Tuesday, June 26, 2018

MBS reserves the right to be the sole interpreter of women’s and society’s needs

As Saudi women take the wheel, activists say fight for gender equality continues

By — Ilayda Kocak
In Saudi Arabia, as a women’s driving ban is lifted Sunday, human rights advocates are criticizing the country’s remaining restrictions on women.
The move to end the ban on female drivers is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 initiative, which aims to modernize and diversify the Saudi economy beyond oil. But advocates say these efforts are occurring alongside a crackdown on activists and as inequality between men and women persists in the country.
The end of the driving ban follows the arrests of 17 people in recent weeks. The Saudi public prosecutor’s office said eight of them, five women and three men, have been temporarily released. But human rights groups warn that several of those arrested remain in jail and that police targeted them for support of gender parity in one of the most conservative countries in the world.
Here’s a closer look at what brought about this change and what advocates still hope to achieve past Sunday’s driving ban lift.

How did we get here, and what has changed?
Women in Saudi Arabia have campaigned to lift the driving ban for decades.
In 1990, Saudi women protested the ban by driving their cars around the the capital city of Riyadh until they were stopped by the police. Many of them were arrested, suspended from jobs or shunned by society. Before the ban’s lift, Saudi Arabia was the only country left in the world that prevented women from driving.
In a defiant move, some activists posted videos of themselves behind the wheel on YouTube.

But the longstanding policy changed when Saudi Arabia announced in September that it would allow women to drive. It was a move that appeared to align with the crown prince’s efforts to modernize the country in order to attract foreign direct investment and to wean the country off the oil economy. It was also a practical move in a country where women account for 22 percent of the workforce. By 2030, MBS wants that number to increase to 30 percent.
To reach that goal, women have to be able to drive themselves to work, said Hana Al-Khamri, a former journalist, analyst and writer on Saudi affairs. “Allowing women to drive a car is a move of pragmatism,” Al-Khamri said.
“Rights are only granted when it serves the interest, the agenda and the survival of the totalitarian political system,” she told the NewsHour.
Saudi authorities say they have put in place all the framework for women in the kingdom to start driving on Sunday. Among the changes, driving schools have been set up across five cities in the country and would be taught by Saudi women who obtained their licenses abroad.
The changes have been celebrated by many both within Saudi Arabia and throughout the world.
Last month, a Saudi woman test-drove a car during the country’s first women-only car exhibition, which featured a team of saleswomen for its new customer base.
Vogue Arabia’s June 2018 edition, the first to solely focus on Saudi Arabia and the gains women have made there, featured Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud on the cover in the driver’s seat of a red convertible.
“In our country, there are some conservatives who fear change,” the princess told Vogue. “For many, it’s all they have known. Personally, I support these changes with great enthusiasm.
Driving isn’t the only achievement for Saudi women this year.”
Last month, the country criminalized sexual harassment in the kingdom. Now, sexual harassment is punishable by up to two years in prison and fines which could reach up to $26,600.
Despite the ban, a government-led crackdown on women has continued
But even as women are seeing progress toward more equality in some areas, Saudi Arabian authorities and government-aligned media are cracking down in other ways.
In May, the government launched a public smear campaign against six detained women’s rights activists, labeling them as traitors.
The United Nations Human Rights Office has requested Saudi Arabia provide information about where arrested women’s rights activists are being held and ensure their right to due process.
Kareem Chehayeb, a Saudi Arabia researcher with Amnesty International, told the NewsHour that the government is spearheading a “chilling media campaign” and said the government targeted activists “as traitors or foreign agents.”
The activists “are a model for others and the demand for the rights will continue,” activist Yahya Assiri said. But, he adds, “for that, the authorities trying to stop any other campaign, want people to thank MBS and not the activists and want to abuse the reputation of the heroes.”
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia said it has “temporarily” released eight activists that were charged with posing a threat to state security for their “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric” and nine other women’s rights activists remained in detention “after sufficient evidence was made available and for their confessions of charges attributed to them.”
Rights groups have identified many of the detainees as women who support the right to drive and an end to the conservative kingdom’s male guardianship system.
Reconciling new freedoms with recent arrests
Now, human rights groups are struggling to reconcile the recent crackdown with the government’s stated goals of social reforms.
In a recent press conference, UN human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell called the arrests “perplexing.”
“MBS reserves the right to be the sole interpreter of women’s and society’s needs and anyone who question the regime or demand more rights will be put behind bars,” Al-Khamri said. “MBS is not reformist – as it outwardly and ostensibly appears – but he is the face of the neo-totalitarian state.”
“The regime will continue to harass, silence, and imprison voice which challenges the norms and the power structure or attempt to mobilize the society for a sustainable change,” she added.
MBS’s reforms do “not justify the crackdown on human rights activists, on freedom of speech, freedom of expression rather association and assembly,” Chehayeb of Amnesty International said. “What you’re witnessing now is a greater stifling more than ever before of these freedoms.”
What’s next?
Today, women are out on the streets driving around the kingdom, but the activists who campaigned for lifting the ban are still behind bars. Saudi media organizations have accused the arrested activists of plotting to “violate national unity.”
Many aspects of everyday life are still off-limits for women. They still need a male guardian’s permission to travel overseas, divorce or marry, get a job, open a bank account and socialize freely in public places with the opposite sex.
As the driving ban is lifted, activists say they will celebrate, but will not stop fighting to gain other rights for women.
“We are still waiting for the real reform,” Assiri said.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Speaking to AFP News Agency on women driving in #SaudiArabia

Saudi Arabia gears up to end women driving ban

Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive from Sunday, ending the world's only ban on female motorists, a historic reform marred by what rights groups call an expanding crackdown on activists.
Overturning the decades-long ban, a glaring symbol of repression against women, is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's much-trumpeted reform drive to modernise the conservative petrostate.

Potentially thousands of female drivers are set to take the wheel on Sunday, a long-awaited rite of passage for women in the kingdom that many say could usher in a new era of social mobility.
"It is a very important step and essential for women's free mobility," Hana al-Khamri, author of the forthcoming book "Female Journalists in Gender Apartheid Saudi Arabia", told AFP.
"Women in Saudi Arabia live under patriarchal structures. Allowing them to sit behind the wheel will help challenge social and gender norms that hinder mobility, autonomy and independence."
For many women the move should prove transformative, freeing them from their dependence on private chauffeurs or male relatives and resulting in big family savings.
"It's a relief," Najah al-Otaibi, a senior analyst at pro-Saudi think-tank Arabia Foundation, told AFP.
"Saudi women feel a sense of justice. They have long been denied a basic human right which has kept them confined and dependent on men, making it impossible to exercise a normal life."
- Coffee and ice cream -
The kingdom earlier this month began issuing its first driving licences to women in decades, with some swapping their foreign permits for Saudi ones after undergoing a practical test.
Some three million women in Saudi Arabia could receive licences and actively begin driving by 2020, according to consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
A handful of female driving schools have cropped up in cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, training women to drive cars and also Harley Davidson motorbikes -- scenes that were unimaginable even a year ago.
Many Saudi women have ebulliently declared plans on social media to drive their mothers for coffee or ice cream as soon as the ban ends on Sunday, a mundane experience elsewhere in the world but a dazzling novelty in the desert kingdom.
For decades, hardliners cited austere Islamic interpretations to justify the driving ban, with some asserting that women lack the intelligence to drive and that lifting the prohibition would promote promiscuity.

The decision to lift the ban was catalysed in large measure by what experts characterise as economic pain in the kingdom owing to a protracted oil slump.
The move is expected to boost women's employment, and according to a Bloomberg estimate, add $90 billion to economic output by 2030.
Many women fear they are still easy prey for conservatives in a nation where male "guardians" -- their fathers, husbands or other relatives -- can exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on their behalf.
The government has preemptively addressed concerns of abuse by outlawing sexual harassment, with a prison term of up to five years and a maximum penalty of 300,000 riyals ($80,000).
- 'Not a criminal or traitor' -
Prince Mohammed, appointed heir to the most powerful throne in the Middle East a year ago this month, has also lifted a ban on cinemas and mixed-gender concerts, following his public vow to return the kingdom to moderate Islam.
But much of the initial optimism over his reforms appears to have been dented by a sweeping crackdown on women activists who long opposed the driving ban.
Authorities have said that nine of 17 arrested people remain in prison, accused of undermining the kingdom's security and aiding enemies of the state.
The detainees include three generations of activists, among them 28-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul, also held in 2014 for more than 70 days for attempting to drive from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia, and Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor at Riyadh's King Saud University.
State-backed newspapers have published front-page pictures of some of the activists, the word "traitor" stamped across them in red.
Human Rights Watch this week said the kingdom has arrested two more women activists -- Nouf Abdelaziz and Mayaa al-Zahrani, in what it denounced as an "unrelenting crackdown".
"I am not a provoker, not a vandaliser, not a terrorist, a criminal or a traitor," Abdelaziz said in a letter before her arrest, which was cited by HRW.
"I have never been (anything) but a good citizen who loves her country and wishes for it nothing but the best."
Both women are being held incommunicado, HRW said.
Saudi authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
Even some of the prince's ardent supporters have labelled the crackdown a "mistake".
It has been seen as a calculated move both to placate clerics incensed by his modernisation drive and also to send a clear signal to activists that he alone is the arbiter of change.
But many Saudi women nevertheless credit decades of fearless activism for the end of the driving ban.
"These activists should be credited for this historical change, not jailed," Khamri, who is currently based in Sweden, said.
"It is sad that these women who have been fighting for the right to drive won't be there to witness this historic moment."

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Därför får kvinnorna i Saudiarabien köra bil

Har den saudiske kungen blivit feminist, eller hur ska man förklara de reformer som gett Saudiarabiens kvinnor vissa friheter? Bortom slagorden fortsätter emellertid förtrycket av kvinnor, vilket tyder på att reformerna framför allt är motiverade av ekonomiska kalkyler och internt maktspel. 

Häromveckan tog Saudiarabien plats i FN:s kvinnokommission, trots den stora kontrovers som omgärdade beslutet förra året. Den senaste tiden har också nyheter om reformer i Saudiarabien uppmärksammats i medier över hela världen, särskilt de förändringar som rör kvinnors ställning i landet. Ett av de beslut som hyllats är avskaffandet av förbudet för kvinnor att köra bil.
Hur kommer det sig att den saudiska kungen, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, plötsligt accepterar att kvinnor får köra bil och monterar ned flera andra hinder för kvinnors aktiva deltagande? Det var just kung Salman som för 28 år sedan, då som borgmästare i Riyadh, gav order om hårda straff mot de kvinnor som genomfört den allra första demonstrationen för kvinnors rätt att köra bil i Saudiarabien. Regimen fortsätter dessutom att tysta, fängsla och tvinga kvinnorättsaktivister, varav många har kämpat för de reformer som nu genomförs, att gå i exil.
Det är med andra ord inte särskilt troligt att kung Salman eller hans kronprins Mohammed bin Salman plötsligt har blivit feminister, så vilka motiv ligger bakom den senaste tidens snabba förändringar? För att finna svaret är det viktigt att titta närmare på det saudiska kungahusets förhållande till de som debatterar kvinnors rättigheter i landet, framför allt de kvinnliga debattörerna.
Saudiarabien är en absolut monarki. Kungen är statschef, regeringschef, högste befälhavare i armén och ledare för nationalförsamlingen (Majlis Al-Shura). Kungen utser ministrarna i regeringen och medlemmarna i nationalförsamlingen. Genom ett system av belöningar till dem som visar lojalitet mot regimen och dess ideologi, liksom hårda straff mot dem som vågar trotsa kungahuset eller rådande samhällsnormer, försöker regimen kontrollera samhället.

Kvinnor i Saudiarabien är juridiskt omyndiga. De måste få tillåtelse av sina manliga förmyndare för att gifta sig, arbeta eller resa utomlands.
De som debatterar mot kvinnors rättigheter utgör en heterogen grupp som interagerar med den saudiska regimen på olika sätt. Vissa är direkt sponsrade av kungahuset och arbetar inom systemet. De tillhör samhällets elit och har privilegierade positioner inom utbildningsväsendet, statskontrollerade institutioner och medier där de sprider regimens åsikter. De ger sitt helhjärtade stöd till regimens ideologi och bidrar på ett effektivt sätt till att tysta aktivister som kritiserar makten. Ett argument som de ofta framför är att samhället inte är redo för förändringar.
Det finns även kvinnliga debattörer som stöder staten och kampanjar mot att kvinnor ska få utökade rättigheter. Dessa tillhör ofta medelklassen och drivs av en fosterländsk nationalism i kombination med religiösa motiv. Ett exempel på initiativ som dessa chauvinistiska debattörer tagit är kampanjen ”Min manliga förmyndare vet vad som är bäst för mig”.
Saudiarabien domineras av wahhabismen, en ultraortodox tolkning av islam som uppmuntrar till en mycket traditionell och konservativ roll för kvinnor i samhället. Många debattörer baserar sin retorik på den wahhabitiska doktrinen vilken de ser som den absoluta sanningen när det gäller vilken moral som bör råda i samhället. De djupt religiösa debattörerna har högljutt protesterat mot att kvinnor ska få rätt att köra bil och kritiserar ofta FN:s konvention som syftar till att avskaffa all slags diskriminering av kvinnor, eftersom de anser att jämställdhet splittrar familjen. De kritiserar aldrig kungahuset och har
Hdärför stöd från mäktiga personer inom regimen. I stället riktar de sin ilska mot vad de kallar ”liberala grisar” som vill befria de saudiska kvinnorna.
Dessa debattörer får direkt eller indirekt stöd av det saudiska kungahuset eftersom de tjänar regimens agenda: fullständig kontroll över vilka rättigheter kvinnor ska garanteras. Det starka stödet till de debattörer som är mot utökade rättigheter för kvinnor visar att det saudiska kungahuset inte eftersträvar jämställdhet.
Trots att det inte finns någon folklig representation på politisk nivå, och inte heller något självständigt civilsamhälle, förekommer det emellertid även röster som vill stärka kvinnors rättigheter. De har bland annat samlat in och lämnat över namnunderskrifter till kungen med krav på att kvinnor ska tillåtas köra bil. En annan kampanj syftade till att avskaffa det manliga förmyndarskapssystemet. Initiativtagarna har utsatts för smutskastningskampanjer, förlorat sina jobb och dömts till hårda fängelsestraff. Resultatet är att många som vågat utmana det patriarkala systemet tystats.
Liksom i alla diktaturer och totalitära system finns det revolutionära saudier som vill skapa radikal förändring – en övergång från absolut monarki till ett mer demokratiskt styrelseskick. Att yttra sådana åsikter är förenat med livsfara och regimen straffar den som vågar trotsa kungahuset med mycket hårda straff. De har antingen dödats, fängslats eller tvingats i exil och fått sina pass indragna.
Den saudiska kungen och hans kronprins är alltså inte några jämställdhetsförespråkare. Regimen vägrar att belöna eller erkänna kvinnorättsaktivister som kämpat för grundläggande rättigheter under decennier. Det som hände Aziza Al-yousef – en av de ledande kvinnorättsaktivisterna i Saudiarabien – när kungahuset i september förra året offentliggjorde att kvinnor ska tillåtas att köra bil utgör ett målande exempel på detta. Al-yousef, som kämpat för kvinnors rätt att köra bil sedan 90-talet, blev uppringd av det kungliga rådet (Al-Diwan Al-Malaki) strax innan nyheten offentliggjordes och förbjöds att kommentera frågan. Al-yousef tvingades att tyst se på när kungen och hans kronprins under parollen ”Kung Salman står upp för kvinnorna” proklamerade att körförbudet för kvinnor upphör. Det hade varit förenat med stora risker för Al-yousef om hon trotsat regimen och kommenterat den reform hon så länge kämpat för.
Att den saudiska regimen känner sig hotad av röster som vill mobilisera samhället för att stärka kvinnors ställning
Tär tydligt. Kungahusets förhållningssätt till de som debatterar kvinnornas ställning i landet kan sammanfattas med den italienske diktatorn Benito Mussolinis slagord ”Allt inom staten, ingenting utanför staten, ingenting mot staten”. Regimen låter inte kvinnorättsaktivister som arbetar för långtgående förändringar verka fritt. Kungahuset vill säkerställa att kvinnofrågor förblir under dess kontroll. Rättigheter beviljas av den patriarkala kungen när han så önskar, inte när det krävs av några aktivister.
Med detta som bakgrund är det uppenbart att det som nu pågår i Saudiarabien inte handlar om genuina reformer i syfte att stärka kvinnors rättigheter. Förändringarna som nu genomförs har andra motiv.
Kung Salman kom till makten 2015 som den sjunde monarken sedan kungahuset etablerades 1932. Hans trontillträde har präglats av ekonomiska utmaningar till följd av fallande oljepriser, vilket allvarligt har påverkat monarkins möjlighet att i vanlig ordning köpa sig legitimitet. I åratal har kungahuset distribuerat skattefri social välfärd till invånarna och i gengäld krävt lojalitet och blind lydnad.
Genom att ta bort några hinder för kvinnors aktiva deltagande, som körförbudet, vill kungahuset få ut fler saudiska kvinnor på arbetsmarknaden. Idag arbetar bara 12 procent av kvinnorna. Syftet är att minska de ekonomiska utmaningarna i landet och skydda kungahusets legitimitet som vilar på skattefri välfärd för folket.
Därtill har dramatiska förändringar ägt rum inom det saudiska kungahuset de senaste åren. Den yngste sonen till den nuvarande kungen, 32-årige Mohammed bin Salman, har hoppat över successionsordningen och utnämnt sig själv till kronprins vilket skapat en djupgående strid om makten inom kungafamiljen. Enligt amerikansk underrättelsetjänst har kronprinsen satt sin egen mor under husarrest då han fruktar att hon ska motsätta sig maktövertagandet. Maktkampen har gjort kvinnornas situation till en bricka i ett politiskt spel som Mohammed bin Salman använder både för att vinna de ungas sympati i Saudiarabien samt för att bygga nära relationer med världsledare och garantera deras stöd. På detta sätt stärker han sin ställning och befäster sin makt.
Till skillnad från manliga aktivister i Saudiarabien kämpar landets kvinnliga aktivister både mot ett totalitärt politiskt system och mot ett patriarkalt samhälle som håller dem tillbaka. Den saudiska regimen varken erkänner eller involverar kvinnorättsaktivister när landet nu genomför reformer för att förbättra kvinnors ställning. I stället reserverar sig kungahuset rätten att vara den enda uttolkaren av kvinnors och samhällets behov. Landet har gång på gång missbrukat sitt internationella och ekonomiska inflytande för att pressa FN och världens länder till att acceptera kvinnors underordnade ställning i Saudiarabien. Det är därför osannolikt att ett medlemskap i FN:s kvinnokommission kommer att medverka till ökad jämställdhet i landet.
Med det sagt är det positivt för de saudiska kvinnornas ställning att de nu får utökade, om än fortfarande mycket begränsade, rättigheter. Men det är viktigt att förstå att förändringarna kom till stånd efter ekonomiska nedgångar och internt maktspel – samt framför allt att de tjänar den totalitära regimens intressen. Den stora utmaningen för kvinnorättsaktivister i Saudiarabien är nu att säkra de här positiva förändringarna och försöka driva fram ytterligare reformer.
Till sommaren kommer saudiska kvinnor äntligen kunna sätta sig bakom ratten utan rädsla för repressalier. Men körkort till trots – de förblir omyndiga. Det råder alltjämt könsapartheid i Saudiarabien och så länge det manliga förmyndarskapet inte avskaffas är och förblir kvinnor andra klassens medborgare.
Hana Al-Khamri
Mellanösternanalytiker med fokus på Jemen och Saudi­arabien, uppvuxen och tidigare verksam som journalist i Saudiarabien, sedan 2011 ­bosatt i Sverige

Sunday, June 17, 2018


I remember calling the Saudi human rights lawyer Waleed Abulkhair from a European capital city to ask him if he thought my life would be in danger if I returned to Saudi Arabia after publishing articles criticizing its human rights and political situation.
“The Saudi government can only shackle their own people, but can do nothing to a foreigner,” Waleed told me in a phone conversation, suggesting that, if I held a western nationality, it might protect me from harassment by Saudi authorities. He continued, “Many European opinion writers criticized the Kingdom, but none have been punished. This regime can only take its strength out on us.”
His words still resonate in my head.
Today, that same man languishes in a dark prison after being indicted by a variety of charges, including discrediting the Kingdom.

Image result for waleed abulkhair
Waleed refused to take opportunities to escape Saudi Arabia despite all the harassment he had experience by police and security forces, so as not to be accused of being supported by the west. He did not want people to think that his political and human rights awareness was inspired by the west or coming only from abroad, which the regime claims has nothing in common with the local culture. Waleed decided to stay in the kingdom, as he believed the struggle for human rights and reforms were worth it. He was trying to bear everything in order to show that his endeavors to establish a better country stemmed from conscience as a citizen.
But the dictatorial regime has no other power than to shut the mouths of its people and cut off the heads of its opponents.
After the Arab Spring revolutions, nothing terrifies the Saudi regime more than 140 characters on Twitter by a political reformist or anyone who dreams of a brighter future. The fear those first tweets caused was sufficient justification for the regime to introduce a new law against terrorism, which is now used against anyone calling for a constitutional monarchy or other reform. This law was used by the security court in Riyadh to sentence Waleed to fifteen years in prison.
Saudi authorities’ are able to control the dissemination of information to an extreme degree. During the Gulf War of 1991, the Saudi population did not know about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait until three days after the war broke out. The royal family and the ministry of information banned all local media from mentioning anything about it There was a war next door and no one knew about it!
I talked to senior journalists who witnessed those days. They talked about fears spreading among media professionals working at the national television and local newspapers, to the extent that the voice of the weather forecaster was trembling whenever he talked about the climates of Kuwait and Iraq.
The Saudi rentier state has—since its founding at the beginning of the last century—sought to create a parish rather than a citizenry. The welfare system has been created without demanding people pay taxes; it has covers all expenses through oil revenues. By following such a system, the regime can ensure grateful “subjects” to the royal family rather than “citizens” claiming voting rights.
The royal family forgot that the new millennium will provide new tools and methods to their people that they won’t be able to ban—tools and methods that anyone living in the Kingdom will be able to use to express their opinions, fears, demands, and dreams. Unrestricted tools which one can use without going through gatekeepers appointed and deposed by the Saudi Ministry of Information who enforce censorship on each pronounced or written word.
The royal family forgot that global consciousness, despite the Kingdom’s oppressive control, can create citizens who are conscious enough to stand for their rights. Citizens who no longer hesitate to demand equal rights, the right to freedom of expression, and the preservation of universal human rights values. Citizens like Waleed Abulkhair.
The regime is currently living in a state of historical confusion and doesn’t know how to control the expansion of social media networks and their growing popularity among youth. The regime has lost control of these tools and of all the stories that now transcend borders and inspire those living in the Kingdom. Interaction through the new media has inspired Saudis to make change and to establish a new social contract between the ruler and the ruled.
The regime sees the acquisition of free words like the possession of drugs or the holding of a terrorist ideology. They are blocking websites and issuing laws to restrict the internet and to imprison human rights activists, ostensibly to protect the intellectual and cultural security of the citizen, while in fact just protecting the regime…

This text was first published at The Dissident Blog #14 for Swedish PEN in 2014

The outrageous racism that 'graced' Arab TV screens in Ramadan

By Hana Al-Khamri
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are meant to abstain from food, drinks, smoking, sexual activity and offensive language. Understandably, during this month, TV broadcasters across the Arab world tend to tone down programming and promote more family-friendly content.
Yet year after year, racist mockery and derogatory language against Afro/black Arabs and black African migrants make it to the TV screens of millions of Arab families gathered to enjoy TV series produced especially for Ramadan.
This year's Ramadan TV content failed to "disappoint" in this regard. The Egyptian comedy series "Azmi we Ashgan" (Azmi and Ashgan) created by controversial Egyptian producer Ahmed el-Sobki, featured the lead actors donning blackface repeatedly throughout the series, as well as the use of racist language (including the use of the n-word) and the portrayal of black people as servants who speak in broken Arabic and practise sorcery.
The Kuwaiti comedy series "Block Ghashmara" (The block of jokes), on the other hand, dedicated a whole episode to actors in blackface portraying Sudanese people as lazy and cynical.
Despite the outrage on social media, the film crews behind the TV series defended themselves. Ahmed Mohy, the scriptwriter of "Azmi we Ashgan," downplayed the racial slurs in his show, said on Twitter that "[the team] do not aim at insulting part of the Egyptian people, because we are all one people".
On Instagram, the Kuwaiti actor Hassan al-Ballam, who starred in the controversial Block Ghashmara episode, apologised, but said that the criticism against him was exaggerated and that he was "misunderstood".
These exchanges and criticism, however, were limited to social media and as in the past, failed to produce a bigger society-wide discussion. This is hardly surprising given that racism in Arab popular culture and in Arab cinema, in particular, is pervasive and there seems to be little interest in the Arab society to change that.

Arab cinema's racist tropes
"Why are you turning off the light? You are already dark by nature," says the main character to a black prostitute in the 1998 Egyptian film Sa'eedi fil gamaa el amrekeia (An Upper Egyptian at the American University).
"Is there a power cut in there or what?" - says one lead character when he sees a group of black people walking out of a night club in the 2001 Egyptian film, Africano.
"Did someone burn this apartment before or what?" - laugh three of the characters in the 2005 Egyptian film, Eyal Habiba (Habiba's children), as they look at a wall of family photos in the apartment of a Sudanese man (played by an Arab in blackface).
These are just a few examples of anti-black racist language which has dominated Arab cinema for decades. The industry continues to inject its popular drama series, movies and talk shows with a despicable amount of racism to create undignified images of Afro/black-Arabs and black African migrants.
The portrayal of black people in Arab cinema reflects the widespread anti-black sentiments and racism that exists across Arabic-speaking countries.
On the screen, black people are cast into subordinate roles, reduced to servants, housemaids, prostitutes, clowns and doorkeepers working for rich families.
Black men and women are constantly depicted as dirty and sluggish and their skin colour is subject to racist mockery and associated with bad luck.
When the main character, Khalaf (Mohamed Henedy), in Sa'eedi fil gamaa el amrekeia hears the news of someone's death, he turns his gaze towards a prostitute played by a black woman, and declares: "The lady died because of your black face". The same movie contains many racist comments about the black prostitute illustrating how Afro/black Arab women are perceived as ugly and unfeminine.
Even black children have fallen victim to this racial mockery. In the 2003 Egyptian comedy, Elly Baly Balak (My thoughts are your thoughts), the protagonist addresses his wife after mistaking a black maid's child for his own, saying "You are white and I am white, how could we have this bar of dates as a child?"
It is apparent that the Arab cinema industry has no qualms about practising Arab-washing, following in the footsteps of Hollywood and its penchant for whitewashing stories and characters.
But while in the US the use of blackface has been largely phased out, in Arab cinema it is constantly used in order to have non-black Arabs cast in black roles. They often don blackface, put on exaggerated fake buttocks, thick Afro curly hair and bright-red lipstick.
It is also indicative that for decades the first and only dark-skinned actor who played leading roles in Egyptian cinema was Ahmed Zaki (1949- 2005). But even he did not escape racial characterisation: He was nicknamed the "Bronze Star" and the "Black Tiger".
The taboo subject of slavery
Despite the persistence of this negative portrayal of black people and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes against them, there is almost no public debate about it within the wider Arab society. On the contrary, there is a popular outright denial that racist attitudes against black people exist.
Every darker-skinned person in the Middle Easthas been exposed to racial epithets and has been called different derogatory names. The most common racial slur is "abd", meaning "slave" or "servant". This language of racism is an enduring legacy of the history of slavery in the region.
That legacy, however, is still seen as a taboo subject and when raised, Arabs often try to deflect it by talking about Bilal Ibn Rabah, a black slave who Prophet Mohammed freed and who became the first muezzin (the person who calls to prayer). This episode of Islamic history is brandished as proof of the existence of egalitarian and inclusive Islamic society in which there wasn't and isn't any discrimination based on race.
However, the emancipation of Bilal did not really end slavery in the region. On the contrary, for centuries various interpretations of Islam were used to justify a flourishing slave trade and the culture of concubines across the Middle East and North Africa.
Slavery in Arab countries was abolished completely by 1970 (with the exception of Mauritania, which did so in 1981). While not all dark-skinned people in the region are descendants of slaves and not all slaves were black, people with darker skin are stigmatised and, by default, considered to have such background, regardless of how they self-identify.
This, in turn, impacts social relations, perceptions and social and political positions. In 2008, for example, when Adel Al-Kalbani, a black Saudi imam, was appointed to lead the prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, he faced a barrage of racial insults, with some Muslims openly protesting his appointment.
An Arab identity that excludes and discriminates
Beyond slavery, Western colonialism certainly contributed to the racism present in Arab society by ascribing the idea of beauty to whiteness and ugliness to blackness and by favouring certain ethnic groups over others. Yet, it was not the main factor that shaped identity and perceptions of race in the region.
It was the coercive pan-Arabism ideology that established the hegemony of a specific, racialised Arab identity over all others. It has contributed to systemic socioeconomic discrimination and created strict racial hierarchies, which relegate black people to a subordinate position within the Arab society.
The most populous Arab countries are in the African content and black Arabs have been a part of non-black Arab society since the early Muslim conquest of the region. But there is a staggering contempt for everything that is African or black.
Naturally, any industry, such as cinema, that is dominated by non-black Arabs would reflect this sentiment and fail to embrace the racial diversity of the Middle East and North Africa.
This has negatively affected many young black people who struggle to find positive role models, as they remain largely unrepresented in mainstream media. The social stigma has pushed some of them to disassociate themselves from their black identity. Some deny their African heritage, participate in intra-racial racism, strive to assimilate and even attempt to change the colour of their skin through skin-bleaching.
It also continues to inflict grave harm on migrants and migrant workers. The harrowing stories of abuse of Ethiopian women in Lebanon and the shocking practices of torture and slavery of African migrants in Libya are just two examples of how dangerous this centuries-old undercurrent of entrenched racism in Arab countries can be.
Racial prejudice in Arab cinema and society persists because we have failed to push for an open debate and for effective measures against racism. Depicting Afro/black children and adults in a degrading manner and even encouraging mockery and violent behaviour in the Arab film industry should not be tolerated or normalised.
To overcome the stigmatisation of black people, we need to shake off the legacy of our unpalatable past and end the "culture of silence". It is this "refusal to engage in discussions on slavery and racial attitudes" which in the name of "Arab-Islamic hegemony" has sought to conceal this issue - as Moroccan historian Chouki El Hamel has noted.
We Afro/black Arabs have to come to terms with our own identity, decolonise our own self-perception, reclaim and embrace our blackness and march against racial prejudice and the degrading images and treatment which we are exposed to on the screen and on the ground.
We should speak out at all levels of Arab society and the Arab film industry should be leading this social revolution. We should look inward and scrutinise our racial attitudes so that we can stop reproducing the culture of racism and move forward.

This op-ed published on Aljazeera English

Hana Al-Khamri is a writer and analyst based in Sweden. She used to work as a journalist in Saudi Arabia.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Read A letter from the Recently Arrested Women's Rights Activist in Saudi Arabia

Hana Al-Khamri @hanaalkhamri

Read the last letter from Nouf Abdulaziz @nofah1, Writer, Saudi women’s rights activist, and a fierce defender of prisoners of conscience. Arrested on Wednesday, June, the 6th 2018 and held incommunicado. ( See below for the Arabic version) Free  #Mayaa_AlZahrani #Nouf_Abdulaziz and their fellow activists 

“I never thought I would have to say this, to have this conversation, to try and justify myself and save what can be saved from the ruin that has overcome me and all that I love. I lose the words while I think about anything, and how to explain myself, mind, life, ambitions, dreams to people that now see me as a criminal who deserves what has happened to her. Maybe they see that being rid of me is the path to a better country, even though many of them do not know me or haven't even heard my name before, despite that they have they feel entitled to judge me unfairly.

It has been said often that people will criminalize the other that they do not know, if ruin or trouble overcomes him, they start to ask: what did he do? What is his crime? He must have committed a crime, for that makes it easier to excuse their inadequacy and failure in front of another person who is just like them, who has been violated and overcome with misery. This person that is just like them, who isn't different than them in any way, for he is someone's son or someone's husband, he lives a similar life and similarly strives to make something meaningful in his life, remembering that causes them to empathize and feel guilty for having judged so quickly. I will then urge you to empathize with me, I will shake your hand in peace and introduce you to myself:

Hello, my name is Nouf, and I am not a provoker, inciter nor a wrecker, nor a terrorist, nor a criminal or a traitor. I am the daughter to a great mother who suffers because of me -as I think- and a daughter to an honourable and honest family that has undergone a lot of harm because of what happened to me. I am a Postgraduate student that never got the chance to finish her education. I usually sum up myself with a few characteristics: a writer, a reading addict since I was six years old, my father tells me that I am intelligent; I am a quiet girl except for the questions that storm my mind.
In efforts to end this silly introduction, I will talk to you and share some of the questions that overcome my mind: Why is our homeland so small and tight, and why am I considered a criminal or an enemy that threatens it! I was never but a good citizen that loved her country and wished the best for it, a loving daughter and a hardworking student and a devoted worker, who never demeaned hated or envied anyone, so what about my country, and I don't know any fault other than that I am always thinking of each member of my community that has been treated unfairly, and I try to help them either by volunteering my time or effort, so how does it this become my fault? Me who always used to go to direct authorities that could help them, be it lawyers or human right NGOs, so how is that taken against me?!

How does corruption reach people to take advantage of me to attain promotions and to fill their pockets with money on my account, to end my life and present and future for absurd ends that isn't but corruption in a land, and to distort the image of my homeland to be an oppressive country without any critical thought or account to what they do, to whose benefit is all that is happening?
But it's okay, take my life, time, health and all that I own if that is for the benefit of my country, take my present, future and all that I love if that satisfies you and if it's for the good of our people, but don't take away my right to life and freedom and dignity, don't take away all that I have dreamt of and striven for just to be a scapegoat for the benefit of another.

And my God, if all that is happening makes you happy, then do unto me until you are satisfied, if what is happening does not please you, help our people to see clearly to know that their sister in the homeland is mistreated and she does not deserve other than her freedom, to maintain her dignity and to have the warmth in her parents arms, that has been taken away from her"

"لم أكن أظن يومًا أني سأكون مضطرة إلى هذا الحديث، لتبرير نفسي ولمحاولة انقاذ ما يمكن انقاذه من خراب حل بي وبكل من أحب، تتوه الكلمات مني وأنا أفكر بأي شيء أبدأ وكيف أشرح ذاتي وفكري حياتي وطموحاتي أحلامي وأمنياتي لأناس قد يروني الآن مجرمة أستحق ما يحصل لي وربما يرون أن الخلاص مني هو السبيل لوطن أفضل، مع أني موقنة أن الكثير لا يعرفوني ولم يسمعوا باسمي من قبل ورغم هذا يملكون الجرأة ليحكموا علي ظلمًا وعدوانًا .
كثيرًا ما قيل أن الناس يميلون لسرعة تجريم الآخر الذي يجهلونه، إذا حل به خراب أو مصيبة، فيبدؤون السؤال: ماذا فعل؟ ما هي جريمته؟ لابد أنه ارتكب جرمًا ما، فهذا يسهل عليهم تبرير عجزهم وخذلانهم أمام انسان مثله مثلهم انتهك حقه وحل به البلاء، هذا الإنسان الذي مثله مثلهم، لا يختلف عنهم بشيء في كونه ابن لأحدهم أب أو زوج انسان يعيش مثل حياتهم ويجتهد في أن يصنع بحياته شيئًا مرضيًا مثلهم، وهذا يدفعهم للتعاطف وتأنيب الضمير، لذا كي أدفعكم للتعاطف معي  سأصافحكم بسلام وأعرفكم على نفسي: 
السلام عليكم، اسمي نوف وأنا لست بمحرضة ولا مخربة ولا ارهابية ولا مجرمة ولا خائنة.
ابنة لأم عظيمة تعاني بسببي -كما أظن- وابنة لعائلة كريمة شريفة تضررت بسبب ما حصل لي، وطالبة لدراسات عليا لم أحصل على فرصة لاكمالها، وأختصر نفسي بعدة صفات، كاتبة ومدمنة لقراءة الكتب منذ أن بلغت السادسة من عمري، ذكية كما يقول أبي، وفتاة هادئة غير أن الأسئلة تعصف بي.
تجاوزًا لهذه المقدمة البلهاء سأتحدث معكم وأشارككمدبعض الأسئلة التي تعتمل بصدري دائمًا: لماذا يضيق بنا صدر الوطن، ولماذا أعتبر أنا عدوًا ومجرمًا أهدد أمنه! 
لم أكن سوى مواطنة صالحة أحب بلدي وأتمنى له الأفضل، ابنة محبة وطالبة مجتهدة وعاملة جادة لم أكن لأحتقر أو أكره أو أحسد أي أحد فكيف الحال بوطني، ولا أعلم لي ذنبًا غير أني كل يوم أتحسر على كل محزون ومظلوم من مجتمعي وأحاول مساعدتهم تطوعا إما بوقتي أو جهدي فكيف تصبح هذه جريرتي؟ وأنا التي كنت أوصلهم مباشرة بالجهات المختصة من محامين وجمعيات حقوق انسان حكومية فكيف تؤخذ هذه ضدي!
كيف يبلغ الفساد بأناس أن يستغلوني لأجل الحصول على ترقيات ومليء جيوبهم بالمال على حسابي، أن ينسفوا عمري وحاضري ومستقبلي لغايات عبثية لا تكون إلا افسادا في الأرض وتشويهًا لصورة الوطن وتقديمها كدولة قمعية دون أدنى تفكير وحساب في ما يفعلون، لمصلحة من يحدث كل ما يحدث؟ 
لكن لا بأس، خذوا عمري وحياتي وصحتي وكل ما أملك إن كان في هذا مصلحة لبلدي ورفعة له، خذوا حاضري ومستقبلي وكل ما أحب إن كان هذا يرضيكم وفيه صالح لشعبنا، لكن لا تظلموني وتسلبوني حقي بالحياة والحرية والكرامة وكل ما حلمت به وطمحت اليه لأكون مجرد تضحية لغاية ما تصب في صالح أحدهم. 
ويا الهي إن كان ما يحدث يرضيك فلك العقبى حتى ترضى، وإن ما كان يحدث لا يرضيك، فأرزق شعبنا البصيرة حتى يعلموا أن أختهم بالوطن مظلومة وأنها لا تستحق سوى حريتها وحفظ كرامتها وحضن عائلتها الذي سلبت منه".