Saudi Women Activists Face Jail for Helping Canadian

A Saudi appeals court upheld a jail sentence against two women rights activists. Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni were sentenced last June to 10 months in jail followed by a 2-year travel ban for seeking to help a Canadian woman who wanted to leave her Saudi husband with their children.

“The sentence could be carried out in the next few days,” al-Huwaider said on Wednesday.

The activist said the court’s decision to uphold the sentence “sends a strong message to all Saudi women saying anyone who demands social justice for her fellow women will face the same fate, and will have to deal with what is worse if necessary.”

Al-Huwaider, a member of Human Rights Watch Middle East advisory committee, said she believes the government pursued case to punish her for unrelated women’s rights activism over the the years, including calls to lift the ban on driving.

HRW urged the Saudi government to drop the case against al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni.

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Tata to Open All-Female Outsourcing Center in Riyadh

The Financial Times:

Tata Consultancy Services, India’s largest software developer by sales, on Tuesday unveiled its debut “all-female services centre” in the capital, Riyadh, part of plans to access a largely untapped pool of workers in the segregated Middle Eastern nation.

The operation will be run as a joint venture with General Electric, the US industrial group, which will hold a minority stake, while GE and Saudi Aramco, a large state-backed oil company, will be early clients.

The JV will not offer a call-center service, but it will provide other back-office functions like human resources and finance.

Saudi Worst on Women’s Legal Issues

Stella Dawson for Reuters:

Saudi Arabia tops the list of countries for laws that limit women’s economic potential, while South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa have made the least progress over the last 50 years in improving women’s economic opportunities, a report issued on Tuesday says.

The full report can be found here.

Girls Unallowed: Saudi Keeps Ban on Women in Football Stadiums

The Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) denied that it will allow women to attend matches in Riyadh after an official at King Fahad Stadium said they are ready to welcome foreign families only at a friendly between the national team and New Zealand today.

“SAFF confirms that there has been no official announcement to allow families to enter King Fahad Stadium in the capital Riyadh to attend matches at the friendly OSN Cup that will begin tonight (Thursday),” said a statement published on the federation website. “There is no truth to reports circulated over the past hours that families will be allowed to attend matches.”

The denial from SAFF came after Sulaiman al-Yousef, manager of King Fahad Stadium, told online news site Sabq that while the ban on Saudi women at stadiums remains in place, foreign women and children will be allowed to attend the games. “The stadium is fully ready to deal with family attendance,” he said, adding that special security measures has been taken and that the northern gate has been dedicated for them.

The OSN Cup is a friendly football tournament organized by SAFF and sponsored by television network OSN. The first edition of the tournament will feature Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago and the United Arab Emirates.

President of SAFF Ahmed Eid said last May that it was not up to him to allow women to attend football matches in Saudi Arabia, adding that this decision must come from higher authorities in the kingdom.

“A decision like this is a sovereign decision. Neither me nor SAFF can make it,” Eid told al-Riyadh newspaper at the time. “Only the political leadership in this country can make that decision.”

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that applies a strict interpretation of Islam with many restrictions on women. But the country sent two women to the Olympic Games for the first time last year in London in a step that was described by the president of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge as a “major boost for gender equality.”

In 2006 Saudi Arabia backed down on barring women from attending a friendly football match against Sweden in Riyadh after protest from Swedish authorities.

When questioned about it in parliament, then Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds said “it is important that Sweden very clearly speaks out when women are discriminated against.”

The Saudis later assured the Swedish football association and the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh that everyone is welcome, including Saudi women. Some Swedish women were seen attending the match, but they were seated in the media area away from the regular stands.

UPDATE: Despite repeated denial by Saudi officials, including Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, President of Youth Welfare, it appears that some Saudi women did attend the match against New Zealand. Al Arabiya posted a photo late on Thursday showing a woman in niqab and two girls sitting next to her in the blue seats of King Fahad Stadium in Riyadh.

Photo of New Zealand football fan courtesy of Alejandro De La Cruz via Flickr

In a First, Industrial Giant SABIC Hires Saudi Women

Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) hired 13 women for the first time since it was established in 1976, al-Watan daily reported on Thursday. SABIC is the largest publicly listed company in Saudi Arabia, but 70 percent of its shares continue to be owned by the government.

While SABIC employs women in its ventures outside Saudi Arabia, the company has been criticized for excluding women from its workforce in the kingdom. For comparison, state-owned oil giant Aramco has been employing Saudi women for decades.

But unlike Aramco where both genders share the same offices, it appears that women will be segregated from men at SABIC.

An unnamed source at the petrochemicals company told the newspaper that the 13 women hired to work at the headquarters in Riyadh will have a work environment that respects “society’s values, as their independence has been taken into account,” he said. “Communication with them will be via the Internet and telephone, as well as electronic work system.”

The newly hired women will work in the departments of management, finance and information technology, the source said.

Saudi Arabia has an overall unemployment rate of 12 percent, and the numbers of unemployed young people is especially high among women. By the end of last year, women unemployment reached 36 percent according to official numbers.

The government has pushed in recent years to encourage more women to join the workforce by limiting some jobs to women in places like lingerie and cosmetics shops. That push faced resistance from religious conservatives who warned that mixing of genders at the workplace would lead to the Westernization of society.

Photo courtesy of ray “pepex” Piquero via Flickr

‘It Is a Big Thing’

Sarah Attar, the first Saudi woman to participate in the Olympics as a track and field athlete, was in Jeddah recently. Saudi Gazette interviews her:

She said she realized how impactful, important, positive and influential her participation was for her country after the Olympics. Although she had never envisioned being part of the Olympics, she said it was a huge part of her life and will remain to be so. “It was impactful and an amazing experience.”

When asked about the impact it had on the younger generation in Saudi Arabia, Attar said: “One of my younger cousins had a class project on me. Their PE teacher had my photo up in the classroom, so they called me for interviews and it was great to talk to them. I mean, it is a big thing. I know the act itself does not change everything but you have to start somewhere. Everything begins with a step.”

Two Women Activists Seek Jail Term Reversal

Sebastian Usher reports for BBC News:

Two women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have called on their government to overturn their 10-month jail terms for inciting a woman to defy her husband’s authority.

Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni are both well-known activists.

An appeal by the two women is due to be heard later this week.