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Saudi king appoints first female minister

Saudi king appoints first female minister

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has appointed the first female minister in the kingdom's history.


By David Blair in Cairo

Last Updated: 3:51PM GMT 15 Feb 2009

He also sought to identify himself with his country's reformers by sacking two notorious hardliners at the weekend.


Any changes in high level appointments are exceptionally rare in Saudi Arabia where the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, has been in office since 1975, and the defence minister, Crown Prince Sultan, has held his job since 1964.


This renders any reshuffle a bold step and the first shakeup of King Abdullah's reign was intended to send a message of reform.


Norah al-Faiz, an American-educated official, has become the first woman ever to enter the governing elite in a kingdom where women are not even permitted to drive.


"This is a successful step. We've always suffered from having a man occupy the position," she told the Saudi newspaper Arab News after her appointment as deputy education minister with special responsibility for female education.


She added: "A woman knows what problems and challenges her peers face. It's a change for the better."


King Abdullah also sacked two conservative figures, both of them deeply unpopular. Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the head of the "Mutawwa", or religious police who routinely bully and intimidate citizens as they pursue their task of "promoting virtue and preventing vice", has been dismissed.


So has Sheikh Salih Ibn al-Luhaydan, the head of the Saudi judiciary, who declared last year that owners of satellite channels transmitting material which he deemed "immoral" could legally be murdered.


King Abdullah has also changed the head of the Saudi central bank and made a string of appointments elsewhere in the judiciary. The King, who is believed to be 84 or 85, is seen as the first Saudi monarch with genuine sympathy for social reform.


As his reign may be relatively short, he is taking the opportunity to remove hardliners and install more liberal figures.


The kingdom's official press stressed the importance of the reshuffle, with Arab News saying that it was not merely a "changing of the guard" and amounted to a "major transformation". However, a powerful lobby of religious conservatives, who have allies in the highest levels of the royal family, are likely to resist any major steps along the path to liberalisation. Their obstructionism will outlast King Abdullah's reign.


Saudi king ousts hard-line cleric

Monarch shakes up establishment


Sunday, February 15, 2009

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia- In an apparent bid to reform the religious establishment, Saudi King Abdullah on Saturday dismissed the head of the feared religious police and a hard-line cleric who issued an edict last year saying it was permissible to kill owners of satellite TV stations that show "immoral" content.


Abdullah also appointed the first female deputy Cabinet minister, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.


The changes were part of a surprise reshuffle in the Cabinet, the judiciary and the military.


The dismissals were seen as an attempt by the king to reform the religious establishment, which has come under persistent criticism especially because of the actions of the religious police and the judiciary.


The shake-up, the first major one since Abdullah came to power in August 2005, is significant because it dilutes the influence the hard-liners have had for decades on the religious establishment. The king, who has repeatedly spoken about the need for reform, has brought in a new group of officials and scholars who are younger and more in tune with the diversity of cultural Islam than their predecessors.


"They bring not only new blood, but also new ideas," said Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Al-Watan newspaper. "They are more moderate and many are also close to the reform agenda of the king, having worked closely with him."


"The people now in charge are not being ordered to implement reform," he added. "They believe in reform."


Abdul-Aziz bin Humain will succeed Sheik Ibrahim al-Ghaith as head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which runs the religious police, according to the agency.


Mr. bin Humain, who is thought to be more moderate than Sheik al-Ghaith, will head a body whose members have been criticized by Saudis for their harsh enforcement.


Abdullah also removed Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan, chief of the kingdom's highest tribunal, the Supreme Council of Justice. Sheik al-Lihedan's edict, issued in September, was denounced across the Arab world. He was succeeded by Saleh bin Humaid, who until Saturday served as the head of the Consultative Council, the closest thing the kingdom has to a parliament.


Another major change targets education. The king appointed Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, his son-in-law, as education minister. Mr. Khashoggi said Prince Faisal has been working behind the scenes on plans to reform education.


Noura al-Fayez has been appointed Prince Faisal's deputy for girls' education - the first time a woman has been appointed a deputy minister.


Former Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Abdul-Aziz al-Khoja, will become information minister, according to the Saudi Press Agency. Abdullah al-Rabia, a surgeon who has carried out about a dozen surgeries separating conjoined twins, has been appointed health minister.



A Small Step

18 Feb 2009, 0000 hrs IST


It's a big step forward as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, but a small one when seen through the eyes of the modern world. The appointment of Norah al-Faiz as the first woman minister of the ultra-conservative desert kingdom by King Abdullah is a welcome step. But it should be put in perspective. Al-Faiz will, as deputy cabinet minister for women's education, no doubt represent hope for Saudi Arabia's brutally repressed women. Her elevation to a high government role, however, does not exempt her from the laws that govern in fact, deny the personal freedoms of Saudi women. She will still have to take permission of her closest male relative to travel or undergo surgery. And no, she still cannot vote.


So, while those who rightly believe that women are entitled to equal rights must applaud King Abdullah for making a start, it is not yet time to celebrate. We are talking about a country in which just a few weeks ago the marriage of a 47-year-old man to an eight-year-old girl child was upheld by a judge. Here it was that last year a woman, who was the victim of gang rape, was handed out a punishment of 200 lashes and six months in prison. And these are just a couple of examples from a host of grievous injustices that are meted to women in the name of religious law in Saudi Arabia.


The fact is that conservatives have a firm grip on the way Saudi Arabia is run. A strict religious law enforced by the religious police and justice ministry is the basis on which the personal and public lives of Saudis are controlled by the establishment. The effects of such repression, indoctrination and intolerance are not contained within the kingdom alone.


Saudi Arabia's interpretation of Islam has become a template for some other parts of the Islamic world. The Wahhabi sect, which springs forth from that country, is aggressively promoting an illiberal and intolerant agenda by funding madrassas and mosques globally. The world especially the US and Europe is rightly training its guns on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in its fight against Islamist extremism. But it must also shed blinkers and recognise the ideological fount of militant Islam, and exert some influence there as well, and not be held to diplomatic ransom by an oil-rich kingdom.




SAUDI SUFFRAGE CAMPAIGN: In a nation where women are not allowed to drive, nor travel without permission from a male guardian, Hatoon al-Fassi is part of an effort to ensure Saudi Arabia's women can vote in February's muncipal elections - the first the country in 42 years. Ms. Fass is a newspaper columnist and an associate professor of history at King Saud University in Riyadh.


A woman runs for office in Saudi Arabia

In the first elections in 40 years, one woman jumps in. But can women even vote?

By Faiza Saleh Ambah | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA – When the Saudi government announced last month the particulars of municipal elections to be held here for the first time in 40 years, Nadia Bakhurji was thrilled that her country was taking a baby step toward democracy.


But an air of ambiguity still hangs over the announcement: Will women be allowed to vote?

Last week, the 37-year-old architect and mother of two made a bid to clear the air with a daring step of her own: She declared herself a candidate for elected office - the first woman in Saudi history to do so.


"I wish there were more [women] so it wouldn't seem so abnormal," she says, admittedly nervous about her gambit. "I'm a patriotic woman who just wants to serve my community and my country."


Ms. Bakhurji's candidacy is part of a campaign by women who make up Saudi Arabia's embryonic suffrage movement. The elections next spring, for half the seats in 178 municipal councils, are part of the government's efforts to introduce political reforms in the kingdom, an absolute monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi Arabia has been under intense pressure from the United States to democratize, to provide a nonviolent outlet for political dissent.


During the past year, pressure for reform has increased from within, after a series of car bombings and shootouts with al-Qaeda-linked militants trying to drive foreigners out of the country.


As part of its reform efforts, the Saudi government in recent months has allowed women to participate in a series of forums, set up by Crown Prince Abdullah, to discuss challenges facing the country. Women have also recently been appointed to the executive committees of several government-controlled entities, including the Journalists' Syndicate and the National Human Rights Commission. In June, the Council of Ministers, the highest decision-making body, issued a plan to create jobs for women, including the setting up of women-only factories.


Many Saudi women consider these major steps in a country where women are not allowed to drive, travel without permission from a male guardian, appear in public without being covered, nor work alongside men.


The suffrage campaign took off last month when municipal bylaws issued did not explicitly ban women from participating in the elections.


But in an interview on state television the following week, a deputy-minister at the Municipal and Rural Affairs Ministry, Mohammad al-Nagady, said women would not participate in this year's elections.


This prompted a string of phone calls to Mr. Nagady from the Saudi media (and the Monitor) for confirmation. But he has not returned calls. Other ministry officials have commented, or issued statements, about the elections in general, but have not answered whether women will be allowed to vote.


The ambiguity is intentional, say some analysts.


"The government has not clarified its position because it's adopting a wait-and-see attitude," says former judge Abdul-Aziz al-Qassim. "It wants to see whether there's support for the idea [of women voting] or a strong backlash," says Mr. Qassim, who will be a keynote speaker at a conference later this month on the elections. The Saudi Administration University is sponsoring the event.


Proponents of women's rights see the silence as a positive sign. "If the officials are refusing to comment it means it's not a definitive no. There's a good chance it's a yes," says Hatoon al-Fassi, an associate professor of history at King Saud University.


Despite full-time jobs and children, Riyadh residents Ms. Fassi and Hanan al-Ahmadi, an associate professor of health administration, are now spending several hours a day in suffrage meetings, brainstorming, photocopying, and distributing the almost daily articles appearing in the press on the issue - including several by Fassi, who is also a columnist. They call up those who have written positively about women voting to thank and encourage them. Writers who speculate that women will not be allowed to vote get a dressing down.


"We tell them, if you have something positive to say, say it. If not please keep quiet. It's not a done deal yet. I try to impose my optimism," says Fassi.


The women are also learning that some of their biggest opponents are other women - as well as complacency and ignorance. When Fassi recently handed out articles about getting the right to vote, some women didn't read them - they folded them into fans. "Saudi women have been passive for decades. It's difficult getting them interested in public life," says Ms. Ahmadi.


The two women are also learning one of the fundamentals of any democratic political campaign: how to relate to voters' needs.


"We started explaining that women are the ones who call the municipality when there's no water. Their kids are playing in the streets when there's roadwork or potholes.It's the muni- cipality that deals with the water that comes out of their tap, sewage disposal, and the cement left over in the streets that give their children allergies. When we bring the issues closer to home like that, the idea of municipal elections becomes something they can relate to," says Fassi.


What does Islam teach?


For Suhayla Zein el-Abidine, a women's rights activist in the city of Medina, the crux of the matter is explaining to the Saudi public that Islam has not banned women from public life. In her writings, Ms. Zein el-Abidine, an executive member of the National Human Rights Commission, gives examples from Saudi history.


In the beginnings of the Islamic state, Asmaa bin Nukhayil al-Asadiya was appointed to take care of the operation of the market in Mecca, and was the equivalent of a Municipal Affairs Minister, recounts Zein el-Abidine. "She wore her hijab (head scarf) and carried a stick, and hit traders who cheated and were disorderly in the market," she says. "Islam gave women the right to participate in public duties and the state cannot deny them that right."


Though Zein el-Abidine says the country might not yet be ready to vote women into office, she expects to see them on the municipal councils nonetheless. Just as "the government appointed us in the National Human Rights Commission and appointed women to take part in the series of national dialogues, they should also appoint women in at least a quarter of the seats," she says.


Though most of the Islamic hardliners have remained mum on the issue of women's participation, some analysts say they would speak out against it if the government were to publicly announce women's participation.


Sulaiman al-Kharashi, an Islamic researcher known for his conservative views, disagrees. He says he's not against women voting because Islam granted women the right to have a say in their affairs. "There is no problem with women voting, which is giving their opinion in matters related to them," he says. But he objects to them running for office. A woman's "standing is more exalted than to be exposed to the abuse and mixing between the genders that will no doubt be part of the election process," he says.


Bakhurji says she's ready to deal with such "abuse" if her candidacy is officially allowed. She sees running as a public duty. "Women look at their community from a mother's point of view. They are interested in bettering their environment, creating public libraries, playgrounds, literary clubs, beautifying their communities and keeping them safe," she says. In fact, says the mother of a two-month-old and an 18-year old, should women be given the green light to vote - and to run - those will be her campaign issues.


Educated in England until high school, Bakhurji got her Bachelor's degree in interior design in Saudi Arabia. She was encouraged to run for office by her suffragette peers because of her professional experience in managing her own firm and staff for the past 10 years.

She's aware that her actions risk being called "un-Islamic." Before making a decision, "I asked myself if I was doing anything against my religion and the answer was, 'no.' If you put God in the formula, everything falls into place. This country has given me my education and I wanted to give something back."


Bakhurji doesn't consider herself a radical. If the Saudi government doesn't grant women the right to vote, she'll drop her candidacy. For now, she's hoping other women join her. "They're probably waiting to see what the reaction to me will be," she says.


Voting will begin in February. But a key date in December, when the government publishes the voter registration lists. Saudi Arabia's suffrage campaigners are working to ensure that the lists include women's names.


"We're not fighting against the current.... We finally have the opportunity to influence events," says newspaper editor and columnist Abeer Mishkhas. "We have to keep writing about it and talking about it. If the opportunity is lost, we only have ourselves to blame."


Justice Minister says “the girl from Qatif” provoked her rapists

In a lengthy declaration the official states that the young women was married and therefore is an adulteress, she was in a car with a non-relative male – which is forbidden – and according to those who attacked her she was “indecently dressed”.


Riyadh (AsiaNews) 11/26/2007 12:31

 – The young Saudi women condemned to prison and 200 lashes is an adulteress who “provoked the attack” of her rapists because she was “indecently dressed”. That is the conclusion of the Saudi Minister for Justice in an official declaration reported today by the Saudi news agency SPA.


The Minister defends the sentencing and confirms that the national judiciary is based on “the book of God and prophet Muhammad’s teachings”.


Known as “the girl from Qatif”, the nineteen year old Saudi was kidnapped and rapped by a group of men, only to find herself condemned by a court to six months in prison and 90 lashings, because she was in a car with a non-relative male, which is forbidden by law.  The sentence passed last year had condemned the six rapists to one to five years in prison.


Abdul Rahman al-Lahem countered that the aggressors punishment was too lenient for a crime theoretically punishable with the death sentence,  while that of his client too harsh.  In appeal, the rapists sentences were increased: now they must spend between two and nine years in prison.  But the girl also saw her sentence increase, for having tried to influence the court via media pressure.  The same court also  removed her lawyer from the case, and suspended his license.


Faced with outraged reactions in western press, as well as neighbouring Arab nations, the lengthy declaration issued by the Justice Minister aims to explain the reasoning behind the verdict.   It begins with an expression of “regret” for the “false” and “wrong” reports spread by the press, clarifying that the “woman is married” and that it was she who called the man on her mobile phone  “from her husbands house” for a forbidden private meeting.   “She got into his car and both headed to the cornice to a dark area where they remained for a period of time”.  At this area, they were seen by the rest of the defendants referred to in the case, and she the woman was in an “indecent condition”. The girl “knew that being in privately alone in a meeting with an illegal companion is religiously prohibited”.


She is also being charged with the fact that neither she nor the young man she was with denounced the incident at time, but only three months later, when the young woman’s husband on receiving an e-mail confronted her about the incident and denounced the betrayal.