Sunday, October 25, 2009

Saudis Take One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Last month Saudi Arabia opened up a brand new school - the King Abdullah Science and Technology University (or KAUST). The Saudi royal family spent $7 billion to build an ultra-modern center for the sciences, which includes state-of-the-art labs and one of the world's fastest super-computers. But what makes KAUST truly remarkable, for Saudi Arabia anyway, is that within its campus men and women can mix freely, and women can do wild things like go outside without veils and even drive cars - both big taboos in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.

The whole point of KAUST is to help diversify Saudi Arabia away from its petro-driven economy by establishing a base for science and technological research. It is also being used as a place to start to breakdown long-standing cultural taboos against the mixing of the genders. Of course as soon as it opened, KAUST became a target for religious conservatives. Sheikh Saad Bin Naser al-Shethri, a member of Saudi's Supreme Committee of (Islamic) Scholars, demanded that women be barred from the university. In a rare blow for women's rights, King Abdullah turned around and sacked Shiekh al-Shethri from his position on the Supreme Committee.

So are conditions for women actually changing in Saudi Arabia? Not really. Just a couple of weeks after this tacit endorsement of women's rights in Saudi, a court in the city of Jeddah ordered that a female journalist receive 60 lashes for having been involved in a talk show that talked about, you know, s-e-x.

Journalist Rozana al-Yami received the sentence after LBC, a Saudi-owned Lebanese television network aired an episode of their popular talk show "Bold Red Line" where a Saudi man named Mazen Abdul Jawad talked about meeting Saudi women and having sex with them. For publicly bragging about "picking up chicks" Jawad was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and five years in jail.

What makes Rozana al-Yami's sentence more disturbing though is that there is no proof she was directly involved in the Jawad episode of "Bold Red Line", only that she worked part-time for the network, which according to the judge made her guilty enough to face the lash. Needless to say al-Yami's verdict is being seen as an attack on both women and journalists, and may also be a message to LBC's owner Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is perhaps the most liberal and reform-minded member of the Saudi royals.

No matter how many progressive steps like the opening of KAUST Saudi Arabia takes it means nothing so long as sentences like the one against Rozana al-Yami continue to be handed out.
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