Saturday, February 28, 2015

First Wives Club

I used to be able to count on one hand the number of women I personally know whose Saudi husbands married a second wife.  Those days are gone.  Sadly now that number exceeds all the fingers on both hands and all of my toes as well.  As many of you know, Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia Law which comes from the Quran, the holy book of Islam.  Islam allows men to be married to up to four different women at the same time. 

Muslim scholars and Muslim men seem to be proud of the fact that the Quran is the only holy book that actually states “Marry only one (wife).”  I hear them boast about this all the time!  Why then are so many Muslim men taking on more than wife?  I find this amusing, since polygyny is permitted in Islam but not encouraged.  I just hate it when I hear men here saying that it is their God-given right.  Pfffft!

The original idea for this arrangement is centuries old and was borne out of the necessity of the times.  Men would go off to war, get killed, and there was an abundance of widows and orphans left behind that needed to be protected and provided for.  It was affirmed to be man's “social responsibility,” which begs the question:  Why exactly does a man have to marry a second woman to fulfill his social responsibility?  Especially when the Quran clearly says "Marry only one"???  Aren’t there other socially acceptable ways to provide for needy people other than marriage?  How about charity?  Why do men have to introduce sex into the equation in order to fulfill their social responsibility?

Many Muslim men like to make the claim that there are SO many more women in the world than men, and while that may have been the case centuries ago, statistically speaking, this is no longer a valid argument.  In today’s world, all recent statistics clearly show that men now outnumber women in births (107 to 100) and in the world population (101 to 100).

Yes, there are some countries in the world where women outnumber men, but in the total overall, there are more men.  And Saudi Arabia – where men can marry up to four women - is one of the majority countries that actually has more men than women - so this contention just doesn't hold water any more.

Another reason given for why polygyny is allowed in Islam is to allow a man whose wife cannot bear children to marry another woman who can have babies so he can produce heirs.  The problem with this assertion is that frequently the man is the one with fertility problems - so this excuse for multiple wives should at least have a provision that the man should be checked first to make sure he is not the one with sterility problems - don't cha think?  

I’ve even heard proponents of the multiple wives policy come up with the reasoning that there are so many gay men in the world - so obviously gay men don't count as eligible men in the marriage pool.  Hello?  They always seem to overlook the fact that there are also plenty of lesbians in the world too who don’t want to marry men either.  Moot point.  

And probably the most "honest" excuse I have heard for why polygyny is allowed in Islam is because men just naturally have a stronger sex drive and want to have sex with a variety of women.  So polygyny allows men to do this under the sanctity of marriage to prevent either of the participants from committing a grave sin, according to religion.  However, this argument totally discounts the female’s sex drive and presumes incorrectly that only men have strong sexual urges.  

So in Islam, a woman who becomes a second wife (or third or fourth) is considered by many as doing an "honorable" thing.  But somehow I really don’t think there are too many first wives out there who would actually agree with that statement.   

My thoughts on this are that there are three possible situations where a woman might become a second wife:  
1 – She is a desperate divorcee or widow and wants the security for herself and her children.  
2 – She becomes a second wife unwittingly because the man wasn’t honest with her.   
3 – She actively pursues a married man because she sees that he is wealthy and she doesn’t care that she is destroying a marriage and a family in the process.  

I personally know of women here in Saudi Arabia fitting all of these scenarios.  To be continued…

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Is the Problem with Islam Today Wahhabism?

"Open letter to Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz"

Saudi Arabia should curb Wahhabi ideology to alleviate human suffering in the Muslim world

by Ani Zonneveld

Ani Zonneveld  (Photo Credit: Arzeen's Photography)

Dear King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz,


I am a 52-year-old Malaysian-born Muslim. I was raised in a harmonious interracial and interfaith society that accepted and respected other religious practices. The existence of different faith groups was viewed simply as different ways of connecting to the same God. Saudi Arabia started exporting its Wahhabi ideology in the 1970s, and it spread around the world, turning existing interpretations of Islam into one that is dogmatic and violent.

The result is a nearly unrecognizable form of Islam. It appears to get worse by the day. Murders, suicide bombings, sectarianism and religious hatemongering have become commonplace. We cannot continue on this path of religious-based mayhem in the name of Islam. The Muslim world needs a change. You are in the best position to take us out of this misery.

As a child, I remember celebrating Mawlid — the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday — with uplifting songs, prayers and even a parade. Now it is taboo to observe Mawlid even in America, and adherents to the Wahhabi brand of Islam would rather emphasize his death. The same clerics tell us we cannot critically engage with the Quran or use our God-given right to think in order to reconcile the contradictions that exist between the Quran and hadith, the collection of record of the prophet’s sayings that serve as a source of religious and moral guidance.

When I was growing up, weddings and community events were colorful and featured music and dance, without segregating the sexes. This is no longer the case in many Muslim communities. Music, dance and unsegregated gatherings are deemed haram, or forbidden. Artistic expressions must be Sharia-compliant, meaning no depiction of humans or animals.

The Quran liberated women from subhuman status, gave us rights to choose whom to marry, to work, to be in leadership positions and to ultimately live in full dignity. And yet in 2015, Wahhabi imams have relegated women to subhuman status by allowing husbands to cane their wives into obedience and promoting a version of Sharia that permits forced and child marriages and condones honor killings. Women have become sexual objects through forced veiling, which makes our voices, skin, hair and faces off limits, and even a handshake is deemed a potentially arousing sexual experience.

How is this Wahhabi chokehold different from the practice of burying daughters alive?

Our society is increasingly looking like the age of jahiliyya, or ignorance that preceded the birth of Islam. You have the power to change that by lifting the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, abolishing the male guardian system, granting full voting rights for women and promoting equality in all spheres of life for all people. This would deflate the theological foundation of the criminal beliefs of the ISILs, Talibans and the Boko Harams of the world.

There are many reform-minded Saudi men and women whom you should include in discussion rather than imprison them. This will have a profound effect on millions of women and men in the Muslim world and beyond.

Enough with the vilifying of minority sects and non-Muslims. You should sit down with the supreme leader of Iran and sign a covenant of peace till the end of time.

The divisive sectarianism and ideology of Islamic Sunni supremacy is sickening. We are tired of the infighting, the dehumanizing of “the other” at the minbar (mosque pulpit), the talk of takfir (excommunicating of fellow Muslims) and the slaughter of “the other” by assuming a God-like role as the judge and the punisher. There were no Sunni, Shia or other sects during Muhammad’s time, but there were believers of many faiths, nonbelievers and even pagans, all residing in dignity in your country — protected by the prophet.

The Quran teaches us all people are equal in the eyes of God: “We have created you men and women, into nations and tribes for you to learn from each other. Surely, the most honorable among you in the sight of God is the most righteous.” (Quran 49:13). Imagine a Saudi Arabia where all people can come together to exchange ideas freely and share in our humanity.

The Muslim world remains corrupted by power and money, the very dynamic Muhammad spoke against. Imagine a Muslim world void of corruption and endowed with good governance. Such an environment would ensure that the ISILs and Saudi dissidents would not flourish. There is nothing Islamic about the way many countries in the Muslim world are run today.

Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology is the root of all the ills in the Muslim world. You have the power to uproot it once and for all through your influence in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the hundreds and thousands of madrassas the kingdom funds. As host to millions from around the world during the annual hajj, the kingdom can send a message of change to Wahhabi-influenced ideologues.

We do not have a pope in Islam, but by adopting the official title of custodian of our two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, you have assumed a unique position of influence to shift our Muslim world onto a positive path.

I recognize that my letter is an idealistic plea. After all, you are a king with all the earthly needs one can imagine and so powerful that you have Muslim and non-Muslim nations at your feet. But do what Muhammad did: Promote equality and a just system that benefits all people. That is the true meaning of the straight path we recite in al-Fatihah.

With deepest sincerity,

Ani Zonneveld
Founder and president, Muslims for Progressive Values

This op-ed piece is a reprint from Al Jazeera America that was originally published on February 20, 2015.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Chapel Hill Vs Copenhagen - Which Is Terrorism?

Comedian and actor Russell Brand may strike some people as uncouth or vulgar, but he is spot on about the media's portrayal of Muslims as terrorists. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Driving Developments

The women's driving movement in Saudi Arabia took a big hit recently with the imprisonment of two Saudi women who were arrested for driving.  Loujain al-Hathloul, 25, and Maysa al-Amoudi, 33, have both been held in Saudi jails since early December, longer than any other Saudi females who have been apprehended for defying the driving ban.

Loujain Hathloul

What is especially disconcerting about this case is that the women have been referred to a special Saudi court and may be charged with terrorism.  Although the women were initially detained for driving, the word is that the terrorism charges stem from voicing their opinions on Twitter about the driving movement, which is now seen as "terrorism" by the Saudi government. 

Saudi Arabia's Anti-Cyber Crime Law enacted in 2007 makes it a crime to call for reforms, criticize the government, or encourage social dissidents online.  Article 6, Section 1, states that one can be imprisoned for up to five years and fined up to three million riyals for the "production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers."  It's easy to see how this all-encompassing, broadly-worded edict can be liberally applied to almost any situation the Saudi government chooses.

Maysa al-Amoudi

While Loujain and Maysa sit languishing in a Saudi prison for more than two months now, uncertain of their fates, a tragic driving incident happened this past week in Abha, a city in southwestern Saudi Arabia with a population of almost half a million people.  A ten-year-old Saudi boy got behind the wheel of a vehicle - as many unlicensed prepubescent boys here in Saudi Arabia commonly do - striking and killing a man who was crossing the street.  Little boys can be seen driving in Saudi Arabia every day, without repercussions.  I have often seen youngsters driving huge SUVs, chauffeuring around a gaggle of Saudi females who are forbidden to drive themselves. 

This incident crystallizes the absurdity of the women's driving issue here in Saudi Arabia.  Grown women are forbidden from driving and, if caught, face a multitude of punishments ranging from jail time and lashes to loss of employment and being banned from leaving the country for years.  And yet, unlicensed elementary aged school boys, who can't even see over the steering wheel, drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia every day while law enforcement officers turn their heads the other way.

So, who will be held accountable for this man's death?  Who gave the boy access to the car in the first place?  The boy's father?   If the father has "wasta" (connections high up in the government), he likely won't be charged or jailed. 

I have my doubts that justice will be served for the dead man.  First of all, he was not Saudi.  He was a poor expat worker from Sri Lanka.  Sadly his life is not valued much here in Saudi Arabia.  It is common knowledge that South Asian workers are often treated poorly and discriminated against by many Saudis.   If the tables were turned in this case, and the poor foreign worker was the one who drove the vehicle causing the death of the little Saudi boy, the man would be thrown in prison for life or might possibly even be given the death penalty. 

Photo by:  Areej Adel Albagshy

Saudi Arabia's Shariah law allows for the payment of "Blood Money."  This is called "diyya," and it is monetary payment for loss of life, bodily injury, or property damage to compensate the victim's heirs.  According to Shariah law, the amount of blood money paid varies greatly depending on the victim's religion, gender, and whether the death was intentional or accidental.  A Muslim's life is worth a lot more than a non-Muslim's, and a man's life is worth twice as much as a woman's.  This value system carries over into how people are treated in Saudi Arabia.

And finally, another slap in the face to Saudi women, this time by the country of Switzerland which has implemented a new law saying that all drivers in Switzerland must have a valid driver's license issued by their home country.  Since Saudi Arabia refuses to issue licenses to women, Saudi women who have a valid license from another country or who have an international driver's license are no longer allowed to drive in Switzerland.  In 2013, Kuwait - showing its solidarity with Saudi Arabia's patriarchal system - came up with a law refusing to issue driver's licenses to Saudi women unless they had the consent of their legal male guardian.

"Like" this Facebook community page - To keep abreast of developments in the case of Loujain and Maysa

Sign this petition on the Amnesty International page to show your support for Loujain and Maysa.

UPDATE:  I'm happy to report that Loujain and Maysa were released after spending 72 days in Saudi prisons. 
On March 1st, 2015, Loujain Al Hathloul was named as #3 on the list of The 100 Most Powerful Arab Women 2015 by

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Abaya - Back in Black

There has been a lot of discussion lately about what women in Saudi Arabia must wear when they are out in public.  That traditionally black cloak worn over her clothing that hides the female form is called the abaya, and lately there have been heated discussions about whether colored abayas should be permitted or not.  My husband has told me that when he was growing up in Jeddah, women did not wear abayas.  Of course women dressed modestly, but they wore what they wished in terms of colors and styles, and they weren't obligated to wear the uniform of the black abaya.  It wasn't really until about the 1990s when religious police began forcing women to wear the abaya in public.

Beige/Taupe/ Black Abaya with Turquoise Trim
But why black, you may ask?  There is really no reason at all for women to wear black.  Somehow it became the only color worn in Saudi Arabia, although there is certainly no rule, law or regulation about the color being only black.  Some religious authorities have thrown fits these past few years with the introduction of colors and embellishments to satisfy women's preferences and individuality. The opposition claims that embellishments and colors attract attention and are not modest.  I guess black is the only color they consider "modest."   The purpose of the abaya is to dress modestly, obscuring the female curves, loosely covering all but the hands and face.  Whether an abaya is black or not shouldn't really matter.  To be forced to wear black in the brutal heat of Saudi Arabia is inhumane.  And unless the government is going to provide black abayas for all the women in Saudi Arabia to wear, how we choose to express ourselves through our abayas should be up to us.  My personal opinion is that men want women to wear black in Saudi Arabia so they will be less inclined to venture out in the heat.  It is a way for men to maintain control and keep women at home because it's just too darn hot to go outside wearing black.

Black Abaya with Pink Camouflage Sleeves
What really bugs me is that people in KSA try to say that women should wear black abayas because of religious teachings.  No where does Islam say that a woman must wear an abaya, and no where does it say that the abaya must be black.  Islam requires both men and women to dress modestly - that's it.  Another thing that bugs me is that according to Islam, men are supposed to lower their gazes and not look at women. So what does it matter what color I am wearing if men aren't supposed to be looking anyway?  Men need to mind their own business and quit trying to control every aspect of women's lives, down to what color she should wear.  It's ridiculous. 

Black Abaya with White Flowers
A disturbing and discouraging article appeared this past week in the Arab News regarding a campaign which has been started at Dammam University opposing colorful abayas.  The article states that "female students are required to abide by the rule of wearing black as a sign of respect to the educational environment."  As if students wearing colors other than black are disrespectful to teachers and other students and that they cannot learn if they are wearing colors.   What I feel is disrespectful is someone trying to dictate to me what color I should wear.  You can read this enlightening blog post written by SaudiWoman a few years ago explaining "Abaya Regulations" and dress code enforcement at schools in Saudi Arabia.

Brown Abaya
I just love how I am always told that there is no compulsion in Islam, however it seems that not only am I forced to wear the abaya, but now they want to go so far as to limit my color choice to black.   So what is it? Compulsion or not?

Currently there is a "survey" on Arab News asking:  Do you think colorful abayas should be avoided? Yes or No?  The poll is running neck and neck.  Personally I don't like the way the survey is worded - it has a negative connotation, insinuating that color should be something  to "avoided."  

Blue Abaya with African Print Sleeves and Back
Don't men have more important things to do than worry about what colors women are wearing? Women are getting killed in car crashes daily here in Saudi Arabia because we are not allowed to drive.  We are at the mercy of incompetent male drivers who drive recklessly, putting everyone in harm's way.  Why isn't more attention paid to this issue instead of what color I am wearing?

Back View of  the Blue Abaya above
Men in Saudi Arabia are allowed to wear pretty much whatever they want to wear - any color, any style of dress.  I've seen men out in public in KSA in attire that I can only describe as suitable for wearing in the privacy of one's own home.  They literally look as if they just crawled out of bed and went out the door. Nobody ever says a word about this.  Maybe it's time we did - especially since women are getting picked on because we don't all want to look the same wearing boring black every single day, while men are permitted to wear bedclothes out in public. I object!

Beige and Brown Abaya with Gold Embroidery
It's bad enough that we have to wear layers of clothing in the sweltering heat of Saudi Arabia.  I'll be damned if I will be forced to wear only black.  I am happy to see colorful abayas now in the shops, and a wider variety of styles and fabrics to choose from. I actually enjoy abaya shopping now.

Print Top with Black Skirt Abaya
By the way, the abayas featured in this post all belong to me. I made a few of them myself, and some I bought.  I apologize for the bad quality of the images.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Enchanting Najran - Saudi Arabia

Last month I took a little trip down to the city of Najran, in southern Saudi Arabia near the Yemen border. The fascinating history of the area, the friendly people, along with the varied geography make this place a must-see destination for any expat living in Saudi Arabia.

Najran is nestled in a fertile farming valley surrounded by rocky mountains and rolling deserts. The abundance of date palms adds to the scenic landscapes and provides a visual treat for the eyes. Farming is an important industry in Najran, with fields of crops stretching for miles. The fertile soil is suitable for growing crops such as corn, wheat, zucchini, and a wide variety of fruits like apples, peaches, citrus, and grapes.

Coupled with the distinctive architectural style of the region, Najran is a city that magic carpet dreams are made of. All over Najran, mixed in with the new construction, are the unique old mud and straw houses, some of them in ruins, but many of them not only standing, but still inhabited. Another distinguishing feature of these homes is the decorative white "bride's lace" designs at the roof lines that add unmistakable charm to the buildings.

Our group was invited into one of these modest mud homes by lifelong residents Ahmed, who is in his 80s, and his wife Umm Mohammed. They were gracious hosts, offering us the traditional gahwa (Arabic coffee) and dates which we enjoyed in their sitting room. We toured the home from bottom to top, viewing the fields and mountains from their various rooftop decks about 4 floors up. Because of its close proximity to Yemen, many of Najran's residents are of Yemeni heritage, as are Ahmed and his wife, and the architectural style of the mud homes is also an influence of Yemen.

Camels are everywhere in and around Najran. The camel souq is where camels are bought and sold, along with fresh camel milk. On our excursion outside the city into the desert, we saw many groups of camels that were being trained to compete in races. We were also treated to a Bedouin cookout one perfect evening under the stars at a desert camp, complete with carpets, tents, camel meat, hookahs, and a campfire. The only thing missing was the marshmallows!

A highlight of our trip was a visit to the main souk of Najran which houses a dagger souk. The traditional curved Arab daggers, called khanjar, are offered for sale here, with elegant carved handles made of bone, metal, wood, or plastic. The men of the dagger souk all proudly wore their traditional Arab clothing, accessorized with their khanjars strapped around their waists on a leather belt. Another section of the souk offered products like handmade baskets, jewelry, and clothing.

Men of the dagger souq - Najran, Saudi Arabia

Several of the dagger shopkeepers took turns posing for photos with me. It felt like the paparazzi was around as the others all gathered around us to take photos with their state of the art phones.  I could tell by the frequent laughter that jokes were being made as we posed for pictures. Later I learned that the conversation went something like this:
"Mohammed, you better not let your wife see that picture of you and this woman. She will get jealous."
"You've been thinking of getting a 3rd wife - how about this American?"
"My wives will kill me if I do that!"

Even though people have lived in the Najran area for about 4000 years, it is considered to be a newer and more modern city because of its remarkable growth spurt since the 1970s.  Najran's population now exceeds 250,000.  We toured the historic Emara Palace, built in the 1940s - a fine example and tribute to the distinctive architecture of the region.  Another well known palace in the area, Al-Aan Palace, is built on hilltop and offers spectacular views of the surrounding area, overlooking the oasis of Najran.

Emara Palace - Najran, Saudi Arabia

Interestingly enough in pre-Islamic days, Najran used to be inhabited by predominantly Jews and Christians. There is an old archaeological site in the city that bears the ruins of Al-Okhdood (also spelled Ukhdood).  According to a story in the Q'uran, this is where a disgruntled Jewish king massacred thousands of its residents by burning them alive because they converted to Christianity. Quite a gruesome history.   Rock drawings of animals and cryptic writings are visible all over Al-Okhdood. The site is still in the process of being excavated and to date has produced important historical artifacts, with much more still hoped to be retrieved.

Spectacular scenery and fascinating history aside, what really makes Najran such a memorable place is its people. Warm and welcoming, open and friendly, the people of Najran are hospitable and accommodating.

If you are interested in planning a trip to Najran, I highly recommend Mohammad of Najran Tours. He is professional, knowledgeable, and flexible and will tailor your visit to your preferences. Here is the information for Najran Tours:

Mohammad H. Al Mustaneer
Najran Tours.
Reg. No. : 5950026097
Najran, Saudi Arabia
Mob. +966 552 498 012
+966 550 377 715
Facebook page for Najran Tours

Tell him Susie sent you!

I put together a slideshow for you with lots more photos from my trip to Najran.  Enjoy!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Saudi Women Have Fun!

Enjoy this very short video that gives you a glimpse into the lighter side of living in Saudi Arabia. Even though women cannot drive here yet, they can still manage to have fun.