Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Women to Vote in Saudi Arabia

Women can now vote in Saudi.

Or can they?

Glenn read the article online, in the Arab News, the paper we call 'The Green Truth'.

'RIYADH: Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah announced Sunday that Saudi women would be allowed to stand and vote in municipal elections and also become members of the Shoura Council.'

Hubby's reaction was mixed.
My reaction was....doubtful.

Not because this is bad news. It's great.  Saudi Women voting in municipal elections and Saudi Women on the Shoura Council.  Awesome.

It's just that Saudi is a dictatorship monarchical regime.
High level government positions are filled by royal appointment.

Municipal voting has only taken place in Saudi every 30 years, give or take.  Sure the King has said 2015 is the big year for Saudi women....but will he still be around then? Will his replacement - who by the way cannot be voted in by the general populace -  hold fast to this decree?  Will any moves have been made to ensure female voting is a reality by that time.

I gather the conservatives aren't that keen and they have this way of being....annoying.  You can bet they'll be playing power games over the next few years to make sure this vote doesn't go ahead.  And though the current head of Shoura is happy to support the Kings announcement, should women actually get on to the council I have this niggling feeling conservatives will ensure conditions are put in place to limit women's effectiveness. 

Maybe I'm being unnecessarily negative but if there's one thing I've learnt about Saudi Arabia it's that what Saudi says, Saudi either doesn't or is extremely, extremely slow to come through with in practice. (Just look at the driving issue!)

I do admit to being more interested, and hopeful, about women on the Shoura Council as from 2013 than voting because the council is more active (845 sessions held and 1174 declarations issued between 2005 - 2009) than the countries voting history (grand total of 3 elections).

What is the Shoura Council?

Shoura Council
The Shoura Council is a group of individuals (currently all men) who are appointed by, and who discuss issues and make recommendations to, the king.  They are an advisory council so their powers are limited.  Part of their role is to propose draft laws, though only the king can pass the law.  They can interpret laws and advise the King on any policies, international treaties and economic plans.  They also get to review the national budget.

I understand there are currently 150 men on the council who spread themselves around 12 committees.   Coming from a Runanga (word for tribal organisation) with 15 on their board who can never agree on anything, I'd be interested to know how 150 come to consensus decisions.

How many women will make it onto the council is currently unknown.   Will it be 50/50?  Will they only be able to participate in meetings via closed circuit television because gender mixing is a no-no like the current, and only, female government Deputy Minister for Education, leaving the boys to their own private party?  Time will tell.

The Kings speech talked about refusing to "marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Shariah".

I'm guessing he's referring to the future because Saudi's present is full of women being marginalized in roles that, as far as I can tell, though of course I'm no expert, comply with Shariah, the code of law derived from the Quran and the teachings and example of Mohammed.

The future should be bright for Saudi women who can look forward to engaging in public debates, as women did in the early days of Islam, and getting involved in decision-making processes something I hear women also did back then.  Recognition of the contribution that women made to politics in the past and that is noted in the relevant Islamic literature, means this proclamation is long overdue. 

Saudi women could even lead the military because apparently Aisha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, commanded an army of men while riding on the then accepted mode of transport - a camel.  

Comparing that piece of history to this article about a women sentenced to lashes for driving a car (todays accepted mode of transport)  just days after the King has made his historic announcement, it's rather sad, and obvious, how far women's status in Saudi has fallen over the centuries.

Turning women's right to vote and becoming members of an important council in Saudi Arabia from words to reality may, like many things in Saudi, go so slowly it's in danger of going backwards - let's hope not.

Ka Kite,

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Saudi - the Land of Just Juice

A fortnight ago I arrived back in the land of Just Juice.  As in no booze, just juice....or water - sparkling, still or with just a hint of salt because salt extraction is not perfect.  Drinking is allowed in Saudi long as the beverage of choice is not fermented.

To that end there are a number of interesting drink conconctions you can come across in the cafe's and restaurants.  Many are based on fresh fruit juices - these are the ones I prefer, others are a mix of canned drinks or syrups - those I'm not so keen on.

Determining what is fresh and what is fake from a restaurant drinks list can get interesting due to communication issues.  Take for example the Watermelon Blast we spotted in the menu at one establishment. We ask the waiter:

Us - Does this have real watermelon?
Them - Yes, it watermelon.
Us - But is it real watermelon?  Do you have a watermelon in the kitchen and chop chop into the glass?
Them - Yes, watermelon in glass with syrup.
Us - Syrup? You mean this drink is made with syrup not real watermelon?
Them - Yes.
Us - So there is no watermelon?
Them - You no want watermelon?
Us - Yes I want watermelon.
Them - OK

I look at hubby, he looks at me.
I'm confused. He's shakin his head.
We wait in anticipation.....There is no watermelon.  It's an overly sweet, light reddish glass of syrupy sugar water to which is added freshly squeezed orange juice when we tell the staff the flavour of their Watermelon Blast in no way resembles watermelon, is quite terrible and looks nothing like the picture on the menu.

I hope the fake flavours don't take hold in Saudi although the local sweet tooth and the business bottom line seem to be swinging in their favour.  One of the things I was impressed with when I first arrived was that every juice drink I came across was real fruit juice.
Our local juice man on Mussah ibn Nassir
There are numerous small juice outlets spread throughout Riyadh where your fruits (and some vegetables) are squeezed, pressed and whizzed while you wait - a much more tasty, refreshing and healthy option than the fake versions.

Is there a local drink?
Saudi Champagne would probably take that spot.  Largely apple juice with soda water and decorated with slices of fruit, Saudi Champagne is quite refreshing.  Some places are better at making it than others.

I'd also venture to suggest that mint with lemon is a national beverage.  The tartness of the drink that arrives in your hands is dependent on the quality of lemons available and on how much sugar water is added.  My preference is less sugar, slight tart and lots of mint. 

We also like iced tea.  Unfortunately most places tend to serve up the canned kind.  Asking the waiter if it's real iced tea can lead to conversations similar to that of the Watermelon Blast.

This Iced tea is from a can...not sure why Glenn is so happy about that.
Recently a number of the larger, more upmarket locations have started adding vegetable juices to their drink range.  We had a lovely cucumber and pineapple mix last night.  But I get the feeling the vegetable juice movement has a way to go before it takes Riyadh by storm.   

As much as the drink combinations can be interesting, I admit to missing a glass of red at the end of the day or a cold beer.

We tried non-alcoholic red wine once, served at an up-town restaurant.  No, it's not just a bottle of grapejuice from the supermarket.  It really was red wine with the alcohol removed.  How?  I don't know!

Was it nice?  No!  It was disgusting!  And expensive!  We won't be doing that again.

Many expats make their own wine.  It's amazing how living here brings out the wine maker in people.  I tend to steer clear of the home made brew because, let's be honest, the few concoctions I've sipped made from fermented bottled grape juice really are second rate -  nothing compares to a real red and I'm not desperate enough to have to pretend to enjoy anything less (oh I'm such a snot!)

SID I avoid like the plague!  The name is shortened from Siddiqui (meaning friend), and it is almost proof alcohol.   My one and only sip of SID resulted in an Ugh! face accompanied by Blah Yuk vocals.

Asking around the expat community will find you a contact for Sid.

The other option for getting your hands on the stuff if you really want to partake (though I don't recommend it for safety reasons) is to drive around the roads early on a Friday morning.  There's numerous desperately lonely (a.k.a. looking for loving) young Saudi men with clear bottles of water (which is how they carry this illegal substance) and are happy to share - especially if you're of the female gender.  We come across a number of these guys when we go bike riding on the weekends and have had to decline many an invitation to party.

The nurses tell stories about the effects of Sid, most with the common theme of 'seriously mess up your health and brain cells'.   The people I know personally who drink this stuff weekly if not daily are walking advertisements for staying away from it - they're in a bad way.

Myself, I decline invitations to scone mornings where the women quite happily inform me they'll be serving home prepared cocktails made with Sid as a base.   Like I said, I'm not that desperate.    Though of course it's easier to be discerning when you aren't actually going without for too long.   Friends in the right places are a wonderful thing :)

Expats and locals, because a lot of them imbibe (one report suggests up to 80% of male Saudis like a drop), looking for a real bottle of Kentucky Bourbon can buy it, and more, from the thriving black market at horribly inflated prices of course.  A bottle of fire water can cost around $400NZ.

As in any country there are risks associated with participating in illegal activity.  In this country the penalties for illegal alcohol related pursuits can be severe with imprisonment (term undefined), lashing (hardly survivable) and deportation. 

As I said -  Drinking is allowed in Saudi long as the beverage is just juice.

Ka Kite,

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