Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What Is It Like to Be a Saudi Woman?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,
June 25 2006

Lila is the daughter of a brand-name family. This is important in the marriage market, but she has other important qualifications too. She is beautiful, smart, cute and moderately religious. In the beauty section, she is golden dark, tall with thick, long, flowing hair. In school, she had always been top of her class. Her friends and family love her for her good nature, optimism and sense of humor. She never misses a prayer or a religious duty, and lives a modern life with sophisticated attitude. In short, she is a poster-wife.
Her first shocking lesson came at an early age. The family promised to send her to medical school if she achieved A+ grade in high school. She did, but they changed their mind. That was her life’s dream and it was brutally shattered. Instead of becoming a heart surgeon, as she hoped, she is now a high school teacher. Why? Because this is a job where she doesn’t have to mix with men!
Later, there were more shocking lessons. Her suitors were turned away, one after another. Reasons varied, but mostly it was about their social and economic class. Since she inherited a fortune from her father and has a good salary, her brothers suspected that any man with lesser fortunes was after her money.
By the time the “right” suitor arrived, they had already soaked most of her savings. With promises of profitable investment and wiser management they divided her inheritance as well as that of their mother and sisters among themselves. If persuasion didn’t work, they applied social pressure. A woman who refuses to accommodate her own sons and brothers is called names and denied peace of mind.
Finally, they agreed to a suitor. She wasn’t given enough time to check him out, let alone love him. He turned out to have no merits except coming from a brand-name family. He has a shallow, childish personality, who lets his mother run all his affairs and make all his decisions. She couldn’t communicate or meet at any intellectual or emotional level with him from day one.
No one understood her reasons to demand divorce. Her family, tribe, the court and the whole community were against her. As long as he provides for her, and doesn’t mistreat her physically, there were no acceptable legal, logical or social grounds for divorce. She was lucky, because her husband gave up on her, and his mother agreed. They demanded compensations and got them. Gladly, she paid them back the dowry, gifts, jewelry, and whatever cost them for the wedding party and other events.
After divorce, she was socially punished for her rebellion. Her male guardians still wouldn’t accept suitors of lesser class. Suitable ones wouldn’t marry a divorced woman with rebellious attitude. And she wouldn’t accept silly, shallow, old and expired men just because they happen to come from the right tribe.
Now in her mid-thirties, her chances and choices are increasingly limited. The few suitors who trickle now are mostly in their fifties and sixties with wives and kids. In this range they are usually too traditional for her taste. Some are looking for self-financing, salary-earning wives. Others want to escape busy wives and noisy kids to spend some time every now and then with a young, light and lonely woman. Who needs that?
Lila is still waiting. There are many like her — some in a worse situation than hers. At least, Lila can work — a good investment of energy and time. She can go on the net and communicate with people like me. But others I know are not permitted even to leave home, unless really necessary. More decided to accept the hell they know, rather than try the terrible life of the divorced. Then, there is the problem of kids. Mothers have to stay the course with unpleasant husbands and continue to lead unhappy lives so their children won’t be taken away from them.
A lot has to be reviewed, changed and improved: Laws, rules and customs. Islam gave women their due rights and traditions took them away. Since we claim to be Muslims, we should abide by Islamic rules and follow the noble example set by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Are We Treating Our Guest Workers Right?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

"Arabnews" Sunday, 18, June, 2006

Let me begin by quoting a letter from an expatriate:

“We were talking about the stock market crash when my Arab friend suddenly said: Many Saudis are trying to figure out why Allah is punishing them so hard. Of the reasons they came up with, moral decadence tops the list. I agree, but not from the same perspective. By moral decadence, they mean materialism, commercialism, dating, indecent entertainment, and less religious devotion and mosque going.

I see it from a different perspective. As a long-term expatriate, I can testify to how tough it is for foreigners to work and live in your country.

I can talk from now to the wee hours of the morning about what many employers are doing to their ‘sponsored’ employees and how the system is less than just to us.

Take me as an example. I signed a contract with a company for a certain salary and benefits. After the company became my sponsor, the contract was suddenly changed, duties were increased and rewards reduced.

I could have gone to the Labor Bureau, but I’d need an expensive lawyer. Besides, I’d have to stay home for a while without any source of income. In addition, in retaliation, my sponsor could accuse me of any number of things, from laziness to theft. He has all the power, connections and tools, and I don’t. So I decided to accept the new terms and stay on.

Like me, thousands get their salaries late, sometimes after months. Others are sent home without compensation or left in the street to find jobs and then pay part of their wages back to the sponsor for keeping them sponsored. And don’t tell me they should complain. You know what it is like when they do it. Their employer could report them to the authorities as absconders. Once captured, they get sent home after staying for a while in the infamous ‘deportation facilities’.

In conclusion, I say: To please Allah, Saudis must re-evaluate the way they treat their guest workers.”

I was ashamed to say much in defense. While, I hope, the majority of Saudi employers are decent and just, too many are not. We have heard stories about the abuse and harassment of nurses, maids and domestic servants. However, we didn’t hear of major changes to labor laws that would prevent such abuses. I understand that the government cannot enter every house, know about every case and protect every expatriate. The authorities cannot, by their nature, interfere in a dispute if the parties didn’t ask for interference. But nongovernmental organizations concerned with human rights can actively seek and find these cases. On behalf of the victims, they should sue the offenders and collect compensations. Hot lines to concerned authorities and organizations should be established, publicized and given to every expatriate on arrival. Random checks on work places and interviews with employees should be conducted. Recently allowed, labor committees in private companies should be activated and given more powers and authority to look after members, like any decent union would.

In addition, we have to be strict with abusers. Punishment must fit the crime. Long prison terms and hefty financial penalties should apply to serious cases of abuse, for males and females alike.

Our media should extensively cover these cases, and publish the proceedings and penalties. Offenders should know what awaits them if they misbehave; we should make it crystal clear to potential abusers that we have a zero-tolerance policy for such crimes.
Major changes to the sponsorship laws are long overdue. So are better facilities and higher capacities for the offices of the Labor Ministry that deal with labor disputes. A worker cannot wait forever without a source of income hoping for a verdict in his favor. Many are driven to despair because it takes too long, sometimes years to get justice.

The human rights body should focus more on the problem. We should encourage them and charity organizations to facilitate and provide services to guest workers under stress, including safe havens, social, medical and psychological consultations and legal representations.

This is much more important than fixing the stock market. If we do that, we could assure our position as the Kingdom of Humanity, the moral authority and leading inspirer to the Muslim world.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Call for West-Islam Open-Doors Policies

Dr. Khaled Batarfi
(Arabnews) Sunday, 11, June, 2006

I was in the middle of an interesting debate about why and how the fanatics on all sides are winning while the project for repairing and extending the bridge of understanding between the West and the Muslim world is slowing. Suddenly, I received a call. It was from a friend I hadn't heard from for ages. Once the best of friends, we broke off on a sour note.
As I explained to members of a visiting German parliamentary delegation last week, my friend and I were too angry, arrogant and impatient to offer explanations and ask for answers. Pain was buried in anger, and anger fueled by pain. A vicious circle that led us so far away from each other, that we couldn't even meet or talk. Jealous, ignorant and unwise friends didn't help. To one side or another, they offered sympathy, support and undying loyalty. That helped us through our psychological turmoil, but reduced the need and motive to solve our disagreement.
Many years later, my friend called. It was so unexpected and pleasant a surprise. In the first call we didn't discuss our differences. Later, we aired them and found they were so trivial and silly. We couldn't believe we had so much energy and focus invested in so unimportant issues while a lifetime of good and beautiful relations and feelings were sacrificed and forgotten. Misunderstanding, miscommunication, misinformation, acting on haste and jumping to wrong conclusions are mostly the reasons why so many good and prosperous relations go sour and keep that way.
I told Joachim Horster and his colleagues that mistrust and fear come out of ignorance and divide. When we meet and talk, a simple smile and hello go a long way toward solving complicated issues. The rest will melt away with enlightened discussions and civilized interaction.
The best way to achieve harmony between civilizations is to open doors and encourage people-to-people exchange. When I was invited to America as part of a Saudi press delegation shortly after Sept. 11 my beloveds were horrified. My mother almost prevented me from going. I wasn't as sure as I pretended, but I won my case and went.
Yes, at the airport there was some "special" treatment for Arab citizens. I was lucky but others had to endure hours of wait to fill forms and prove they were what their passports claimed they were. Once out of the airport all went as normal as it could be.
The Arabs and Muslims I met in that visit reported few, if any, inconveniences, mostly from overzealous or racist FBI agents and citizens. But there was no general trend or policies. No public hatred, closure of mosques, mass arrests of Muslims, or biased laws and regulations against them.
If only my fellow Arabs and Muslims could see that! If more of us could visit America and the rest of the Western world and experience first hand how untrue and unfounded their worst suspicions and misgivings were! But, alas, gates are tight for most, closed for so many. Millions of Muslim students, merchants, tourists and patients were denied US visas in recent years. Visas to other Western nations are becoming more difficult to obtain. Denial doesn't always come with explanation, which makes the denied feel rejected. Some were returning students, visiting parents, vacationing families and seriously ill patients.
In the meanwhile, the media and fanatics are busy feeding negative messages to both sides. No day is lost without stories aired and published about mistreatment of Muslims in the West, and Westerners in the Muslim world. Sermons, speeches, comments and op-eds exaggerate and inflame what is already an aggravated state of mind.
The only way out of this bad-to-worse situation is for governments to design and encourage all kinds of people-to-people visitation such as exchange programs, tourism, educational and cultural cooperation.
I know I have said this over and over again in the years since the breaking point of 9/11, but it is worth it. And as nerves cool down, anger is abated and wisdom birds return home, the call to welcoming and cooperation policies may find more sympathetic hearing and supportive attitudes.
I bet on this overdue outcome for the sake of humanity, civilization and our best interests.

The Twisted Logic of the Fanatics

Dr. Khaled Batarfi
Arabnews (June 4, 2006)

It is awfully hard to persuade someone who is convinced he is right. No matter how persuasive your logic, you will find them immune to persuasion with a locked logic of their own. I found this is true with fanatics of all kinds. Ours are no different. Examples are plenty.

Let’s take the latest. The Labor Ministry has given a year’s notice to shops selling women’s clothes to employ Saudi women only. They later had to extend the deadline to an as yet unspecified date.

This was an overdue move. Most shops today employ men to sell women’s stuff, such as lingerie. It is embarrassing, to say the least, for a woman to take advice on what nightclothes to wear for her husband or on the latest panties and swim dresses.

Besides, our women need jobs and the system is not helping. The girls’ curriculum is not geared for work. Graduates, therefore, have few work options, mostly as teachers, doctors or nurses. If a girl wants to be a civil engineer, a lawyer, a pilot or a diplomat, she will have to study abroad.

After graduation come other obstacles. Women must work in women-only environment. Except for hospitals, mixed work environments are forbidden by law. This means the overwhelming majority of job opportunities, by default, go to men.

So, while more than half our graduates are girls, few can work. The rest hang their certificates at home and stay there. What a waste!

As expected, the fanatics threw a fierce fight against the Labor Ministry for suggesting the new law. Their logic is absurd. Women working in shops are vulnerable. Male shop owners and shoppers may take advantage of salesgirls. In their paranoid view, only by staying home could women be safe. And if at all necessary, they can work as teachers in girls-only schools or at home and in women-only businesses.

The underlying assumption here is that our women are weak and cannot be trusted. They are easy prey and can easily fall to temptation. Men are wolves lurking outside looking for any chance to jump on them, as soon as they leave their castles.

With such conviction, no logic in the world may help. You tell them that many women are poor and need to support their families, and they say they should go to charities. You remind them that dire circumstances may lead some to immoral ways, and they say, “the free die of hunger rather than sell themselves to the Devil.”

Another example of twisted logic and locked mentality is the reasoning behind banning women driving. Again, fanatics talk about protecting women. They liberally use the “what if” logic: What if a car broke down in a deserted area? What if men followed a girl or tried to attack her where no help is available? What if she broke a law and policemen had to take her to a male-dominated station? You give them solutions. You tell them: Let’s agree first on the principle, and then study how we solve expected problems. You remind them of a million or more male drivers working in our homes. You list the dangers that are not mere “ifs” but solid reality. You point to the contradiction of worrying about males in the street and accepting males in the driving seat. But you can’t get anything across.

What is really frustrating in their logic is their insistence on forcing the rest of us to follow it. A girl may opt to study Home Improvement in college, but it is not her or her family’s business if my daughter chose to study home building, instead. A woman may choose not to work, but she is not entitled to tell other women not to. Another may insist she won’t work in a mixed environment, but she shouldn’t object if others choose to. She could opt to have a man driving her around, but why would she care if other women choose to drive themselves?

The problem with fanatics is not that they force their logic on their families and dependants — and that’s bad enough — but they insist the whole society follow their lead. All of us should wear as they wear, eat what they eat, study what they study, work and live according to their rules. Not that we are following a different religion.

This has nothing to do with Islam, but with a certain school of thought that belongs to a certain sect. Islam has never forbidden women working or driving, but certain cultures and traditions did.

Good for them, if they choose to but they should not, may not intervene in other peoples’ choices — people from other cultures and with different ways and thoughts. Your freedom must end where others’ starts.

Why Change Business Rules All Too Frequently?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

I asked the Honda dealer for a car with window shades, and was told they don't have them. Why not? After years of strict no, the government finally allowed cars to be shaded in the back windows. The dealer smiled sweetly and teased: And what if they changed their minds, again?

He is right. I remember when they changed their minds before and car windows were smashed at the customs before they were allowed in. Luckily, the shaded Chrysler minivan I brought home after I finished my Ph.D. studies in the US was spared such a fate because the law had just changed. Since then, it has changed twice. Each time car and shopowners had to cope with a hefty price. Shades were pealed off cars, and inventories in shops and warehouses were confiscated or wasted with no compensation.

Abrupt rule changes are not new. In the late 1990s, shops in Jeddah had to close down in many areas because the newly appointed mayor revised the commercial zone system. Owners were given until the end of their contracts to move out. If that happened to be only days away, so be it! Many went bankrupt because they had invested their capitals in decorating and establishing their businesses. They couldn't afford to lose all these investments and just move on. "It isn't like a tent you fold and carry," I told the mayor. He wouldn't listen. Nobody cared then, nobody does now.

Today, we have three glaring examples of such arrogant and ignorant bureaucratic attitude. The Shoura Council has just approved a law that prohibits shops remaining open beyond 9 p. m. The committee that designed the law had already listened to representatives of shopowners who explained why a law that works for a village may not work for a city, or what suits school season may not be good for the holidays. The bureaucrats who might never have been in business decided that closing shops earlier will provide jobs for Saudis. How? I understand that more shifts mean more opportunities. But the way they see it is this: Saudis can only work eight hours a day, and if businesses are forced to stick with this time limit then more citizens would be encouraged to work for them.

They forgot that we, Saudis, especially in our typically hot summer, prefer to get out and about only at night. Closing shops earlier deprived both merchants and customers of the best time for conducting business.

While we encourage local tourism, mindless laws like this make it very hard for the industry to thrive and compete with the more alluring regional and international destinations. In Dubai and Bahrain, for instance, malls can stay open as late as past midnight. In hot and humid weather, where else, if not in air-conditioned malls, people can spend their leisure time?

Another example is the order to close live-bird shops. I understand the concern about bird flue, but the question is: Who should shoulder the burden? The shopowner, who may have invested his life's savings in the business or the government? If it is absolutely necessary to close these shops, then the government should compensate the owners or make it up for them by finding ways to recoup their losses and change course. The ever-modified law of furnished apartments is another case in point.

To just make laws, implement them, then wash your hands off the dire consequences for the affected parties is not fair.

The reason why laws had to be changed back and forth is that they were not well studied and conceived.

A good case is the limousine Saudization law. After issuing a decree that forced limousine companies to be fully Saudized within six months, the implementation was first delayed, then forgotten. For a start, there weren't enough Saudi drivers to fill the gap. The King Fund that gives interest-free loans to Saudis to buy taxis has not generated enough interest.

Besides, taxi companies were not consulted. In many instances, even after the concerned parties are consulted regarding a new law, their views are not always taken into account. When the universal rent contract was finally approved by the Shoura Council, the concerns of building owners were not heeded.

For businesses to prosper, we need stable laws and regulations. Investors must be quite sure that their investments won't be spoiled all on a sudden because some smart bureaucrats thought of changing the rules in the middle of the game. If this happens, then the government should shoulder the losses, not the players. This is only fair.

Helping the Stock Market Victims

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

You hardly join a discussion these days without dwelling on the stock market Big Bang. People are confused, astonished, and angry.

When three to four million Saudis out of 13 are hurt you don't need a whistle-blower to tell you that something is worth keen attention. Unfortunately most discussions are focused on the market itself, less time is devoted to the social effects of the crash.

What do you do to help millions of affected people? Some sold all their worldly possessions to "gamble" in the bourse. Others left their secure jobs to find time and energy to invest in high-flying stocks. Many sold their homes, cars, shops and businesses below market prices to raise some reasonable capital. Women used their life savings, jewelry and dowry to get on board.

The crash was worse still for those who bought cars at installments and then sold them at much less than the original price. Also for those who got long-term bank loans and the workers who took advanced salaries from their companies. They all hoped to pay debts and make a fortune in a market that doubled in value for two consecutive years. They all turned into players in stock trade. Even the likes of my illiterate poor mother-in-law suddenly became proud shareowners, keen readers and armchair analysts of market trends.

A person I know was typical of many. He resigned a good position, collected retirement compensation, as well as the jewelry of his wife, daughters and sisters, plus some friends' savings. Then sold his farm and three loaned cars and put all proceeds in a bank portfolio. Against his three million riyals, the bank gave him three more. After the crash, he lost half the portfolio and the bank reclaimed the other half. He came out from this business with huge loans and debts and no revenue to pay them back or even to live on. He is now in deep depression after some heart and other health complications.

Like him, people of limited means and huge losses, are struggling to make ends meet. Imagine the short- and long-term effect of this shocking experience on them socially, psychologically, mentally and politically. How are they going to feel about those "fat cats", who stole the market? How are they going to evaluate the performance of the government agencies that were supposed to well manage the market and protect the weak and the unaware? And where will they go to pay huge debts and to cover daily expenses?

When crises hit, you need strong crisis management. We urgently need a high commission made of highly professional representatives of all concerned authorities and parties. Their mission should be to study and manage the social calamity and to provide solutions to affected people.

After the New York Stock Exchange crash of 1929, millions went broke and hungry, until President F. D. Roosevelt sponsored the congressional bill that created the Social Security Act of 1935. The new system provided a safety network for the needy and unemployed. It also helped spur the economic recovery in the 1940s and 1950s.

What we need is urgent steps to help people cope with their losses and challenges. For example, we should reach an understanding with loaners such as banks, government loan funds and car companies, to reschedule loans to market victims. We ought to make it easier for those who resigned jobs to reclaim them. And we must give more support to charities to help them provide food, shelter, medical and social services to the deprived.

We also need more good economic news - more business and job opportunities, greater investments and projects, higher public spending, lower rates on services (electricity, natural gas etc.) and salary bonuses. For the unemployed, we should provide social security benefits.

When the stock market crisis hit Asia in the mid-1990s, most governments were financially ill prepared to deal with the aftermath. Fortunately, our finances are in good shape with oil prices hovering around $70 a barrel and we could afford to deal with this situation.

Fixing the stock market is top national priority; so is helping the victims and providing for the most affected.