Because of restrictive religious laws, exercise is all-but-banned for the women of Saudi Arabia. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
From Universities to Workplaces, Saudi Women Point the Way To Change
FGM Is ‘Harmless, Helps Tame Desire’, Says Senior Russian Mufti
PMK Claim on Dalits ‘Abducting’ Muslim Women Draws Flak
Bangladesh Arrests Four Women in Cafe Attack Probe
Hijab-Clad Muslim Women Assaulted, Called 'ISIS' In US
Compiled by New Age Islam News Bureau
Meet the Saudi Arabian Women Fighting Sexism through Secret Running Clubs
August 15, 2016
When Nesreen joined a running club in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, she was prepared to sweat—not just from physical exertion, but because she would be running in a long black dress and headscarf, as required by state law, in temperatures approaching 100°F. Beyond the blistering heat, the mother of four was worried for her personal safety. Associating with non-familial members of the opposite sex in public is forbidden by religious law, so each time she joined the pack of co-ed joggers, she was putting herself at risk.
“At first I thought, What! Females running in the street?” Nesreen says. “I couldn’t get over what people would think about me, how they would look at me, and what could happen.”
Nesreen has been running for almost year with the Jeddah Running Collective (JRC), a club that organizes group runs for over 100 male and female members. Its existence would be inconsequential almost anywhere in the world. But in conservative Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t allowed to drive, compete in sporting competitions, or even attend sports tournaments, its very presence boldly challenges the status quo.
The Saudi government has long limited female access to athletics through policies that effectively prevent women from exercising in most gyms, playing sports in schools, and practicing with state-sponsored club teams. This is a stark difference to the front that is being put on for the Olympics: Although the kingdom has sent four women to compete in the 2016 Rio games, some experts call this as a “fig leaf” that simply appeals to the international community while allowing the government to maintain oppressive policies back home.
Yesterday, California born-and-raised athlete Sarah Attar represented Saudi Arabia in her second Olympics. (Her father is Saudi Arabian, which grants her the dual citizenship to compete under the Saudi flag.) She ran in the women’s marathon, where she finished second-last. All four women representing the kingdom this year could reach peak athletic level because they were either born in the States or have spent a large portion of their training time abroad. They had to leave the kingdom, where it is difficult for women to access athletic facilities, to earn their wildcard entries.
Many of the JRC’s female members do not have the same international training options. The group holds practice three times a week, during which they run shorter distances, and also embark on monthly marathon-length run. Sometimes the group ventures to isolated desert paths outside the city or retreats inside rented indoor tracks, but practice most often takes place on the public walking paths that stretch across Jeddah.
Alongside men in Nike shorts and T-shirts, female members run in loose abayas, their faces shrouded in scarves. Nesreen says the outfit is uncomfortable and at times awkward, but she has learned to adapt. “When they told me we were going to run outside, I was like, I don’t want to be cooking in the heat with my black dress,” she says. “At first it was difficult because my abaya was long and I didn’t know how to tie it or what to do with my scarf. But I discovered all the females in JRC were doing it and not making a big deal out of it.”
Both female and male members are often harassed by onlookers who yell derogatory slurs as they run. Occasionally, resistance comes from government officials, and several members have been questioned by the police and even detained in jail. Rod, one of three founders of the club, remembers the evening that police cars arrived and arrested him and several other members for mingling with the other gender. After being held for six hours, they were finally released thanks to the intervention of a close friend and lawyer. “We are all aware and know the consequences of the things that might happen,” Rod says. “While we’re out in public, we have several plans in case of the worst scenario.”
Although the club doesn’t break any state laws, running in a mixed gender group is strictly prohibited by the religious police known as the Mutaween, a squad of government officials designated to enforce Sharia Law. The Mutaween are an integral element of the kingdom’s Wahhabi government and are tasked with rigidly maintaining Qur’an doctrine. This includes restricting inter-sex communication and imposing Islamic dress code.
The club was formed by three expatriates—Jaqueline, Rod and Chase—in December of 2013. (JRC is both shorthand for “Jeddah Running Collective” and an abbreviation of the three founders’ initials.) The group was created with the dual mission of promoting an active lifestyle and fighting for gender equality. “All along women [have] always been part of our group and in the heart of our thinking. We stand on our belief that running has no gender and we strongly implement non-discriminatory acts in the group,” Rod says.
Since its inception, women have flocked to the JRC seeking the chance to exercise, and female members often outnumber men during runs. Some women who initially hesitated to run alongside men in public, fearing repercussions, decided to launch a separate female-only running group associated with the club, called the Jeddah Running Collective Women. They set up Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr accounts, which the club uses to post messages calling for broader equality in sports.
The accounts heavily feature pictures of famous female trailblazers, such as Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry, and images of female JRC runners in action. Under a picture of six women covered in abayas, a post on JRCW’s Tumblr reads: “Don’t be fooled by [their] dark, long, shapeless abayas, because behind those tunic-style dresses are lycra and tights waiting to be unveiled and ready to #OUTRUN [their] naysayers.” Like many other members, Nesreen first spotted the group on social media and says she found messages like these compelling. “I liked what was written about bridging the gap and giving anyone the opportunity to run,” she says.
The JRC supports female athletes during a time when Saudi women face a serious health crisis, with over 44% of women obese or overweight. The high incidence of female obesity can be attributed to government policy, says a scholar at the Gulf Institute, Ali Al-Ahmed, who wrote the report “Killing Them Softly: How Saudi Ban on Women’s Sports is Harming Their Health.” “This ban on women’s sports and active lifestyle is the most devastating of any other restriction, because it impacts their health directly, which impacts everything else—their education, family lives, and mental health,” Al-Ahmed previously told Quartz.
For Nesreen, running serves as “therapy”: It has broadened her social circle, improved her health, and even helped her quit smoking. She revels in the freedom of exercising outdoors, which is a rare moment of release in a regime that controls many aspects of women’s daily lives. Nesreen says that nowadays, “I don’t think about anything. I don’t see how people are looking, or staring, or what they are saying. I just feel proud to be a part of the change that’s coming.”
Some change is already in the works. Rod says that since the group formed in 2013, they have had fewer incidents involving aggressive observers and now many onlookers even cheer for their female runners. On August 2016, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud was appointed to head a new female department of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority. Experts hope she will have the power to implement a series of important reforms, such as establishing physical education curriculums in girls’ state schools and licensing women’s gyms.
Female Olympians also serve as powerful symbols for women who hope to follow in their footsteps. The JRC’s social media accounts are currently filled with images of Sarah Attar, who was one of the first two female athletes to represent Saudi Arabia in the 2012 Olympics. Members applaud Attar’s achievements, and recently posted a Facebook video of members personally wishing her luck in Rio. Attar also regularly trains with the group when she returns home to visit family members in Saudi Arabia. “When Sarah Attar ran with us, just seeing her made me so proud,” Nesreen says. “She’s living our dream and doing it, and we’re just so excited to have her with us.”
Many JRC members look to follow Attar’s example and participate in elite competitions. The collective hopes to be more than a social running club and serve as a platform for women to train at a high level. However, there are scant opportunities for female runners to compete in marathons and races within Saudi Arabia. So for the time being, the club’s main emphasis remains on fighting for equal rights.
“As much as we wanted to go out there and compete, we focus more on spreading our movement about women running in abaya,” Rod says. “We also encourage our male members not to sign up to some competitions and races that are male-only to emphasize our strong commitment to equality. It’s sort of our silent protest to lift the ban on restriction for females to join any public sports and running competitions locally.”
Organizations like the JRC have had a degree of success in forcing the Saudi kingdom to confront and reform oppressive policy. Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch and author of the HRW’s recent report on Saudi female athletes, says that internal pressure motivated what limited reform there has been in recent years. “The most important thing that has changed is that Saudi women are demanding their right to exercise and play sports, for fun and fitness, and to take part in international tournaments. Women’s sports have been an arena for women to push for their rights,” she says.
In recent years, women in the kingdom have made some notable advances. In December of 2015, women voted for the first time. Nine hundred and seventy-eight female candidates, alongside 5,938 men, registered as political candidates, and 21 were elected to office. But progress proves to be slow and limited. Elections were only for municipal council, which is a low rung of Saudi government, and many women reported issues related to identity cards that ultimately prevented them from voting. Saudi Arabia remains one of the most oppressive states for its female citizens and is ranked 135 out of 145 in terms of gender equality by the Global Gender Gap Index. As of 2015, only 15% of Saudi women were employed.
Clearly, significant hurdles remain to bridging the gender gap. But hopefully as women propel themselves forward, the government will be forced to keep pace. “Saudi females are really strong and empowered,” Nesreen says. “Some people have said that we’re suppressed and can’t move and can’t do anything. No—if there is a way, we will do it. All you need is determination.”
From Universities to Workplaces, Saudi Women Point The Way To Change
AUG 15, 2016
Ms. Fawzi Sa’d is an engineer and entrepreneur, ranked one of "100 Most Powerful Arab Women" by Forbes and Arabian Business.
Saudi students from Effat University promote their Visual and Digital Production program on March 25, 2016 at the Saudi Film Festival the Gulf coast city of Dammam. (AKEEL HUSSEIN AL-ALI/AFP/Getty Images)
It’s a long way from Saudi Arabia to Silicon Valley, and the distances are cultural as well as geographic.
As the center of America’s high-tech sector and the incubator for thousands of startup companies, Silicon Valley symbolizes dramatic–often disruptive–change. In contrast, Saudi Arabia is often thought of as a static society.
But, when Americans take a closer look, they’ll learn that the Kingdom is embracing change, diversifying its economy and empowering women. There is an entrepreneurial and transformative spirit that American investors and policymakers should recognize, both for the opportunities they present and to strengthen the partnership between our countries.
Americans need to update their thinking about the Kingdom. This was brought home on my recent visit to the United States, where I met with technology investors and executives in Silicon Valley and San Francisco and thought leaders in Washington, DC.
At the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford University, some people were surprised to see me on a panel about women’s leadership, alongside Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and Google chief financial officer Ruth Porat.
I’m a Jordanian woman who is living and working in Saudi Arabia. I wear a headscarf. But I’m also an engineer and a entrepreneur who has founded two companies. My latest startup could help revolutionize women’s healthcare around the world. My first company has already expanded employment opportunities for women in engineering in the Middle East.
My own experience is instructive about Saudi Arabia’s growing appetite for change. I was born and educated in Jordan. Shortly after I earned an engineering degree, my husband and I moved to Saudi Arabia, where, 16 years ago, the engineering profession was overwhelmingly male-dominated.
Soon, my husband, also an engineer, had more work than he could do himself. He introduced me to his clients, several of whom outsourced some engineering work to me. While caring at home for our three children, I built a freelance business by working online.
FGM Is ‘Harmless, Helps Tame Desire’, Says Senior Russian Mufti
15 Aug, 2016
Female genital mutilation does not pose health risks and “does not contradict the dogmas of Islam,” said the head of the North Caucasus Muslim Coordination Center, following a damning report about the outrageous practice in Russia’s southern republic of Dagestan.
“As far as I know it is done in order to tame women’s desire a bit. It is absolutely harmless to health,” mufti Ismail Berdiev claimed in an interview with the “Govorit Moskva” radio, referring to female genital mutilation. He added that it is “purely Dagestan’s tradition,” suggesting that the practice is limited to areas of just one of Russia’s southern regions located in the North Caucasus.
Berdiev, who is also a member of the Presidential Council for Coordination with Religious Organizations, commented on a report dedicated to the issue of female genital mutilation in remote communities of Dagestan. It was published by the Russian Justice Initiative, a Russian human rights and legal advice NGO.
According to the report, female genital mutilation is still practiced in some areas of Dagestan and is supported by the community and some religious leaders. The imam of the mosque located in Dagestan’s capital of Makhachkala told Russian Justice Initiative that he considers the procedure obligatory under Islamic norms and stressed that avoiding it means “falling into sin.”
In the meantime, Dagestan’s children rights commissioner said that it already alarmed the regional education ministry and law enforcement in the view of this issue.
Female genital mutilation is widely condemned in the world. It is also condemned by the UN and its various agencies that consider it to be a violation of the right to health and bodily integrity as well as a form of violence and discrimination against women, a form of torture and the violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
It also considered to be a dangerous and health-impairing practice.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a change in practices in nations where the ritual marks adulthood in March 2016.
“Never before has it been more urgent, or more possible, to end the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), preventing immeasurable human suffering and boosting the power of women and girls to have a positive impact on our world,” he said in his speech.
According to the UN data, at least 200 million women and girls have suffered the terrible practice of genital mutilation in 30 countries across the world. In some countries, such as Mali, Somalia and Sudan, the procedure is practically universal. Rates are also high in Egypt, although the procedure was technically outlawed in 2007.
PMK claim on Dalits ‘abducting’ Muslim women draws flak
15 Aug, 2016
PMK founder S Ramadoss’ claim in a television interview that Dalit youths had ‘abducted’ Muslim women in Erode is being seen by some sections as an attempt by the party to drive a wedge between Muslims and Dalits, just as it had consolidated caste Hindu outfits against Scheduled Castes on the issue of inter-caste love marriages.
In an interview to a television channel two days ago, Dr. Ramadoss, who took the position that Dalit youth were ‘enticing’ girls belonging to other communities in the guise of love and later deserting them, said, “In Erode district, 200 Muslim women have been kidnapped. The Imam had expressed this to me… Every community – Brahmins, Reddys, Vanniars – has been affected. Dalits are being educated and instigated by this Dalit party (a reference to Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi).”
“This (charge) is new,” said Aloor Sha Nawas, the deputy general secretary of the VCK and the party’s Muslim face. “This is an issue which will resonate in society and this is why the PMK has once again taken this issue up,” he charged.
Arguing that the Muslims and other minority communities had backed the Dalits, he said, “Even when the PMK invited Muslims to be a part of the consolidation earlier, the Muslim representatives disapproved of it. This is an attempt to split Muslims and the Dalits. We will expose Dr. Ramadoss and his divisive politics to the Muslim community.”
Some critics saw parallels between the ideological narrative pursued by some right wing leaders, who claimed that Muslim men are duping Hindu women for the purpose of conversion and that of the PMK leader who accused Dalit men of consciously pursuing women from other communities with an eye on their property. Manithaneya Makkal Katchi leader M.H. Jawahirullah disagreed with the comments made by Dr. Ramadoss. “In the age of social media, it is common for young men and women to fall in love beyond caste and religion. The fact is that it is happening in all sections of society. To accuse an entire community or a party is completely mischievous. This shows that the PMK is not politically relevant anymore and is trying to reassert itself through these kinds of politics,” he contended.
However, a PMK ideologue, who did not wish to be named, denied that the party or its founder was anti-Dalit and that it was only against a “prominent Dalit party”, which is instigating the youth of its community. “How can we be against 19 per cent of the population? We are not. We are only against some youth who are systematically engaging in this drama for usurping ‘property’ and wealth,” he said.
According to him, the media often ignores the excesses of the oppressed communities. “In the spirit of progressiveness and not to heap more pressure on historically disadvantaged communities, the media has not been as critical as it should be. There is a huge problem,” he said in an obvious reference to the incident in Villupuram, where a Dalit stalker, who had lost a hand and a leg in a train accident, claimed to be a victim of caste atrocity and killed a Vanniyar school-going girl recently.
Bangladesh arrests four women in cafe attack probe
Bangladeshi security forces said on Tuesday they had arrested four women suspected of being members of a home-grown militant group blamed for an attack on a Dhaka cafe last month in which 22 people were killed.
Five young men attacked the upmarket cafe on July 1, an assault claimed by Islamic State. Three of the attackers were from affluent Dhaka homes who had broken off contact with their families months earlier.
Police believe that Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, a banned group that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, played a role in organising the group.
The four women were arrested in an overnight raid in the capital, based on information from a regional militant leader who was detained last month, said Rapid Action Battalion spokesman Mizanur Rahman Bhuiya.
"Three of them are students of a private university and the other one is working as an intern in the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital," he told Reuters.
At least seven more people believed to have been involved in the attack had been identified, Monirul Islam, chief of counter-terrorism police, told reporters.
"We have got to know their organisational names but their real names and whereabouts are yet to be identified," he said.
Earlier, police said Bangladesh-born Canadian citizen Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, 30, masterminded the cafe attack. Analysts say Islamic State identified him in April as its national commander.
Al Qaeda and Islamic State have made competing claims for a series of killings of liberals and members of religious minorities in the country over the past year. The government has pinned the blame on domestic militant groups.
Hijab-clad Muslim women assaulted, called 'ISIS' in US
Aug 16, 2016
CHICAGO: A hijab-clad mother-daughter duo was assaulted, spit at and called 'ISIS' by a woman here in an alleged hate crime incident, the latest in the US amid growing concerns over rising Islamophobic rhetoric.
The two Muslim women — both wearing hijabs — reported being harassed and physically attacked in West Rogers Park neighbourhood here.
The women said they were physically and verbally assaulted by another woman who hurled anti-Islamic insults at them. They also claimed that the Chicago police were not taking the incident seriously.
Suzanne Damra told NBC Chicago that the woman followed her and her mother just last Thursday, and tried to spit on them while calling them 'ISIS'.
A cellphone video, shot by one of the women, shows the alleged assailant hurling insults, as the two take refuge in their car. The woman can be heard screaming "...you ISIS! ...you ISIS!"
Damra said it was at least the fifth time she and her mother had been accosted by the woman. But she suggested it was the lack of help from others who witnessed the incident, which possibly upset her even more.
"There were two very young men, I don't think they were more than 21 or 22. And they were laughing, they high-fived her, and said, yeah, they are ISIS!" Damra said.
In the video, Damra's mother seems to find the whole episode hard to believe.
"That's what you get from Donald Trump?" she says on the tape. "Encouraging crazy people?"
Damra's mother Siham Zahdam said she believed Trump's rhetoric had emboldened those with anti-Islamic sentiments.
"People copy what he is saying. And they think he is going to make the white people more powerful!" she said.
Chicago Police confirmed they were investigating the incident as a simple assault.
However, Chicago's Council on American-Islamic Relations called for both state and federal authorities to make a more aggressive inquiry.
"It's very clearly a hate crime," said CAIR spokesman Hoda Katebi.
"To file this as a simple assault is not at all close to what it actually is," she said.