Sunday, June 26, 2005

Justice for Women: Some Urgent Steps

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

Before I left home today, I was shocked to see our neighbor so broken. She was beaten hard by her drunken husband. He banged her head to the wall, knifed her hand, and used metal and wood sticks over all parts of her body. When she escaped, he followed her to the street. She was only saved when my family took her in.

Later in the day, the poor woman returned home for the sake of her three-year-old daughter.

What options does she have? I wondered. She could go to the police, but she might not be able to prove her case. If she could get through all the painful legal and security procedures that could go on for years, how could she and her little daughter survive? If divorced, she will be deported to Somalia, her poverty-stricken country.

Thousands of women are grilled in a harsh, unfair cultural and legal environment. A woman may escape but that would be a move from her family’s fire to society’s Hell.

A Saudi woman was refused once and again her man of choice. When she protested, her father threw her out and her uncle took her in. Both insisted she can’t marry an airline captain because he would be away most of the time.

With nowhere to go, she went back to her father and accepted the first suitor. As it turned out, he was an animal — rough, tough, and raw. He would see her unconscious on the ground and take her to bed to fulfill his desires, instead of calling for medical help. When she finally left home and walked mindless all over town till midnight, everyone assumed she ran with a boyfriend. She accepted all kinds of punishment on her return to her family but insisted she would prefer to die before she returned to her husband.

After divorce, she was put under virtual house arrest; denied marriage, education and even contact with her divorced mother for many years. No friends, visitors, parties or telephone calls were allowed. When the ban on marriage was finally lifted, she felt so scared that she might refuse suitors for fear of more nightmares with another heartless man.

She was luckier than others, though. Many women had to accept life of endless nightmares with abusing husbands for the sake of their kids, or because their families won’t take them back, or they can’t prove their case to biased male-dominated courts. A woman I know endured over ten years of torture to stay with her six children. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she filed for divorce and custody. Because she didn’t cover her face in court, the judge assumed she was unfit to raise them properly. He ruled that she could see them once a week, but her ex-husband invented all kinds of excuses not to let her. For years, she would wait in a car outside their schools and home just to see them going in and out. She finally had the ruling overturned and won custody. Without her rich and well-connected father, she wouldn’t have managed.

Another woman who fled with her kids from an abusing father found protection with a prominent family. After a long process, the court found that he did abuse his kids ... sexually. Another father was torturing his infant daughter. Her mother had to cover up because she had nowhere to go if divorced. Doctors refused her lame explanation and informed the authorities. Mother and daughter are now in a safe home while the investigation is going on.

Many mothers are blackmailed to drop their custody right for freedom. Overwhelmed courts are making it so difficult for poor and ignorant women to file for divorce, not to mention the difficulty of proving grounds for breakup. The few safe homes in major cities cannot cope with all cases. A free legal aid is just starting in Jeddah, and had yet to be readily available to women in distress.

Small steps and half measures are not enough. We need to discuss the whole issue of “women under stress” in an open national forum with women making half the participants. Major changes to the legal and court system has to be made. Safe homes, police protection, hotlines for help, easier access to legal aid, women sections in courts and — why not? — female judges are needed. We also need harsher and faster justice: An eye for an eye, longer prison terms, and larger compensation. These and other solutions will come up in such forums, and we must implement them not tomorrow, not today, but yesterday. It is high time for real justice for women.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Arab and Western Media Lies Revisited

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

My last article “Arab Media: Our Faith, Their Lies” generated many enlightening responses. Most comments came from Western readers who saw similarities between our and their “perception manufacturing” industries. It is no consolation to Arabs that established democracies are doing it, though. By most standards we are very much atop the list of the worst offenders together with the likes of North Korea and Zimbabwe.

Here is a sample of the best responses.

(What will happen to the perception manufacturing industry with a change of existing rule? If the change is to a democracy like the US, it will expand greatly and grow in sophistication. Here we refer to it as “spin-doctoring”. I know the grass always looks greener but, in reality, it’s never as lush up close as from afar. — Mario)

(I think we all need to understand that no form of government has a monopoly on telling lies. The US, for example, has consistently lied about its illegal Iraq war. And in this case, 100,000 (give or take a few) people paid for these lies with their lives. And even though those lies were well known in late 2004, the liars were re-elected.

What I am saying is that even in a well developed democracy, the opportunity to throw out evil and corrupt politicians doesn’t mean they will be thrown out. The political systems under which people live have nothing to do with the social acceptance of lies, corruption and deceit. For so many years, Americans have access to the web, e-mail services, hundreds of satellite news sources and cell phones that reach around the world. The same applies in the UK and yet Tony Blair and G. Bush were re-elected.

The fact is that lies, bold enough, told often and loudly enough, become truth because people want to believe what they are told by “leaders”. Reality is just as subject to being ignored in the US as it is in North Korea.

Secondly, no form of government, democratic or autocratic, is immune from manipulation. In America, the constitutional form of central government guaranteeing specific rights was recently modified to ensure that persons maybe arrested and held without charges by the president’s orders. The reason for this is to make sure that lies and deceit are backed by police authority. So the form of government has nothing to do with the telling of lies or the acceptance of lies.

And in the final analysis, as Chairman Mao said, political power comes from the barrel of a gun. — Bob)

(Of course we are the ones that take things for granted but other than that your story of what the Arabs have gone through over the years sounds strikingly similar to our own lives in America. There is hardly ever a connection to reality when you really look into a lot of facts.

To be frank with you, it felt good in 1967 when I was 17 and Israel fought five Arab nations. Of course we had our news skewed as yours, but here’s what happened in our minds back then: Little tough guys stood up to many big bad guys in a very bad place. To us, then and now, it has always been a war between good Israelis and bad Arabs.

But then there was the USS Liberty and a gradual realization that there has never been an Israeli Air Force pilot stupid enough to attack the ship by mistake much less more than once and by more than one plane.

Yes the nation of Israel does have far too much power here for ages. The Democrats suck at dealing with this problem and the Republicans are even worse.

If you read the story do you think the sailors were hallucinating when they thought they saw a conning tower? I don’t believe this in the least. If there was one under the USS Pueblo what do you think would be also around the USS Liberty?

Our soldiers went there to do a clearly assigned job for the US government but when it turned into a real problem for it they were written off then and now. As the facts finally began to come out at inconvenient time, everybody just shut up on them. Wouldn’t it be true irony if it had something to do with the “Patriot Act”?

It’s not over yet! — Bob USNR)

Yes, Bob. It is not over yet! The people, ours and yours, will have the final say ... someday!

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Arab Media: Our Faith, Their Lies

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

When the “Voice of Arabs” radio told us triumphantly in the 1960s that Nasser’s Egypt had the strongest army in the region and could throw Israel in the sea if they choose to, we believed. When young, revolutionary, the Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi promised to be the unifier of the Arab world after the death of Nasser, we believed. When Baathists and Arab nationalists carried the “One Arab nation with eternal message” slogan, we believed.

Then came “Alnakbah” (the disaster) of June 5, 1967, when the one army of Israel destroyed not only the “mighty” Egyptian Army but also the Jordanian and Syrian. The Egyptian radio went on with the lies for days. According to the famous anchor Ahmad Said and his colleagues, the Israeli Air Force was losing tens of aircraft daily. This was when most Egyptian jet fighters were destroyed on the ground as though they were sitting ducks. The Egyptian media also claimed that American and British aircraft had joined the Israelis. Needless to say, all were sheer lies.

Many of us knew better afterward. Still, too many continued to believe, even today.

The Arab media kept telling us that all our troubles are due to Zionist conspiracies. They explained to us that we had to prepare for the liberation of Arab occupied lands. Sacrifices had to be made. Freedom, democracy, economic prosperity, good education and all kind of luxuries had to wait. Many believed. Many were skeptical. And as the wait got longer, the prison larger, the civilization gap with the rest of the world wider, more started to get skeptical. Resentment followed.

The new generation, born in a different world, was the most restless. They want to live like their peers in other parts of the world. Satellite TV, the Internet and other modern communication tools gave them an open, unfiltered window. They could see that what they lack others take for granted: Market-oriented training, secured, rewarding jobs, a wife and a home. Some expects even more: Travel, entertainment and (why not?) a car. They resent the military draft. They hate having to serve years in draconic conditions with little or no pay. It feels worse when they see that the rich and powerful can evade it.

The Arab conscious is getting more and more sophisticated and wise. The state media is not. They still sell the same lies and try their best to make us believe them. They want us to believe that some Arab leaders are re-elected because their nations have no better men or women for the job. Arab governments are doing like no other for their people. Our education is the best. Our democratic system is the envy of the world. Security is great not because most Arabs live under police regimes and emergency laws, but because of our wise, strong and honest leaders.

Besides, who said we are poor? Look at Somalia and Liberia and see how lucky we are! Better times are coming. We only need to be patient and work with the government to fight corruption and build a better society. Praise our leaders and pray for them to survive the challenges and win over the enemies and live long enough to get us all into heaven on earth. So don’t listen to the lies our enemies are spreading. Accusation of corruption, lousy management and nepotism are all baseless. Let’s stand together united with our leadership to prove to the envious world that we are truly one, united, strong Arab family.

Then came the Internet and Satellite TV. Then came CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeerah. Others followed and suddenly the truth can’t hide behind the smiley anchors’ faces anymore. The public eye and mind went past the newsroom curtain and the Dear Leader’s portraits to rich sources of information and explanations. So what the media answer would be?

Surprise, surprise! More lies, more going. No one believes? Who cares! There is a whole industry of perception manufacturing. Where would all these people go? How would this entire infrastructure be dismantled? Better leave things as they are, hoping somebody, somewhere still has faith.

Meanwhile, the elite will continue to benefit, the flaws will still be there, and the ship will go on sinking. The people’s knowledge of the truth will grow larger, their patience will get thinner, and the pot will be more and more boiling. The inevitable big bang will happen ... soon enough.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Western Democracy? Why Not?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

When Egyptian judiciary described US President George Bush’s call for international monitoring of Egypt’s referendum on the new presidential law as an outrageous intervention in their country’s internal affairs, I knew better. When governments protest international pressure to democratize and reform, because “reform must come from within” I know better. When state-run media call every criticism of some Arab leaders or governments a Zionist conspiracy, I know better. When some opposition groups and protesters are accused of being “fifth column,” stooges of foreign powers, I know better.
How is it that I always know better? Because I am an Arab citizen who understand something about how leadership works and am conversant with their political vocabulary. I could tell you before any question arise what the response would be ... exactly.
People’s demands are also predictable and simple. They want a say in how they are governed, in decisions affecting their lives, more freedom for the press, more openness and transparency and tighter accounting of public money and resources.
They need explanations, too. Why certain people are leaders for life? Why certain sects and ethnic groups are the chosen ones, even if they are in a minority? Why a great percentage of the population can’t have good education, decent jobs and accommodation, a social security net, or even a proper neighborhood?
Women are almost tired of asking questions about their voting rights, their participation in national affairs, and right to divorce, work, study, travel and trade.
Religious and ethnic minorities in some countries wonder if and when they would be treated as full citizens with equal rights.
They want equal treatment in schools, courts and workplace. They need protection, freedom of expression, and respect. They want to serve their country in the military, political and diplomatic services under the same rules and standards applied to the rest of us. They want to practice their religion, express their culture, speak their language and teach their kids their own history and culture. Why not, they wonder, why not?
On the “other side” (literally) are some governments and leaders who are too used to running people’s lives without anyone complaining or protesting, let alone demanding a part in decision-making and wealth sharing. They are used to reducing parliaments into puppets and playing with fake electoral system.
They get away with theft, corruption and murder. Some leaders put their relatives, friends and allies in every position they fancy, and distribute the nation’s wealth among themselves. They get away with rigging elections, running the media, controlling the religious authority and faking democracy.
Some governments put thousands of people in prison without trial, because they “talk politics.” And those are the lucky ones. Most are tortured, forced to humiliate themselves in public by incriminating themselves, given long terms, and when they leave they are denied work and left to rotten, with their families, in poverty, isolation and shame.
So is it any surprise that such elitist species would hate to have any other kind of real people share power with them, hold them accountable to their actions, and try and judge them if found guilty? Is it surprising that they would resist any international pressure to open up, shape up, and implement real reforms?
That is why I would accept the risk of being called a Western stooge when I agree with Western demands for Arabs to change and improve. No one is telling us how to do it. Arab governments could do it the way they like as long as they adhere to globally agreed standards. We could design the voting system that better suit us. We are free to customize our democracy and write our constitution to fit our culture and special case, as long as the people can accept or reject it in a referendum. And laws and regulations can be written the way we see fit, as long as elected representatives do it.
Then there is the cliché that “democracy is home made.” It is based on the incorrect assumption that the West wants us to apply their version of democracy as it is. Even if that is the case, we could always answer with our own, correct version. The world is changing, History is moving down the road of democracy and human rights. Those who deny and refuse to comply will be overtaken and overwhelmed by the flood, sooner or later, one way or another, by the international community or by their own people. Mark my words.