Wednesday, November 24, 2004

a saudi girl's rights

Here's a letter I wrote to Raid Qusti's article in Arab news:

Dear Raid,

With reference to your article "Reporting Saudi Arabia as It Should Be", you criticise foreign journalists for offering unbalanced and provisional perspectives of Saudi Arabia. This may be true, but it should also be mentioned that for years many Saudi journalists have not necessarily been true to the principles of their profession either.

Thankfully, courageous and constructive analysis is becoming more and more common these days. But I'm always curious why it is the practice of certain journalists to abuse the intelligence of the public by offering illogical arguments to justify the denial of women's rights.

This may seem like a harsh judgement, but I think your article is an exemplary instance of this practice and as someone who writes for a national and (with the internet) international audience, it is only appropriate that you be taken to task for your words. So please bear with me as I closely examine your claim that:

(A) "Our society is not ready for women voting or standing as candidates."

The reasons you give are:

(i) "…the difficulty of having separate places where women only could cast their votes and thus, according to some, the sinful mixing of sexes would not occur. In other words, instead of 140 centers in Riyadh and the region, we would need 280."

If the state places its own particular constraints on society (in this case, the segregation of the sexes), then it is also up to the state to provide for creative solutions to the particular problems which such constraints place on a given process. That is to say, logistical questions aside for such a rich country enjoying the recent windfalls of a high price of oil, from the premise that men and women are not allowed to freely mix it does not follow that women should be deprived from voting or from running for office.

(ii) "We would also need to employ women to answer questions from women members of the public…"

I believe the jobless rate for women in Saudi Arabia is quite high. Why then is the employment of women in the service of the public (and of their own) interest so problematic?

(iii) "…It also means municipalities would have to find women who would be willing to work in remote areas."

Well, unless municipalities actually make a proper attempt to find women who would be willing to work in remote areas, we’ll never know will we?

(iv) "And in turn, that would mean drivers were needed to take the women there and if they remained in the remote area, they would also need a male escort."

Please see my answer to (i)

In all honesty I don’t see how you can make claim (A) unless you have gone through the trouble of actually conducting a scientific survey of members of Saudi society in which you pose the question: “Is Saudi society ready for women voting or standing as candidates?”

Now, if you assume that women are members of Saudi society, then for the survey to be relevant and “statistically representative” one half of those questioned must be women, since they comprise at least 50% of the population.

If you don’t, as a point of departure, accept that Saudi women are members of Saudi society, then you should at least ask a statistically representative sample of men the same question. Then the results would only give us information about Saudi male opinion of Saudi women’s political rights, and not of Saudi society as a whole (which probably includes women as members).

Now given that you have not conducted a survey. It is only proper that you should preface your statement with the words: “In my humble opinion…”

An election is analogous to a survey: the process collects and records votes or opinions, always with the assumption that such votes are of value. To exclude half the population from the process is to tell them without distinction, that they are not properly members of Saudi society, that their opinions are of no consequence, and that their voices are not to be heard.

Which brings us to the kernel of the problem: it is only through an effective inclusive democratic process that we can get an informed sense of public opinion, of what people actually think. So if the majority of Saudis (including women) are ultra-conservative and traditional then so be it, society will accept it willingly, but let’s at least ask them what they think.

We are never any wiser or more informed 'about public opinion' by reading about, or listening to, single individual views such as yours or mine.

Sincerely yours,

Alia Khouri