Tag Archives: saudi arabia

UPDATE: Saudi voters elect 20 women to office

UPDATE: Saudi voters elected 20 women for local government seats, according to results released to The Associated Press a day after women voted and ran in elections for the first time in the country’s history.

The women who won hail from vastly different parts of the country, ranging from Saudi Arabia’s largest city to a small village near Islam’s holiest site.

The 20 female candidates represent just one percent of the roughly 2,100 municipal council seats up for grabs, but even limited gains are seen as a step forward for women who had previously been completely shut out of elections. Women are still not allowed to drive and are governed by guardianship laws that give men final say over aspects of their lives like marriage, travel and higher education.

Though there are no quotas for female council members, an additional 1,050 seats are appointed with approval by the king who could use his powers to ensure more women are represented.

Around 7,000 candidates, among them 979 women, competed in the election for a seat on the municipal councils, which are the only government body elected by Saudi citizens. The two previous rounds of voting for the councils, in 2005 and 2011, were open to men only.

The conservative capital of Riyadh saw the most women candidates win, with four elected. The Eastern Province, where minority Shiites are concentrated, saw two women elected, said Hamad Al-Omar, who heads the General Election Commission’s media council.

Saudi Arabia’s second largest and most cosmopolitan city, Jiddah, also elected two women, as did one of the most conservative regions, Qassim.

The mayor of the city of Mecca, Osama al-Bar, told the AP that a woman won in a village called Madrakah, about 93 miles (150 kilometers) north of the city which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba to which Muslims around the world pray.

Another woman won in Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad’s first mosque was built.

Other women hailing from the kingdom’s northernmost areas won, with two elected in Tabuk, one in al-Jawf and another in Hail. Additionally, a woman won in Saudi Arabia’s southern border area of Jizan, another in Asir and two won in al-Ahsa. 

Many women candidates ran on platforms that promised more nurseries to offer longer daycare hours for working mothers, the creation of youth community centers with sports and cultural activities, improved roads, better garbage collection and overall greener cities. 

In October, the Saudi Gazette reported that harsh road conditions and long distances to the nearest hospital had forced some women in the village of Madrakah, where one female candidate was elected, to give birth in cars. The local newspaper reported that the closest hospital and the nearest university were in Mecca, prompting some students to forgo attending classes. The article said residents were also frustrated with the lack of parks in the village.

It is precisely these kinds of community issues that female candidates hope to address once elected to the municipal councils. The councils do not have legislative powers, but advise authorities and help oversee local budgets.

Most ran their campaigns online, using social media to get the word out, due to strict gender segregation rules that ban men and women from mixing in public. This meant candidates could not directly address voters of the opposite sex.

In an effort to create a more level playing field for women who wear the traditional full-face veil, the General Election Committee banned both male and female candidates from showing their faces in promotional flyers, billboards or online. They were also not allowed to appear on television. 

Still, al-Omar said the historic election drew a staggering 106,000 female voters out of some 130,000 who’d registered. Out of 1.35 million men registered, almost 600,000 cast ballots. In total, some 47 percent of registered voters took part in Saturday’s election.

In Jiddah, three generations of women from the same family voted for the first time. The oldest woman in the family was 94-year-old Naela Mohammad Nasief. Her daughter, Sahar Hassan Nasief, said the experience marked “the beginning” of greater rights for women in Saudi Arabia. 

“I walked in and said ‘I’ve have never seen this before. Only in the movies’,” the daughter said, referring to the ballot box. “It was a thrilling experience.”

Ikea cuts story about lesbian couple in Russian magazine

Swedish furniture retailer IKEA says it has spiked an article about a lesbian couple in the Russian edition of its customer magazine because that would have contravened that county’s law on gay propaganda.

IKEA spokeswoman Ylva Magnusson says the story about the couple living with their child in London appeared in the December print edition of its club magazine and was available for customers in 25 markets worldwide, but not in Russia.

Magnusson said that due to the advice of legal experts, IKEA was not able to publish the article because Russian law “has restrictions regarding promoting homosexual relationships.”

Last year, the furniture giant was criticized for deleting images of women from the Saudi version of its furniture catalog.

Athletes, activists go for gold at Olympics

With the nation-by-nation parade of athletes at the Games of the XXX Olympiad, history was made – in the sports arena and in the political arena.

Two women – 800-meter runner Sarah Attar and judoist Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani – joined in the July 27 procession in London’s Olympic Stadium with the team from Saudi Arabia, a first for the conservative nation that bans women from driving or traveling without a male guardian.

And, in another first, womenoutnumber men on Team USA – 269 to 261.

The 2012 Summer Olympics are certain to bring other firsts. Human rights advocates hope the games inspire Olympians to come out as bisexual, gay or lesbian and perhaps even inspire some to seek asylum.

Far less than 1 percent of Olympians in London are out gays or lesbians. And that tiny figure isn’t due just to the elimination of softball as an Olympic sport.

In Beijing, there were just 11 out athletes going into the 2008 summer games. There also were 11 out athletes going into the Athens games in 2004 and just seven out athletes at the games in Sydney in 2000.

On the U.S. scorecard, only two openly gay men have ever competed at the Olympics – divers David Pichler and Patrick Jeffrey. Athletes don’t come out because, even in progressive nations, homophobia remains pervasive in sports. And in other nations, out athletes face more than taunts from fans and teammates.

“LGBT athletes are forced to hide their sexuality in order to get selected and compete,” stated British LGBT civil rights activist Peter Tatchell. “Otherwise they would be rejected and possibly face imprisonment.”

Eighty-four nations criminalize homosexuality. Convictions under the anti-gay laws can result in fines, imprisonment and – in Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen – death.

“The International Olympic Committee and London Olympic organizers should require all competing nations to sign a pledge that they do not discriminate on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation,” Tatchell said. “If they refuse to sign, they should be denied participation in the games.”

In advance of London 2012, Tatchell and other activists called on the IOC to ban nations that outlaw homosexuality. They also appealed to athletes to come out, encouraged gay athletes who fear persecution to seek asylum and invited sports fans to cheer equality.

In the week before the opening ceremonies for London 2012, more than 14,000 athletes were arriving at Heathrow Airport and settling into the Athletes Village. The arrivals included out Olympians:

• Diver Matthew Mitcham and beach volleyball player Natalie Cook with Team Australia.

• Handball player Mayssa Pessoa with Team Brazil.

• Cyclist Judith Arndt and fencer Imke Duplitzer with Team Germany.

• Field hockey players Marilyn Agliotti, Maartje Paumen and Carlien Dirkse van den Heuvel and equestrian competitor Edward Gal with Team Netherlands.

• Triathletes Carole Péon and Jessica Harrison and handball player Alexandra Lacrabère with Team France.

• Handball player Rikke Skov with Team Denmark.

• Dressage competitor Carl Hester with Team Great Britain.

• Soccer players Jessica Landström, Hedvig Lindahl and Lisa Dahlkvist with Team Sweden.

• Tennis player Lisa Raymond, basketball player Seimone Augustus, soccer coach Pia Sundhage and soccer player Meghan Rapinoe with Team USA.

“I think it’s important to be out. It’s important to stand up and be counted and be proud of who you are,” Rapinoe recently told USA Today.

Political?

Critics of the LGBT rights campaign, including critics in the United States, said the Olympics should be about sports, not politics. But activists volleyed back, saying that the Olympics have always been about politics and human rights.

“People who say that human rights issues have no place in the sporting arena tend to be those who don’t believe in human rights at all,” said Mark Stephens, a prominent British attorney and activist. “As an argument, it is the refuge of the ignorant, and therefore, ultimately, damned.”

Stephens urged the IOC to ban anti-gay nations and called on gay athletes to come out in a celebrated Guardian newspaper column and a recent speech at the University of East London, which is not far from Olympic Stadium.

He and other activists described a long tradition of politics intersecting with sport.

“An athlete even winning the gold for her country is political,” said London LGBT civil rights activist Elizabeth Mead. “But also, some of the most significant events in the games’ history were of political importance.”

Mead, 43, said her favorite Olympic moment came during the opening ceremony in 1996 in Atlanta, when boxing legend Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron in the stadium. “He’s one of the world’s greatest athletes, but he also was suspended from his sport for objecting to the war in Vietnam.”

Other politically significant Olympic events:

• The four gold-medal wins and world-record achievements of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany.

• The bloody water polo match between the Soviet Union and Hungary at the 1956 Melbourne Games as Hungary was in the midst of a nationalist uprising.

• The black power salute that U.S. runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave on the medal stand at the ’68 Games in Mexico.

• The Palestinian terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics that resulted in the murder of 11 Israeli athletes.

• The United States’ boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; four years later, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

• South Africa’s participation in the 1992 Olympics after being banned for years because of Apartheid rule.

• The 2000 ban imposed on Afghanistan because of the ruling Tali- ban’s discrimination against women.

Before the Olympic torch arrived in London, politics were already at work in the 2012 Summer Games.

At the U.S. Capitol, lawmakers in mid-July complained that most of Team USA is being outfitted in Ralph Lauren-designed uniforms with “Made in China” labels. U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., called the fashion decision “self-defeating.” U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said, “When America’s best athletes are representing our country on the world stage, we should be representing the best of American- made goods.”

A week before the games, Amnesty International demanded that London organizers apologize for hiring Dow Chemicals to provide the fabric wrap for the Olympic Stadium. Amnesty said organizers should have known about Dow’s ties to the company responsible for the 1984 gas leak that killed 15,000 people in Bhopal, India.

And activists were hoping that when the closing ceremonies take place on Aug. 12 that more than 21 out Olympians will be celebrating and the IOC will be looking to reforms before the 2014 Winter Games. Those games take place in Sochi, Russia, where organizers already have nixed an LGBT Pride House for athletes.

Games time

NBC holds the rights to coverage and will broadcast the games on its local affiliates. For a gay take on the games, check out www.outsports.com.

Saudi Arabia sending 2 women to Olympics

Across the world, word that Saudi Arabia would send women athletes to the Olympics for the first time immediately rocketed to the top of websites and broadcasts. In Saudi Arabia’s official media: Not even a hint.

The state-sponsored silent treatment was a lesson into the deep intricacies and sensitivities inside the kingdom as it took another measured step away from its ultraconservative traditions.

While Saudi rulers found room to accommodate the demands of the International Olympic Committee to include women athletes, they also clearly acknowledged that – in their view at least – this did not merit billing as a pivotal moment of reform in a nation that still bans women from driving or traveling without the approval of a male guardian.

“It does not change the fact that Saudi women are not free to move and to choose,” said political analyst Mona Abass in neighboring Bahrain. “The Saudis may use it to boost their image, but it changes little.”

Even the two athletes selected to compete under the Saudi flag – 800-meter runner Sarah Attar from Pepperdine University in California and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in judo – live outside the kingdom and carry almost no influence as sports figures. There is no other choice: Women sports remain nearly an underground activity in Saudi Arabia.

Ahmed al-Marzooqi, editor of a website that aims to cover women and men’s sporting events in Saudi Arabia, viewed Thursday’s announcement as mostly an attempt to quiet international pressure on the lone nation trying to stick with an all-male Olympic team. The other former holdouts, Brunei and Qatar, had already added women Olympic athletes – with Qatar even planning to have a woman carry its flag in London later this month.

“We are still disappointed here,” al-Marzooqi said from the Saudi city of Jiddah. “I should be happy for them, but this will do nothing for women who want to be in sport in Saudi Arabia.”

Still, the opening is not without significance.

The Saudi decision must have received at least some nod from the nation’s Islamic religious establishment, which hold de facto veto power over nearly all key moves by the Western-allied monarchy and gives the royal court its legitimacy to rule over a nation with Islam’s holiest sites.

The inherent two-way tug – change-resistant clerics and leaders sensing reform pressures from the streets – has allowed enough slack for some slow-paced movement. King Abdullah has promised to allow women to run and vote in municipal elections in 2015. He also has tried to rein in the country’s feared morality police while challenges to the established order are growing bolder from a population, nearly half of which is under the age of 30.

Saudi women activists have gotten behind the wheel to oppose the driving ban, and bloggers churn out manifestos about how the Arab Spring will one day hit Saudi shores.

“If Saudi does field women athletes, it is immensely interesting,” said Simon Henderson, a Saudi affairs expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This flies against the traditions of having a woman not make a public display of herself or mixing with men. Now, the world could see women marching with men in the opening ceremony and – even more – women running in competition.”

It’s impossible to gauge the internal discussions before the Saudi Olympic decision, but Henderson speculated it could have influenced by Abdullah’s daughter, Adila, who has been an outspoken advocate of reforms such as ending the driving ban on women. On the other end of the spectrum, senior Saudi clerics have issued a host of edicts against almost all types of sporting activities for women.

“Of course this will bring backlash from many religious leaders,” said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs that has been behind the “No Women No Play” campaign that called for an Olympic ban for Saudi Arabia if it resisted adding women. “This fight is far from over.”

As recently as April, a Saudi newspaper quoted the head of the Saudi Olympic Committee as saying he did not approve of sending women to the Olympics – suggesting instead they could compete on their own under a neutral flag.

A similar arrangement was made at the Youth Olympics in 2010 for Saudi equestrian competitor Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who won a bronze medal in show jumping.

“Allowing women to compete under the Saudi flag in the London Games will set an important precedent,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch “But without policy changes to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within the kingdom, little can change for millions of women and girls deprived of sporting opportunities.”

For the wider Muslim world region, the Saudi decision also is unlikely to have a transformative sweep since the kingdom trailed behind even Afghanistan in opening to women sports.

Increasing numbers are taking part in regional sports competition and there are few sports Muslim women aren’t represented in _ with Afghanis boxing, Pakistanis playing cricket and Emiratis in the Arabian Gulf taking up football and weightlifting. Iran, too, is considered one of the growing powers in women rugby in Asia.

But most experts acknowledged this progress is fragile and vulnerable to age-old cultural pressures.

Weightlifters in the United Arab Emirates have been attacked on social media and the Kuwaiti soccer team was denounced several years ago on its return from a tournament by conservative lawmakers who want a ban on all international competitions. In Iraq, a women’s wrestling club disbanded in 2009 after receiving death threats from religious groups.

Muslim women also face hurdles from the West as well. While rugby, volleyball and taekwondo federations allow head scarves, the football federation FIFA waited until this month to lift a ban – standing by rules designed for safety but seen by Muslims as discriminatory.

“This is a first small step,” said Raija Mattila, co-chairman of the Finland-based International Working Group on Women and Sport. “It’s good for the international stage, but we hope that it opens up sports opportunities for women and girls inside Saudi Arabia. So this is just a small first step.”

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