The Voices That Can’t be Used
In a world in which people let their conscience guide them, where they look out for one another, see and appreciate the values in their fellow humans, the freedom of speech and the rights of women should not even be a debate. However, it is unfortunate that the reverse is the case in the world today, particularly in the Middle East. The Arab Gulf region which is predominantly populated by Arab Muslims was recently known for its vast wealth in oil and gas. Over the past fifty years, the Middle East has been known for its rapid growth in infrastructure, education, and tourism but surprisingly not much growth on the fundamental human rights. The Countries in the Gulf region, operate an absolute monarchy type of government which caused the citizens right to freedom of speech, freedom of association and right to due process of law, to be hugely regulated and/or suppressed. While there are various arguments that this strong regulation of fundamental human rights and women rights is justifiable on cultural and religious grounds, research shows that today’s regulations have no basis in religion and is only a deliberate suppression of rights and oppression of people that should be changed. On this note, this essay would argue that the various limitations imposed by the governments in the Gulf countries today have no religious or cultural justifications.
Going back in the history of Gulf countries, the fight for the freedom of speech and other elements of the fundamental human rights were very subtle or even non-existent as a matter of fact. The Arab spring of 2011 was what many thought would be the precursor to a democratic Arab world where people would not be arrested, jailed, or even murdered because of the expression of their right to freedom of association, freedom of speech, and their other fundamental human rights. Unfortunately, the Arab spring only created a huge civil, social and political unrest which if not carefully and urgently attended to, could go on for many years or even lead to the complete extinction of the affected Arab countries.
Gulf countries today have developed in every possible aspect of life except for human rights aspects. Although they all have enormous restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, and also the freedom of association, they have varying degrees of coerciveness. While some of the countries are very brutal and coercive, the others are not. Amongst the Gulf countries which are Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia is believed to be more intimidating in the restriction of the fundamental human rights of its citizens and residents. An average citizen in any of the Gulf countries that criticize the government could be perceived as a dissident and may eventually be jailed or even killed. One doesn’t necessarily have to explicitly demand a change of government before they will be regarded as an enemy of the state. Using Saudi Arabia as an example is very important as it is the face of the Gulf region, and is, in fact, the first and perhaps the only country many individuals abroad think of when they hear the term “Gulf Region”.
A very recent and interesting example is the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Jamal Khashoggi who is a Saudi journalist and happens to be a strong critic of the Saudi government’s policies had to relocate to a different country to avoid prosecution, unfortunately for him, he never really got away with his criticism. Despite being away on a self-imposed exile in Turkey, his disappearance since the 16th of October after his entry into the Saudi consulate in Turkey has been a topic of discussion on almost every news agency. “Although the authorities of Saudi Arabia have admitted to his death in their Turkish consulate after several denials and claims that he left, the culprits are yet to be brought to book.” (The Guardian). While the investigations are still in process, it is apparent that Saudi Arabia’s government is involved in his killing, as all accusing fingers point to Saudi Arabia. This example highlights the consequences of exercising one’s freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia. Prosecuting people for demanding their rights is totally unacceptable as people should be allowed to speak their minds and exercise their freedom.
The fact that the people have accepted a particular family to sit on the wealth of, and pilot the affairs of the country is more than enough for the government to show the highest regard and respect for people’s rights and lives. And while the case of Jamal Khashoggi is just one in many cases from Saudi Arabia, another prominent and recent example is that of the outspoken cleric Salman Al-awda. An article in the New York Times describes him that “In the 1990s, he was prominent in a movement of conservatives known as the Awakening that was associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and criticized the Saudi government on religious grounds, including for allowing American troops to enter the kingdom during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.” (New York Times). This period seemed to have created a nightmare, in person of Salman for Saudi Arabia “that activism got him thrown in prison for nearly five years, and his views seemed to evolve after his release. After the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, he called for elections and separation of powers, ideas the Saudi monarchy feared would threaten its control.” (New York Times). The uproar in Salman’s case started when the “Saudi news media and the Cleric’s son said Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor is seeking a death penalty for him” (New York Times). These two foremost examples make one wonder how brutal a human could be to kill or try to kill a person who criticizes him. Social critics, when arrested, are usually given the same punishments as murderers and terrorists, and this is very unfair. No one should be made to suffer in jail or be put to death for voicing out the change he or she wants in a country where he or she is a citizen. Being wealthy in natural resources and building tall towers all around the country is not enough to consider a country as very developed or 1st world country, there should be a proper expression of the right to freedom of speech, free press, and women’s right should never be tampered with talk less of being denied.
A belief that I have always had is that one cannot talk about human rights and exclude the rights of women. The fundamental human rights in the world today applies to every human regardless of their gender. No woman should earn less for the same quality of work as a man, and no woman should be relegated to second place in a public setting just because she is a woman. Also, no woman should be denied opportunities to succeed in her educational and professional career just because she is a woman and lastly women and children rights should be adequately protected during wars when they unarguably become most vulnerable. In the Gulf countries and the Arab world women rights are massively suppressed, that one may wonder if women even have rights at all. From the olden days and since the advent of Islam, women have been made to understand that they can only play second fiddle to men in everything thus they need the permission of men in order to get many things done. Women in the Arab world “only get to have more opportunities to work and less control from men during conflicts, this a privilege that women should enjoy all year round not only during war times.” (Rightor 8). There is a specific Quranic verse which states “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them, guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).” (Ch 4: V34).
Some Muslim Middle Eastern men who argue against women rights and promote the idea of the male gender as being totally superior to women sometimes quote this verse to support their argument but unknowingly they quote the verse out of context. Many scholars over the years have explained that this verse is only addressed to married couples, and in no way justifies that women should be paid less for equal work or be refused from threading a particular path in their educational and professional life just because those paths are traditionally for men. Furthermore, this verse does not justify that a girl or woman should be forced to marry or take a decision against her own will simply because she is female, an action that is prevalent in today’s Arab world. Over the years we have seen the Gulf countries embrace some women rights and give them more opportunities in basic education, science and technology, and also allowed them to hold leadership positions both within and outside of the government. Despite these impressive developments that have happened over the years, women rights are still hugely limited. Those of them that seek to travel have to take permission from a male figure in the family, and this is sometimes a problem because the male figure could be an uncle who is not on good terms with the girl’s mother thus he says no to every request she makes. This is the negativity of such rule and in cases where that has happened, it has shattered the dreams of many girls and created a huge vacuum in their lives.
These two aforementioned cases of freedom of speech and women’s rights are issues that should be taken seriously by governments of the Gulf countries and thoroughly looked into. And if they are looking for an example of how to handle those issues, they do not have to look very far, they can simply take a cue from Kuwait. Kuwait is the only country in the Arab gulf today where there is freedom of the press. “Regional and International observers have constantly praised Kuwait as the most liberal country in not just the Middle East but also North Africa in terms of enforcement of human rights laws which majorly include freedom of speech and freedom of the press.” (Maurice 2). Although it is stated that there have been “different times in history when individuals and media houses have been sanctioned for promoting supposed materials that are found insulting to either Islam, the Amir or the nation as a whole” (Maurice 7), one must still give Kuwait the credit for institutionalizing a law that guarantees freedom of the press.
This action by Kuwait although when compared to countries in the West still needs more work, it is applaudable that they are gradually edging towards being a nation with a lot of freedom of press and expression. The other Gulf countries can take a huge first step by setting up news agencies that spearhead independent media establishments, as this will instill confidence in the citizens and the press. This would also suggest that the government is indeed ready to create a society where one would not be arrested, jailed or killed like a criminal for voicing out one’s opinions regarding the policies of the government, as long as one does not make speeches that attempt to incite the public against the nation. Another step is to reorient the girl-child and instill in her the idea that she is not inferior to a boy simply because she is a female. Girls need to know they can achieve just as much as a boy or even more, so they can see life as a free and fair race rather than a half-lost one.
When the girl grows up and aims for a specific leadership position or career, she should be adequately supported to achieve her dreams. These are two fundamental solutions to the issue issues discussed above. May that day come in the Arab Gulf when a woman will be stopped from pursuing an educational or professional career not because she is a woman but because she cannot physically or mentally do it, and may that day come when people and the press get the freedom they have always sought.