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