Arab News reports:
Saudi women expressed outrage at Chelsea Handler, the American host of the TV show “Chelsea Lately,” when she swore at Saudi men for being able to receive notification by SMS of their wives’ travels abroad.
Here’s the 35 seconds long clip that got these women outraged:
The first woman quoted in the story says Handler does not understand how the system works:
Sabah Abdulmalik, a 42-year-old stay-at-home-mom said, “I would like to inform Chelsea that this is only a service that people can activate or decline and that this was not forced upon us,” said.
“This service was developed by the Saudi authorities and not by husbands who want to track their wives, so when she says such a word, she should know that it was not conceived of at a local level and that it’s a matter of choice,” she added.
It might be true that the SMS notifications are an optional service (although it is more complicated than that), but you are ignoring elephant in the room: guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia do not allow women to leave the country without permission from their guardians. In the past it was the notorious yellow slip, now it is the infamous text messages.
Saudi fashion designer Reem AlKanhal says she respects freedom of speech but this crossed the line. “I think we have deeper problems than traveling, driving and covering our faces. They only focus on the aspects of our lives that make them laugh and we hate to be the butt of jokes on live television,” she said.
If we don’t want to be the butt of jokes then we should fix our “deeper problem.” Complaining about others laughing at us will not solve these problems, especially when we are not allowed to discuss and tackle them because of the red lines that you say Hanlder has crossed one of them.
A female Saudi blogger who chose to remain anonymous said that Chelsea’s clip was offensive not only to Saudi women, but to Islam as well. “We learned that Muslim women should not leave the house without the approval of their husbands and I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
“Her words were very aggressive and we do not accept such attacks, especially using bad words knowing that this is not how we were raised and this is not normal to us in Arab, local TV shows and talk shows,” she added.
You would think that bloggers are opinionated people who want to express their ideas and stand behind them, but this is not the case here. Here, you have a blogger who wants to be anonymous. She is like the anti-blogger. She complains that Handler, a comedienne who was talking on a late night show, used “bad words.” What are you, five? She adds that “this is not normal to us in Arab, local TV shows and talk shows.” First, this was not an Arab or local show. Second, you almost certainly watched this on YouTube, i.e. you chose to click and watch this. Nobody forced you to do this. Oh and by the way, since you seem easily offended, you should probably stop using the Internet.
Sarah Essam, a 32-year-old mother of two, wonders how Chelsea thought she was defending Saudi women in making these statements. “I know that using shocking language and discussing controversial topics are surefire ways to attract a larger audience, but this is beyond disrespectful and she crossed the line,” she said.
“Thanks to her words, she actually made us defend our husbands and stand behind this service even if we don’t approve of it,” she added.
Again with the damn line. But wait, Handler’s comments made you “stand behind this service even if we don’t approve of it”? Wow, talk about Stockholm Syndrome.
Mariam Hejazi, a 28-year-old banker, demanded an apology from Chelsea. “We have been tolerating the international media for a really long time. How can they judge a whole nation when funnily enough, it is their motto to “never judge a book by its cover,” she said.
Poor Hejazi is upset. Very upset. How dare this Handler comedienne make fun of her plight? How insensitive of her. Okay, khalas, international media will no longer talk about Saudi women issues because someone’s feelings are hurt. Promise. Pinky promise.
In the end, the newspaper has managed to find at least one woman who was not offended by the clip:
Yasmine Abdulrazak, an English teacher at a college in Jeddah, thinks the clip was actually funny and did not feel offended by it. “I don’t know why we are always offended when people talk about us. Yes, the media highlights the negative things about Saudi Arabia and they always make women feel like we need a hero to save us,” she said.
“Chelsea is a comedian and her job is to mock people and attack others to make her audience laugh. We see her make fun of celebrities, politicians and nations but they do not express offense in the same way we did today,” she added.
I found a few more on Twitter. Here’s one of them:
When I used to live in Riyadh, the Diplomatic Quarter was one of my favorite areas in the city. Clean, organized and quiet, it felt like a secret oasis within the city. In a way, it was. Since the early 2000’s, access to the neighborhood has been highly restricted due to fear of terrorist attacks targeting the diplomatic missions located there.
I have previously complained about how hard it is to enter the Diplomatic Quarter, or DQ for short, for regular people. I have not been to Riyadh in a few years, but I guess the problems in getting to the DQ remain the same despite the fact that the security situation in the country has improved a lot.
Now in addition to being the semi-official newspaper for the country and the capital’s city namesake, al-Riyadh daily also serves as a newsletter for the Saudi royal family. When a prince gets married, al-Riyadh would typically run pages upon pages full of pictures from the all-male wedding. Such weddings usually take place in a banquet hall called Palace of Culture in the Diplomatic Quarter.
The newspaper recently ran photos from yet another prince’s wedding at the Palace of Culture. That made wonder if there are ever any cultural events held at this place. The answer is yes, but very rarely. Most of the time, it is simply used as a wedding hall for the elites.
As I was doing my research on that location, I came across this interesting piece about the planning and building of the Diplomatic Quarter published in Saudi Aramco World in their September/October 1988 issue. The magazine, published by the national oil company, is one of the oldest publications in the country.
Unlike the current the situation where the DQ feels blocked from the rest of the city by multiple security checkpoints guarded by squads of heavily armed and grumpy security forces, the original vision for the area was that it would be a “normal neighborhood.” Mohamed Alshaikh, president of ArRiyadh Development Authority (ADA), who has spearheaded the project when in the late 1970’s, told the magazine:
“Physically, functionally and socially, the quarter is by no means separate from the rest of Riyadh,” he says. In fact, “diplomatic mission personnel will number less than 10,000” of the DQ’s projected 22,000 inhabitants, and the quarter will be “a normal neighborhood of Riyadh, with priority to the diplomats.”
For current residents of Riyadh, the DQ is anything but a normal neighborhood. Alshaikh went on to say that they did not want a “ghetto feeling develop” in the quarter. Planners wanted it to serve as a model for future urban development in Riyadh. That obviously did not happen. More than twenty years later, some would say that the rest of the city feels like a ghetto compared to the much nicer Diplomatic Quarter.
What went wrong? Nothing in the Diplomatic Quarter itself, but almost everything around it.
The book Girls of Riyadh is one of the few true Saudi bestsellers. The controversial novel by Raja al-Sanea first came out in 2005 and became a sensation right away. The instant popularity and the controversy surrounding it prompted the Saudi government to ban the novel at first, but soon the ban was lifted and the book was available for purchase almost everywhere, including gas stations on the road between Riyadh and Dammam.
The novel was translated to English and published in the summer of 2007. I was not impressed by the book when I read it, but I thought that accompanying controversy was interesting nevertheless.
Considering that al-Sanea was trained as a dentist and this was her first book, some people raised questions over if she really wrote it. The fact that the well-known Saudi writer and minister Ghazi al-Gosaibi, a figure hated by religious conservatives, wrote a blurb for the book did not help. But I did not have a reason to doubt that al-Sanea had indeed written the novel. Al-Gosaibi, who passed away in 2010, would not have written something like that.
To avoid the controversy and her new fame, al-Sanea left the country and headed to Chicago to pursue higher education in dentistry. But before departing to the US, she told those who questioned her talent that Girls of Riyadh was not a “rooster’s egg,” which means that her novel was not a one-off, accidental success. She said she was going to write a novel as “powerful and influential” as her first one.
Seven years later, al-Sanea is yet to publish her second book. She told the Beirut-based al-Akhbar last year that she is working on a new novel to come out in 2012 “reflecting the changes surrounding her life.” The year is almost coming to an end and I have not heard or read anything about her upcoming novel.
However, the most interesting part in her interview with al-Akhbar for me was her take on the Arab Spring. I was surprised to read that she thinks that “We [in Saudi] have nothing to revolt against like neighboring countries.” Moreover, she believes that Saudi Arabia is “on the reform track.”
Obviously, Raja al-Sanea is not beyond her rooster’s egg yet.
During his visit to Saudi Arabia last week, British PM David Cameron made a stop at Dar Al-Hekma College (DAH) in Jeddah. The private girls college held a roundtable with students and alumnae to welcome the visitor from England.
Private higher education institutions in Jeddah have become a usual stop on the schedules of foreign dignitaries who come to Saudi Arabia in recent years. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a large town hall meeting with students at DAH when she visited the country in February 2010.
In both occasions, the Western visitors praised the intelligence and determination of the female students, and in both cases religious conservatives attacked.. well, everyone: the visitors, the colleges and the students.
As soon as photos from Cameron’s roundtable at DAH surfaced online, religious conservatives started spewing venom. Elderly cleric Abdulrahman al-Barrak described the scene of DAH students shaking hands with the British PM as “disgrace, scandalous, and shame.” He said DAH is only interested in “Westernizing Muslim women.”
Nasser al-Omar, another cleric, asked how is it possible for “those who organized, permitted or participated at the meeting of our girls with a Christian official” to be loyal to our religion, country or people?
More people on Twitter made similar remarks, using even coarser language. This prompted a number of DAH students to say that they will file a complaint with the court against what they described as defamation on the social network, according to Saudi Gazette.
When Cameron visit’s to DAH was first announced, Hanan al-Shargi asked: “Why did the private girls colleges in Jeddah become a regular stop for foreign dignitaries?” Why don’t they visit the public King Abdulaziz University (KAU), for example? Are we embarrassed by KAU students, or is their English not good enough? she added.
Those questions should probably be directed at those foreign officials, but let me take a shot at guessing some answers.
First, there is the political gain that Western politicians can easily achieve by such visits.
When Cameron visits Jeddah and meets with the students, he can come back to tell his parliament that he did not just go to Saudi Arabia to sell arms and ignore their dismal record on human rights. He can go back to London and say that he didn’t just discuss human rights with the Saudi government, he has actually met non-government actors and visited a girls college known for empowering women.
Second, logistics and bureaucracy. Most of these visits are usually proposed by the embassies of those foreign countries, and for them it is far more easier to deal with a small private college than a big public university where they have to go through a lot of red tape. Speaking to foreign diplomats over the years, many of them told me that public universities remain off limits to them.
The Education Office at the US Embassy in Riyadh has been for years seeking permission to organize activities at local universities to help Saudi students prepare before they fly to the US to study on government scholarships. No permission was granted, despite the fact that more than 70,000 Saudi students are currently seeking degrees in America.
Then, there is the general perception that those small private girls colleges in Jeddah are more liberal and progressives than public higher education institutions in the country. A perception that many people would agree with. Even though these private colleges are women-only, they don’t have a problem welcoming male speakers every once in a while.
Now compare this with the “crisis” in Dammam University two months ago when a German female professor entered the engineering building of the male students and gave her first lecture in the semester to the students who were apparently freaking out. Some of them reported the incident to the dean who asked the professor to leave the classroom immediately. It turned out that the professor was confused about her schedule, and that she is only supposed to teach female students.
This is one of these these issues that is a non-issue, really. But then again, it is the kind of thing that conservatives enjoy the most: an issue that involves women, especially one where they don’t have to worry about a direct confrontation with the government.
In the end, it is the control of the social arena that they seek the most. As long as they don’t choose to challenge the government, the government would gladly let them have it.
I know it’s been very quiet around here. Apologies for the hiatus, but I’ve been working on something you might like: Riyadh Bureau, a new independent news website on Saudi Arabia. Saudi Jeans will always be my home online, and I will try to write in the blog every once in a while, but for daily updates on the latest in Saudi Arabia please head over there.
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