratic efforts by saying that the Arab peoples are not yet ready, having decades of education and preparation ahead of them before they are ready to commit to democracy with full awareness of political practice and rights. 

And until that day comes, guardianship must be imposed on the choices of the Muslims in the Arab world and other Arabs of different religions, as occurred during the June 30 demonstrations in Egypt.

Indeed, the beliefs of the second group are attested to by the philosophy of Winston Churchill himself, who famously stated that, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The sentiment of this view is reflected in the situation of major global players such as Brazil.  Although the political system there is constitutional republican, it is nevertheless mired in corruption and nepotism.  Observers allocate much of the blame to poor state education and lack of public awareness, which keeps the majority of Brazilians in complete ignorance of the political process and leads repeatedly to the election of allegedly corrupt candidates. 

And let us not forget that a majority of voters in Brazil are living below the poverty line, which makes it within political interest to keep them this way.  But this hypothesis does not always hold true; consider, for example, a state with an elected government like Italy, which has a parliamentary system. Italy has a strong education system and the general public enjoy a sophisticated level of political awareness, but the country is still rife with corruption.

During a press conference on human rights, a reporter from the U.S. magazine Newsweek asked me if I thought that democracy would bring fanatical Islamists to power in the countries of the Arab Spring, and I knew immediately that the question was not genuine, nor did he wish to hear my true opinion. 

American foreign policy is of the view that the peoples of the Third World are politically not mature enough to understand the true meaning of the word democracy, and that it would cause chaos if they were given the opportunity to choose who governs them.

However, I told him my opinion, which did not align with what he wanted to hear: “Democracy will bring whomever the people choose, even if that person is a fanatic, and those who brought him to a seat of power will remove him from it if he abuses that power.  The people will get it wrong and regret their choices later.  But aren’t these trials of the early years an essential part of democracy – the right of peoples to take a chance, re-test, and learn from their mistakes until they understand the lesson?”

People who lived through centuries of oppression and crushed dignity will not truly realise the meaning of freedom in its broadest and most absolute sense until they have paid the requisite price and expended the necessary time and effort.  The recipe for a successful democracy begins with recognising the lack of justice in dictatorial regimes and the fact that a progressive democratic transformation will not happen overnight, nor will power someday be ceded in favour of the people.

After that comes education of the public regarding freedom, social justice and civil rights.  But the most important thing is that we experience democracy today, not after years of educating the public and raising their awareness, as some would have it.  The more we delay the induction of democracy, the more opportunities we will waste to learn and fix the errors that will inevitably be made.

Finally, we will need a lot of patience and a lot of time – let’s not forget that the French Revolution took 90 years to achieve its goals.

Published on February 26, 2014

Posted in منال الشريف

ترجمة مقال منال الشريف في نيويورك تايمز كاملة مع الروابط

رأيت إغلاق الباب على الكذابين والمحرضين ونشر المقال كاملاً مترجماً مع الروابط

 المقال قائم على سرد الحقائق كما نشرتها الصحف المحلية والعالمية بعيداً عن فرض رأي الكاتب

تحجيم دور الشرطة الدينية في السعودية

في واقعة ترددت أصداؤها في جميع أنحاء المملكة العربية السعودية، توفي أخوان سعوديان يدعيان سعود وناصر القوس؛ والذين تتراوح أعمارهما بين 22 و24 عاماً، في الخريف الماضي بعد مطاردة نتج عنها سقوط سيارتهما من فوق أحد الجسور في الرياض على يد أفراد من هيئة الأمر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر في المملكة العربية السعودية، حيث طارد رجال الهيئة الشابين اعتراضاً على تشغيلهما لأغاني وطنية بصوت عالي على مذياع السيارة، ثم قاموا بصدم السيارة ثلاث مرات ما تسبب في سقوطها من أعلى الجسر، حيث توفي أحدهما على الفور وتوفي شقيقه لاحقاً.

تسببت اللقطات التي التقطها ونشرها أحد المارة للحادث الذي وقع في سبتمبر باستخدام هاتفه الذكي في غضب شعبي عارم. وفي محاولة للتخفيف من التداعيات، استخدم  الشيخ عبد اللطيف بن عبد العزيز آل الشيخ الإعلام للرد على الحادثة، حيث صرح لقناة العربية الإخبارية: “الحقيقة هي أن المطاردة قد حدثت”، وأدان آل الشيخ الحادث وقال أن التحقيقات مازالت جارية.

لطالما تم اعتبار انتقاد الهيئة من التابوهات في المملكة العربية السعودية (بالاضافة الى أي انتقاد للملك عبد الله)، والتي يُعرف رجالها أيضا بالمطوعين، تُعد الهيئة حالياً واحدة من أهم القضايا اثارة للجدل في المملكة العربية السعودية. واليوم، يواجه الشيخ آل الشيخ انتقادات من المجتمع، بالاضافة الى تفاقم النزاع الداخلي.

ومن جانبها، تشعر الحكومة بالقلق من تضييق الخناق على المطوعين خوفاً من حدوث ردة فعل عكسية من المتشددين، لذلك تبقي على شعرة معاوية بين كل من الهيئة والعامة التي يتزايد حنقها. في حين أن تفكيك الهيئة هو أمر غير واقعي، تفتح هذه الفترة الحرجة نافذة مناسبة للسعوديين، من خلال الاستمرار في التعبير عن الرفض والحنق، فمن الممكن أن يكون ذلك سبباً وجيهاً للحكومة في الرياض لإلزام الهيئة بالتقيد باللوائح الموجودة بالفعل، مع كبح جماح الهيئة تدريجياً.

تم تأسيس الهيئة عام 1940 لفرض تنفيذ أحكام الشريعة الإسلامية. في العام 1979، زادت قوة الهيئة، وذلك بعد أن استولى المتعصبين دينيا على المسجد الحرام في مكة المكرمة وشجبوا العائلة المالكة وطالبو بقيادة جديدة. وبعد فك الحصار الذي دام لأسبوعين، تم اعطاء رجال الدين الكثير من التمويل ومطلق الحرية لتنظيم الأخلاق. واليوم، يقوم قرابة 4000 من المطوعين بدوريات مستمرة في الشوارع، وذلك لفرض قواعد اللبس وتنفيذ الفصل الصارم بين الرجال والنساء، ومراعاة اقامة الصلوات في أوقاتها والسلوكيات الأخرى التي تقع تحت نطاق الدين الاسلامي والأخلاقيات العامة. على سبيل المثال، منع النساء من قيادة المركبات.

ورغم أن الهيئة تم تقبلها في بادئ الأمر من قبل المجتمع السعودي ذو الطابع الديني المحافظ، إلا أن سلسلة من الحوادث عكرت صفو علاقة الهيئة بالمجتمع. في عام 2002، لقيت 15 فتاة مصرعها في حريق شب باحدى المدارس بمكة المكرمة، حيث منعهن رجال الهيئة من الفرار بحجة أن الطالبات لا يرتدين ثياباً ساترة بالشكل اللازم. وفي العام 2007، اقتحم أكثر من عشرة من رجال الهيئة منزل احدى الأسر في الرياض،  وانهالو بالضرب على شاب ذي 28 عاماً بصورة أدت الى وفاته، وذلك بعد اتهامه بحيازة الكحول. فجرت وفاة الشاب غضب المجتمع السعودي، وتم رفع دعوى قضائية، في خطوة أولى لاتخاذ خطوات قانونية تجاه الهيئة. تم اسقاط التهم في وقت لاحق، إلا أن الدعوى ساعدت في فتح باب الانتقادات، بما في ذلك في الإعلام.

واليوم، وصل الرأي العام السعودي عن الهيئة إلى أدنى مستوياته. تعاظم الاستياء خاصة بعد أن رفع الملك عبدالله ميزانية الهيئة الى 390 مليون دولار. ومع انتشار الهواتف الذكية، أصبح من الأسهل نشر الأدلة عن تجاوزات الهيئة، وأصبح من الصعب على الهيئة اخفاء الأدلة. وعلى الرغم من ذلك، فإن معظم القضايا التي يتم رفعها ضد الهيئة تنتهي إما بالبراءة أو اسقاط التهم، ولا تؤثر على الهيئة. واليوم، يبدو أن الصدع الداخلي في اتساع. يتعرض آل الشيخ للانتقاد بصورة متزايدة من قبل أعضاء الهيئة الأكثر تحفظاً، متهمين أياه بالتحرر والتغريب.

وبعد توليه منصبه بفترة وجيزة في العام 2012، قاد آل الشيخ سلسلة من الإصلاحات التي تهدف الى تنظيم عمل رجال الهيئة. لم يعد مسموحاً للمتطوعين الانضمام إلى الدوريات، تم منع مصادرة الهواتف وغيرها من الأغراض الشخصية، تم اقامة ورش عمل لتدريب رجال الهيئة على كيفية التعامل مع العامة بالحسنى، كما منع قبول التبرعات من الجهات الخاصة. من أهم الإصلاحات التي قام بها آل الشيخ هو فرض الحظر على مطاردة السيارات -إلا إن الحادث الذي وقع في سبتمبر الماضي أكد أنه قد تم تجاهل أوامره.

اعترف آل الشيخ أن أحد المقربين منه قد قام بتسجيل مكالماته لاستخدامها ضده، وذلك خلال احدى المقابلات المثيرة للجدل مع قناة روتانا –احدى القنوات السعودية- في شهر أكتوبر الماضي. تم إعلان تلك المقابلة على شاشات التلفاز بعد أيام من نشر خبر يفيد بحدوث محاولة لاغتيال آل الشيخ في محاولة لدهسة بالسيارة، وأشارت أصابع الإتهام لجماعة الإخوان المسلمين.

قد لا يكون آل الشيخ قادراً على تحجيم دور رجال الهيئة، إلا أنه توجد دلائل على أن وسائل التواصل الاجتماعي قد تساعد في مواجهة النظام القمعي للهيئة. أحبط المجتمع السعودي عدة محاولات سابقة لفرض قيود على استخدام الهواتف والإنترنت، بما في ذلك الحظر الذي حاولت السلطات فرضه على الهواتف المزودة بكاميرات (ما زال الحظر مفروضاً في الأماكن المخصصة للنساء فقط). تحتل المملكة العربية السعودية المرتبة الثالثة عالمياً في استخدام الهواتف الذكية. وعلى الرغم من اللوائح الصارمة على نشاط المواطنين على الانترنت، إلا أن السعوديين هم من بين أكبر الشعوب استخداماً لتويتر في العالم العربي، كما يُقدر عدد مستخدمي فيس بوك في المملكة العربية السعودية عام 2012 بحوالي 4.9 مليون مستخدم.

في شهر أكتوبر الماضي، قامت امرأة في القصيم، والتي تعتبر المنطقة الأكثر محافظة في المملكة العربية السعودية، بالرد على أحد أعضاء الهيئة الذي طالبها بتغطية وجهها بالكامل (رغم ارتدائها للثام يكشف عينيها فقط)، حيث ردت عليه قائلة  (لا تستفزن، أتظن أننا لا نعرف ديننا، نحن نعرف ديننا ومتسترين قبلكم، وغطاء الوجه ليس واجباً على المرأة). فجر ذلك الفيديو الذي لا يتجاوز 42 ثانية وسائل الاعلام الاجتماعية في المملكة العربية السعودية. استخدام وسم #لاتستفزن نشر المستخدم رسائل الدعم لها عبر تويتر، منتقدين رجل الهيئة الذي وبّخ امرأة محتشمة أمام أطفالها. كان ذلك الحراك أمراً جديداً في مجتمع يلقي باللوم على المرأة في أي نزاع تكون هي الطرف الآخر فيه.

سلط رد فعلها الضوء على الرؤية الحالية للكثيرين بأن رجال الهيئة هم جهة تسعى الى فرض رؤيتهم الضيقة للدين على المرأة السعودية. كما تجدر الاشارة الى رفض المرأة لتعريف رجل الهيئة للحجاب الشرعي. فبعد أن كنا نسمع من طرف واحد ولا نتمكن من التساؤل إذا كان هناك أقوال أخرى في أمورنا الدينية، الانترنت والشبكات الاجتماعية التي حاربها التيار الديني بشدة في بدايتها، فتحت الباب على مصراعيه لمعرفة الرأي الآخر.

لا يمكن إضعاف الهيئة التي يتجاوز عمرها 75 عاماً بين عشية وضحاها، والأشخاص أمثال الشيخ آل الشيخ الذين يحاولون تنظيم عملها يخاطرون بإثارة رد فعل عنيف. ولكن، وبمساعدة وسائل التواصل الاجتماعي، بدأت أساسات هذا التشدد بالتصدع. وقد يكون الحنق العام تجاه الهيئة هو الدافع الذي تحتاج إليه الحكومة لإضعاف وربما حتى تفكيك هيئة الأمر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر.

Posted in Articles،English Content،منال الشريف

Rein In the Saudi Religious Police – My piece in NY Times

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In an incident that has reverberated throughout Saudi Arabia, two brothers, Saud and Nasser al-Qaws, aged 22 and 24, died last fall after their car was forced off a Riyadh bridge by members of Saudi Arabia’s religious police. The officers, members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, allegedly objected to the patriotic songs the brothers were playing on the car stereo. They pursued the men at high speed, ramming their car three times before finally pushing it off the bridge. One of the young men was killed immediately; his brother died shortly thereafter.

Cellphone footage of the incident in September, captured by a passerby and posted online, caused a public outcry. Attempting to mitigate the fallout, Sheikh Abdul Latif bin Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, head of the religious police, went on a public relations offensive. “The truth is that the pursuit took place,” he told Al Arabiya TV. He condemned the incident and said an investigation was underway.

Long considered one of the country’s taboo subjects (along with any criticism of King Abdullah), the commission, also known as the mutaween, is now one of Saudi Arabia’s most controversial issues. Tapped to lead the force in 2012, Mr. Sheikh today finds himself facing both scathing public attacks and worsening internal conflict.

The government, for its part, is wary of clamping down on the mutaween for fear of inciting a conservative backlash and is walking a fine line between the religious police and an increasingly angry populace. While dismantling of the force is unrealistic, this delicate moment opens a window of opportunity for Saudis. By continuing to voice anger and disapproval, the public may provide Riyadh with the leverage it needs to demand police adherence to regulations already in place, and slowly weaken the commission’s influence.

The commission was formed in 1940 to enforce the implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law. It began its rise to prominence in 1979, after religious fanatics seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, denounced the royal family and called for new leadership. In the aftermath of the bloody two-week siege, Saudi clerics were given plenty of funding and a free hand to regulate morality.

Today some 4,000 members of the mutaween patrol the streets, enforcing dress codes, the strict separation of men and women, the observance of daily prayers and other behavior that it considers to fall under the purview of Islam. Women, for example, are forbidden to drive.

Although the force was initially embraced by Saudis, who are still predominantly religious and conservative, a series of incidents has increasingly soured public attitudes toward it. In 2002 in Mecca, 15 girls died in a school fire, prevented from fleeing by mutaween who claimed the students were inappropriately covered. In 2007, a dozen mutaween entered a Riyadh family’s home and fatally beat a 28-year-old man whom they suspected of illegally possessing alcohol. The man’s death outraged Saudis, and a lawsuit was brought, one of the first instances of legal action against the force. The charges were subsequently dropped, but the suit helped open the door to criticism, including by the press.

Today, Saudi opinion of the commission is at an all-time low. Resentment grew last year when King Abdullah increased the force’s budget to $390 million. The spread of smartphones has made it easier to disseminate evidence of police overreach, and it is now more difficult for the force to sweep accusations under the carpet. Despite this, the fact that most cases brought against the commission still end in acquittals or dropped charges has done little to endear the religious police to Saudis.

Now, internal fault lines seem to be widening as well. Mr. Sheikh is increasingly coming under attack by the force’s more conservative members for being too liberal and too Westernized.

Shortly after taking over in 2012, Mr. Sheikh spearheaded a series of reforms aimed at bringing the mutaween in line. Volunteers were no longer allowed to join mutaween patrols; the confiscation of phones and other personal belongings was forbidden; workshops were introduced to teach mutaween how to deal with the public; the police could no longer receive funds from private businesses. Chief among Mr. Sheikh’s reforms was a ban on car chases — but the incident last September made it painfully clear that his orders were being ignored.

In a controversial October interview with Rotana, a Saudi TV channel, Mr. Sheikh admitted that one of his most trusted confidants had recorded their conversations for use against him. The interview appeared soon after reports surfaced in the press of an attempt to murder Mr. Sheikh in a hit-and-run, allegedly ordered by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr. Sheikh may not be able to rein in the mutaween, but there are signs that social media may be helping to counter the commission’s repressive regime. Saudis have thwarted several attempts to restrict phone and Internet use over the years, including a 2004 ban on camera phones (still forbidden in areas reserved for women only). The country’s current smartphone use is the third highest in the world. Despite strict regulations on Internet activity, Saudis are among the largest adopters of Twitter in the Arab world; 4.9 million Saudis were on Facebook as of early 2012.

Last October, a woman in Qassim, considered Saudi Arabia’s most conservative region, lashed out at a member of the religious police who demanded that she cover her entire face (she was wearing a veil that left her eyes exposed). “Don’t provoke me!” the woman retorted. “Do you think we don’t know our own religion? We know our religion, and covered up before you even existed. The full facial cover is not forced upon a woman!” A 42-second video of her response blew up on Saudi social media. Using the hashtag #Don’tProvoke, people tweeted messages of support, criticizing the officer for berating a modestly dressed woman, and for doing so in front of her children. The public outpouring was a rarity in a country where, when it comes to confrontations between men and women, it is generally accepted that women are to blame.

Her response highlighted the perception that the commission is an intrusive body that seeks to impose a narrow vision of religion on Saudi women. Equally noteworthy was her rejection of the officer’s definition of appropriate veiling practice. After years of relying on the teachings of a single religious authority, the websites and social networks the mutaween have fought so hard to repress have facilitated the spread of alternative views.

A nearly 75-year-old police force can’t be disempowered overnight, and those like Mr. Sheikh who attempt to liberalize it risk fomenting a dangerous backlash. But, aided by social media, the doctrinal foundations of the religious establishment are finally beginning to crack. A broad-based, grass-roots show of anger against the mutaween may be the push the government needs to finally weaken and perhaps eventually dismantle the religious police.

Manal al-Sharif, a women’s rights advocate from Saudi Arabia, began a campaign in 2011 to let Saudi women drive.

Posted in Articles،English Content،منال الشريف

Has Hijab Become a Social Symbol?

Famed Saudi writer Manal Al-Sharif has a thoughtful look into hijab. She says that a recent survey shows that the Muslim headscarf is considered as a social rather than religious symbol.
A recent survey from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research conducted in seven Muslim-majority countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) found that most people prefer a woman to completely cover her hair, but not necessarily her face.

While public opinion in many of the surveyed countries expresses a clear preference for women to dress conservatively, many also state that women should be able to decide what to wear for themselves as long as they adhere to a conservative dress code.

Overall, most respondents agree that the most appropriate way for a woman to present herself in public is with her hair and ears completely covered by a white hijab.

This opinion is shared by 57% of survey respondents in Tunisia, 52% in Egypt, 46% in Turkey and 44% in Iraq. In Saudi Arabia, 74% say the burqaa or niqaab, which cover the woman’s face fully, are the most appropriate forms of public attire.

The figures above illustrate two important points. The first is that Muslim societies still consider the hijab a social symbol of conservative practice and chastity, regardless of the fact that its appearance, colour and way of being worn differs from one society to the next.

The second is that even in the most secular Muslim countries, such as Turkey and Tunisia, the hijab has retained its importance, indicating that it has become more of a societal imposition than a religious one.

This might represent a return to the true origins of the hijab in Muslim societies, where it was imposed on women by societal pressure and expectations. It is worth mentioning that in the absence of this important study, many outside the Muslim world believed that the hijab is imposed by political and religious authorities only, just as it is in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan, where are all women – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – are obligated to wear one.

In telling the story of how the hijab came to be imposed, the history books and the Prophet’s Biography describe how hypocrites in Medina harassed women in the street if they believed them to be among the women slaves.

The wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his family) complained about this, and the verse of the jalabib was revealed: “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their jalabib (loose-fitting garments) over their persons: that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested (Al-Ahzab 59).

Through their dress, it was now possible to differentiate the free women from the slave women when they walked in the streets. The biography books describe how Umar, the second Caliph in Islam, forbade the slave women if they copied the free women’s way of dressing.

As the judge and intellectual Mohamed Said Al Ashmawy explained in his book “The Truth about the Hijab and the Evidence of Hadith”, this reason for wearing jalabib – for distinguishing between slaves and free women – might be rendered obsolete by the non-existence of female slaves in the modern era.

According to the fundamental principles of Fikh (Islamic jurisprudence), the existence of the rule is intrinsically linked with the existence of the reason; if the rule exists, the reason must exist too.

Regarding the famous “verse of the hijab”, which is quoted by Quranic interpreters to justify the imposition of a religious veil, those who oppose this view point out that it was revealed with regard to the Mothers of the Believers (Wives of the Prophet) in particular, and that it does not refer to non-revealing clothes but rather to the non-revealing divide between the Prophet’s Wives and whoever talks to them.

The new generation of Muslim women is a questioning generation, influenced by science, technology and the Information Age. I recall the time a girlfriend from an American Muslim family asked me why women cover their faces in Saudi Arabia. I told her what I remembered from books and what we had been taught about it in the madrasa (religious school): that it is sinful (a3ura) for a woman to show her face. “What is a3ura?” she asked me. When I tried to translate the word literally, I became aware for the first time that in using this word, we compare a woman’s face to her genitals.

“Are you really telling me that God creates my face, places four of my five senses there, and then instructs me to conceal it because it compares with my genitals?” she said.

I didn’t have an answer at the time, but our discussion formed the beginning of a long search to find the origin of the hadith I had told her about. I found that no such hadith exists, and that it was merely a fabrication being used to subjugate woman to cover their faces, an imposition which is contrary to human nature.

Other justifications that we hear for the imposition of the hijab pertain to women’s allure to men and the fact that without the veil, she is exposing herself to the risk of harassment.

But despite wearing of the hijab being a widespread practice in Egypt, it has the highest rates of sexual harassment of all the Arab countries. And this raises questions about why we continue to punish the female victims and impose restrictions on them, instead of enacting a law which would deter the men from harassing in the first place.

But perhaps the biggest blow dealt to advocates of the hijab in the Muslim world came at the hands of a prominent religious institution in September 2013, when Al Azhar University awarded a doctorate with distinction to Sheikh Mustafa Mohammed Rashid for a thesis in which he argues that the hijab is not an Islamic requirement.

When the oldest institution and religious authority in the Islam world acknowledges that the veil is usually a social obligation, we can consider that a new precedent has been set.

As long as the hijab continues to be spread by political, social or religious forces, or women are held accountable for its appearance or colour; as long as laws are enacted that deny or impose its being worn, the hijab will remain a highly controversial topic.

It is a subject that is used to make condemning decisions about women, and that differentiates women from those around them in a world where differences and distinctions are being broken down on a daily basis.

Published on Islamist Gate February 9th, 2014