Indie Arabia, Saudi Hour

January 6, 2008 at 7:07 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )


A monument in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

My parents were teachers in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for nearly twenty years. My sister, my brothers and I spent most of our childhood in Jeddah. Hence the slightly American accents.

We haven’t been back to Saudi since 2003, but we’re still in touch with the good friends we made there. I was forwarded an article from The Arab News today about Saudi blogger Fouad Al-Farhan, who is being held by police in Jeddah, because of the content of his blog. He was detained by Saudi security officers on December 10th, and has been held without charge ever since.

The religious police in Saudi Arabia are called the mutaween, and the government body which employs them is called The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Honestly. That’s really their name.

Modern technology has been a real pain in the ass for these guys. Satellite TV first arrived in Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War, a necessity during a time of conflict. However, once the war was over, people were extremely reluctant to let go of it, and so followed issues of censorship to ensure there was not an overtly Western influence being broadcast directly into people’s homes. Satellite TV companies were closely monitored to assure that the programming came within The Committee’s boundaries of what is virtuous and acceptable.

This censorship crossed over to the music industry. Although there are no popular music radio stations, and no opportunities for live music in Saudi Arabia – I believe this is because it is only permitted to sing religious songs in public – there are lots of music shops, many of which women are unfortunately not allowed to enter. Being a western woman, I always ignored that rule, perhaps because I had the luxury of not being afraid to do so.

The censorship crosses over to the music industry in a few different ways. Certain unsavory pop characters are banned outright – Michael Jackson was banned in Saudi Arabia after the release of BAD, as he was seen as an unacceptable influence on young Saudi men.

With female pop artists, often the original covers are edited to remove any inappropriate views of legs or what have you. In the 80s, this was done simply with a black marker, but this process became more sophisticated in later years with Photoshop. I think it was a Christina Aguilera album in which the original showed Christina on the cover showing far, far too much flesh. I believe this was the offending image.

The cover of the 2002 album Stripped had been edited to suit Saudi shops, so that a pair of less revealing trousers and a conservative long sleeved top, covering her stomach and arms, had been airbrushed over Christina. It looked quite authentic! I was suitably impressed.

But with the internet…how can you possibly control the internet?? Websites, blogs, podcasts, an almost infinite amount of information! My experience of accessing the web in Saudi Arabia is dated now, but back in 2003, there were websites which you would try to visit, and a message from the government would come up on the screen saying the website had been deemed unsuitable by The Committee. Madonna’s homepage, for example, was inaccessible.

I’m not sure how many websites are controlled or forbidden in Saudi Arabia today. Here is a link from Harvard Law School listing websites that are banned in Saudi Arabia, dating back to 2002.

Looking at Fouad’s case, however, it appears that the authorities have not become any more lenient in the last five years. It seems there is still an unacceptable and despicable control of personal and public freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia. The authorities, nearly a month after his detainment, have only in the last week admitted that they actually have Fouad in custody, but are still refusing to give a reason for why he was picked up on December 10th at his IT company in Jeddah, and had his laptop confiscated by police.

Here is a quote from a letter published on Fouad’s website addressed to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud and signed by a number of International organisations:

In an e-mail sent to friends prior to his arrest, al-Farhan explained that he had received a phone call from the Saudi Interior Ministry instructing him to prepare himself “to be picked up in the coming two weeks” for questioning by a high-ranking official. He also stated in the e-mail that he believed he was being summoned “because I wrote about the political prisoners here in Saudi Arabia and they think I’m running an online campaign promoting their issue.” In one of his last posts before his detention, al-Farhan sharply criticized 10 influential Saudi business, religious, and media figures.

The biggest regret of my time spent in Jeddah was that I never learned Arabic – a sign of how segregated the local and the expat communities are – and so I cannot read for myself the views that have gotten Fouad into trouble with the authorities. However, I had enough experience with the religious police, and the ridiculous censorship controlling the country that I trust that this blogger was doing what journalists in the country are often restricted in doing – criticising an unfair and unjust society.

Saudi Arabia was my home for over ten years, and a place I returned to a few times a year until I was 21 years old. It was an incredible experience, one which I look back on with rarely nothing but fondness and great memories. Yet it remains that there are massive, gaping holes in their society when it comes to human rights, and there is little or no room for debate within the country about these issues. In the western world, we talk about it often (sometimes in a patronising way) especially when it comes to issues of women’s rights. But within the country, which is the most crucial place for debate, the freedom to discuss these issues is so restricted that, in my opinion, it makes it extremely difficult for anything resembling progressive change to be achieved.

The lack of communication, that is the lack of freedom in communication in Saudi Arabia, is frightening. The thought that someone could be persecuted because of a blog in which they are unafraid to criticise the government is just unthinkable. Twenty Major would be fucked if this was the case in Ireland. And I’m not trying to be funny. Twenty Major’s blog would simply not exist in Saudi Arabia. Nialler9, Sinead Gleeson, UnaRocks, On The Record and OneForTheRoad would probably not exist either, or would be forced to exist in a diluted form. Nialler9, On The Record and UnaRocks because of the music and videos, OneForTheRoad because of the reference to alcohol and the latest God post, and Sinead Gleeson’s blog because of reference to not only music, but to potentially indecent literature. I think it’s true to say that we are sensitive about what we do and don’t publish on our blogs. But we don’t feel at risk of persecution by the government by airing our views on our blogs, do we?

There was a call for a day of silence by bloggers today, not just in Saudi Arabia, but internationally as well, to show a sign of solidarity to Fouan Al-Farhan. I’m sorry to break the call for silence, but I hope this post is seen as a sign of solidarity too.

You can read the latest article about Fouad on The Arab News website

24 Comments

  1. unarocks said,

    great post

  2. aoifemc said,

    Cheers Una.

  3. Jim Dubh said,

    Some fascinating insights there Aoife. Sadly, it is not an isolated example though of a country still trying to control its populace in this way.

    I also remember a friend who lived in Bahrain for a while telling me of the hypocrisy of these guys crossing the bridge every weekend to go on the lash there, before heading back home again.

    Where there is cause for optimism is that history has repeatedly shown that you can only repress the individual right to freedom for so long and eventually these artificial barriers are toppled (e.g. slavery, Communism in Central & Eastern Europe, Apartheid in South Africa). If anything, the Internet is a major force in piercing these barriers and probably why the powers-that-be are so afraid of it…

    Good one again – even if Irish bloggers collectively seem terribly serious with their start-of-2008 posts!🙂

  4. aidan said,

    Excellent article, Aoife. All the best for 2008 and more of this sort of stuff please!

  5. aoifemc said,

    Thanks Aidan – and best wishes to you for 2008 as well!

    Hey Jim – the seriousness of the blogs must have something to do with January detox! One point that I didn’t stress in this post was that I don’t think our society is perfect, far from it, and it’s not the most just society either. As a guest in Saudi Arabia, I respected their culture and ways of going about things. To a point. One major difference is that in Ireland, especially as a woman, I have the right to choose what I want and what I don’t want. I don’t feel in fear of persecution or social dismissal if I choose a different way of life to the mainstream or what is accepted. I cannot respect a regime which allows this to be the norm. It is not right.

    The control in Saudi is often veiled under the guise of Islam, and what is Islamic, but the Qu’ran does not say that it is ok to restrict people to the point of stifling their own personal freedom. It’s been interpreted in such a way as to suit certain members of society, a problem that is not unique to the Islamic world of course. It happened with the Bible in Ireland, and is happening with the Bible today in fundamentalist areas of Christian America.

    I hope you’re right about this coming to an end, as it has in history before now. It’s hard to know from where we are because it’s so difficult to find out information, ie the truth, about Saudi. But something has to give.

    Thanks for your comments and for reading the post!

  6. Aoife Johanna said,

    powerful post Aoife

  7. amy said,

    nice wan aoifs!

  8. aoifemc said,

    AoifeJohanna – thanks for reading, and the pics I saw through your link are great!

    Amy – thanks lovey!

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  9. Sinead said,

    Aoife, I only saw this now but what a great post – shining a light on a topic (free speech) that most of us take for granted.

  10. aoifemc said,

    Thanks very much Sinead, and cheers for reading.

  11. Mike said,

    “Michael Jackson was banned in Saudi Arabia after the release of BAD, as he was seen as an unacceptable influence on young Saudi men.”
    surely they got this one right at least no?

  12. aoifemc said,

    Mike, you messer. Jeez!

  13. oftroad said,

    I’m delighted that my blog wouldn’t exist in Saudi Arabia.

    great post.

  14. aoifemc said,

    Fair enough Oftroad! Thanks for reading.

  15. Irish Blog Awards » Blog Archive » Best Blog Post 2008 (Long list) - 72 posts said,

    […] The Indie Hour – Indie Arabia, Saudi Hour […]

  16. Bashful Blogger « The Indie Hour said,

    […] Cor, blimey!  The indie hour has also made it to the longlists for Best Newcomer and Best Post for Indie Arabia, Saudi Hour!  […]

  17. Eddie said,

    Just watched this-> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z5DuviyEUA

    He can be held for 6 months without charge…that is shocking!

    My brother lives out in Abu Dhabi, he tells us about how different life is out there. Its always sad when you hear of things like this, not least because its so out of our control and he was doing nothing more extraordinary than we do on a daily basis. Great post!

  18. aoifemc said,

    Thanks for that video link Eddie.
    Al-Farhan has been in prison for 56 days now – it appears his supporters are none the wiser as to why exactly he was picked up.
    Thanks for reading!

  19. Nirvana’s Nevermind Censored « The Indie Hour said,

    […] the beginning of January, I wrote a post about Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan’s detainment by Saudi officials.  I mentioned the […]

  20. Al-Farhan freed « The Indie Hour said,

    […] Fouad al-Farhan, the Saudi blogger who was imprisoned in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia back in December 2007, was released on 26th of April, after five months in prison.  I wrote about Fouad and Saudi censorship in general here. […]

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