Archive for July, 2012

Only Two Saudi Female Olympians but Another Victory Over Hardline Clerics

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Published on Huffington Post (Sports Section) here


As a women’s rights activist, I am really pleased that the London 2012 Olympics will be the first to include female athletes from every competing nation. Brunei and Qatar had previously held out on female inclusion but will now have women representing their countries. This left Saudi Arabia as the lone nation not sending women up until they reversed their decision last week when they announced that Sarah Attar would compete in the 800m race and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim in judo.

Although they are only sending two athletes, who actually live outside of the Kingdom, I think this is a very important breakthrough considering Saudi Arabia is one of the most religiously conservative countries in the world. Some critics argue that this decision changes little for women inside the country. I disagree because progress is already underway and women are a part of that change. King Abdullah, who has been the most progressive monarchy so far, has already started planting the seeds of change for his successor to build upon.

Last year the King opened the largest women’s university campus in the world to boost women’s higher education. He has promised to allow women to run and vote in the 2015 municipal elections and is permitting women to now work in clothes and cosmetic stores. King Abdullah is even trying to reign in the notorious morality police because the public has openly started to accuse them of being too aggressive and overstepping the mark. So earlier this year, he replaced the head of the ‘Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ with a more moderate cleric. Two months ago, he went even further and dismissed one of his most hardline advisers, Sheikh Abdelmohsen al-Obeikan.

These measured steps cannot be ignored. The control exercised by religious scholars over state matters is slowly being decreased. So the decision to include women in the Saudi Olympics team is another victory over the hardline clerics. Judging from King Abdullah’s recent track record, he may well have wanted women from within the kingdom to participate in the London games contrary to what the clergy wanted, who don’t want women involved in sports at all. They claim it leads to immorality and that excessive movements and jumping may also cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity. I have to say these religious scholars seem obsessed with sex – ‘protecting virginity’ tends to be the most commonly used excuse to curb the rights of women and girls. It has even been used to ban women from driving. So under the circumstances perhaps the best compromise for now was sending two sportswomen who lived outside the kingdom.

I know the rate of progress is frustratingly slow but a gradual approach is more likely to achieve women’s rights that are sustainable. We must remember that the monarch is fighting a constant ‘tug of war’ with the religious establishment who impose strict gender segregation and prohibit women from doing most things, unless they are granted permission by a male relative, such as husband, father, or son etc. They are very influential in Saudi Arabia and if the pace of change is too rapid, the public will probably side with the clergy.

With regards to sports, Saudi Arabia will be making history by sending a mixed gender Olympics team. They have set a precedent now – it will be hard to reverse this commitment in four years time. This decision now paves the way for women activists to demand internal policy changes, enactment of laws and provision to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within and outside the kingdom. Currently they have little opportunity to get involved in sports because physical education is not allowed in girl’s schools and there are no sports facilities for women. Also, most of the 150 or so sports clubs that are officially registered with government do not allow females into their sports grounds. So for these Olympic games, there may not have been females inside Saudi Arabia at the appropriate standard to participate anyway. However, there will be no excuses next time – they have plenty of time to train Saudi women for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Where Is the Justice for Afghan Women After Spending $60-Billion in Civilian Aid?

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Published on Huffington Post (World Section) here

When I saw the horrifying footage of 22-year-old Najiba being publicly executed the first thought that came to my mind was, are Afghan women and girls ever going to get justice? Clearly not, considering the lack of interest shown by the Afghanistan government in women’s rights. The majority of men who have beaten, raped and killed women go unpunished. In April, Young Women for Change defied safety fears and came out in a public protest to highlight these cases. However, no government official could be bothered to come out and listen to their concerns. Perhaps this is not surprising when you consider what the Minster of Justice thinks about vulnerable women. Last month Habibullah Ghaleb claimed those living in women’s shelters are prostitutes. Despite calls from women’s NGOs, President Karzai has refused to fire the minister.

There should be zero tolerance of such attitudes amongst decision makers, particularly if they are in charge of spending budgets on improving the rights of women. Donor countries had the perfect opportunity to intervene. They had every right to demand the removal of Ghaleb. The U.S. alone is spending $110 million annually on the Afghan judicial system and this minister is making decisions on how some of these funds are used, which includes improving women’s access to justice. When he has shown he cannot be objective about women, why have all aid donors accepted that Ghaleb remains in charge of how their money is spent?

Despite such vast sums going into the judiciary, the rights of Afghan girls and woman continue to be abused both in national and local courts. Most are unaware of their legal rights and lack support to defend their rights through the judicial system. So what on earth is the money being spent on? The fact that the Taliban had the audacity to carry out Najiba’s execution so publicly (with 150 or so men watching) and only a few miles from the capital city of Kabul shows lack of government control. It raises the question, do the Taliban control everything outside of Kabul or are some government officials colluding with them?

So the only hope that women and girls have is the international community, and by that I mean all of us. We need to question our governments on why our money is not improving the safety of women and girls and providing them with justice. These questions should have been asked a long time ago, because “Afghanistan has received nearly $60-billion in civilian aid since 2002.”

Perhaps the image of Najiba kneeling down in the dirt and being shot several times at close range has finally outraged us enough to speak out. Stories of Afghan women suffering violence regularly make it into the news. How many times have we just ended up sharing them through social media and done little more than that? I have been guilty of that, too — but this time I was so angry that I felt compelled to do something and contribute in some way. Within hours of watching Najiba’s murder, I set up a petition calling on the governments of the UK, U.S., Germany and Japan to ensure the Afghan government not only bring Najiba’s killers to justice, but do more to protect Afghan women. You, too, can join in and take action by signing and sharing the petition.

I have targeted UK, U.S., Germany and Japan in particular as they will be the largest donors of the $16 billion of civil aid pledged to Afghanistan over the next four years. They should be ringfencing sufficient aid to ensure it is spent on measures that will increase women and girl’s safety and security and access to justice. Hollow pledges and public statements by senior government officials, particularly by Hillary Clinton, should no longer satisfy us. She has said, “Afghan women will not be abandoned” and “women’s rights must be an integral part of Afghanistan’s future” — but these are very broad statements. She has failed to back them with specific measures, firm action and stringent conditions to make them a reality.

Recently, British Foreign Secretary William Hague also made a public statement. He said he was “shocked and disgusted” by Najiba’s murder. He has even publicly called upon the Afghanistan government to bring the perpetrators to justice. However, once the publicity subsides, he and other world leaders will forget her. Najiba will just become another Afghan female statistic. We can make sure that world leaders do not forget this Afghan woman — her death can be used to help other women and girls get justice. Powerful images can turn history and perhaps Najiba’s video may do the same. In a country where demonstrations are rare, dozens came out in Kabul to protest against her killing and demand that the government take serious action to prevent violence against women.

The Afghan government depends almost entirely on foreign aid and I think it is time to say “if you want the money, you must show how you are protecting women’s rights.” The global public needs to ensure donor governments make that happen. If women’s rights are not improved over the next four years, the likelihood is that the most educated and skilled women will leave the country while the rest will be too scared to go out and continue to suffer in silence.