Sunday, October 31, 2004

Jailed for visiting a friend

The treatment of women in this country has continued to baffle me. We (women travelling alone) were side stepped time after time because we were travelling alone (and because I am Asian as well.) They probably thought that I was a maid coming to work as unfortunately for me, my flight coincided with a batch of Sri Lankan and Indonesian maids.

Just after having my passport checked, I had to go through another check point before collecting my passport. The man asked where I worked which I found very amusing indeed as only a small fraction of local women work. So why is it so unexpected that I don't work?

Anyways, I named my Sponsor and told them that my husband works with them. And the officer asked if my husband is waiting outside. I replied yes. To which he replied, "Are you sure?"

Am I sure? Why does he think I come? To enjoy the exorbitant social life? The endless parties?

So I replied with, "Do you want me to call him?" He then proceeded to check with another uniformed officer who told him that I could be waived in.

To be a single woman travelling alone in this country, one is either harassed or side stepped. So much for morality and the preservation of virtue.

Below is an excerpt from the Arab News. Again this is an illustration of how a woman is treated in this country, how she has absolutely no rights and how she is regarded as a man's property.

Female Prisoners: Victims of Abuse by Husbands, Housewives

Halah Al-Nasser of Sayidaty, a sister publication of Arab News, recently met with women being held at the Riyadh jail and filed this report.

Years ago we paid a visit to the women’s jail, but this time it seemed different. During this visit, things seemed more organized with improvements evident throughout the facility. When we entered the prison, the women inmates were waiting in groups outside the warden’s room after news spread about who had been pardoned. Anxiety and nervousness dominated the atmosphere.

We visited warden Amal Abu Uraj in her office to share the much anticipated release of the list and get her impressions about pardons in general and the procedures involved in selecting those who would be pardoned.

“This is an annual chance for women inmates to change their paths and their lives and revive their psychological and social balance,” Uraj said. “Especially during such times as Ramadan so that they can fast the month with their families.”

This year, royal pardons were granted to 12 inmates — one Saudi woman, and 11 of other nationalities. As Uraj was talking, the names of those pardoned arrived. The chief immediately announced the names, and those pardoned lived a few moments of utter elation. As for the rest, the absence of their names on the list of pardons took different forms. Some cried and some stood composed while some went to comfort themselves by calling their families.

After the noise had calmed down the prison chief took us to meet Inmate C — the only Saudi woman who received a royal pardon. Uraj told us that Inmate C was in jail for the first time. The chief congratulated her on being pardoned and then asked her about her son, who is in the men’s prison and did not receive a pardon.

When we asked her about her feelings in being pardoned she said that she felt joy, but it was clouded by confusion. “The social worker came to me while I was taking my Qur’an lesson and told me the news,” Inmate C said. “I was happy at the beginning; however, I cried and was anxious the whole night. I was afraid that they’d leave me in prison because my ex-husband has the original family card, and he may refuse to give it to my son-in-law. He hates me and that is the reason I’m here in the first place,” she said. “He ruined my reputation.”

Then she explained how she wound up in prison. “I’m 30, and I have eight daughters and three sons,” she said. “I was put in jail for an accusation of immorality and was sentenced to 10 months and 400 lashes. For her, an innocent visit turned out to be the start of a devastating experience.

“One afternoon, a friend of mine and I went to visit another friend to congratulate her on the birth of her new baby. We arrived about 5 p.m., and her husband opened the door for us. He said his wife was at another neighbor’s house and asked us to wait while he went to get her. He was gone a long time, and I started feeling uncomfortable. “Although he was a relative of my friend, I suggested that we leave as it was our first visit to their house, and we really didn’t know them very well. As Maghreb neared we were still waiting. Then the man returned with the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and we were arrested for immoral conduct. My friend was released after 20 days, but my husband refused to receive me and accused me of being a no-good, disobedient wife, so I was sentenced,” she said.

“He divorced me while I was in prison, but that wasn’t strange or surprising to me. He was never a good husband, but I never expected him to marry my elder sister. I was glad to be rid of him because of the way he abused the children and me. He was never a good provider and stayed away from home a lot and was married to another woman,” she said. “I was struck, though, that he’d married my sister. I never imagined that she would marry him, but I know now why she would always advise me to leave him.”

The consequences of the failed marriage still baffle her. “I honestly don’t know what to say. The harsh circumstances under which we lived drove my older son, Muhammad, to steal,” she said. “For we were living on charity.”

With her parents living outside the Kingdom, and a husband content with his new choice, the time in prison was lonely as her children even had difficulty in seeing their mother. “My older daughter and some of her sisters came to visit me after they stole the family card from their father,” she said. “He refused to give it to them because one of the visitation conditions was that they must have the original family card. When he found out, he beat them.”

Despite the pardon, her ex-husband can prevent her from getting her freedom. Her only hope lies with her children. “My son-in-law is a very kind man,” she said. “He’s been married to my daughter for six months, but even he won’t be able to get me out of prison without the original family card. My daughter has told me that her father doesn’t want me to leave the prison, and he says that my sentence wasn’t long enough. He’s trying to create some problem — find some new way to keep me in prison.

“My son was sentenced three years ago for theft when he was 15. My poor son,” she said. “I pity him for the state he’s in. He’s like me — in need of affection and compassion.”

She points an accusing finger at her ex-husband for her son’s plight. “I was surprised when I heard that he’d stolen. He was so good in school and earned high grades, and his teachers favored him. He was in 8th Grade when he was arrested. His father was the reason he went astray,” she said. “He would always beat him and degrade him.”

When she gets out of prison it will be only the first step toward getting her life back together. “God-willing, these are my last moments in this place,” she said. “After I get out, I will get my children together and find a job. That’s the most important thing for me to do so that I can provide them with stable lives. When I was married to their father, I had found a job at one of the schools, but he would refuse to let me work. He’d threaten to torture me in different ways if I didn’t agree to his wishes.”

Her ex-husband and his new wife (her older sister) are looking after the children. It is possible that had Inmate C gone to the police to report her then-husband’s negligence and violent treatment of his family, her story might have been different. But he was secure in the knowledge of the power he held over them. “I was afraid of him,” Inmate C said, as she wondered how many more nights she would spend in prison before the royal pardon was honored.

We met with four Asian women who also were pardoned and had been sentenced for immoral conduct. Each one had been sentenced to two years in prison. Due to the fact that the warden was busy finalizing the procedures for their departure to their country, we were unable to meet with them.

Another inmate who had been pardoned sat with us. She was telling us of the joy of being pardoned and went around hugging everyone and anyone and kissing them. It was hard communicating with her because she could not speak Arabic. Through sign language, we learned that she was a 26-year-old widow with two sons. She worked at one of the residential compounds until she was arrested at one of the commercial markets and sentenced to a year and 400 lashes. She’s been in prison for five months. She complained to us about her bad financial situation and that she had paid so much to buy a visa and to come to the Kingdom.

Another 25-year-old Asian inmate told us with tears of joy that she has a daughter in the care of her mother. She said she’d come to the Kingdom to work as a maid, but the abuse of her sponsor’s wife got her into prison. “I was a maid in a Saudi family of 10,” the young woman said. “They all treated me well except for the woman. She was harsh, and she didn’t allow me to eat or even supply me with soap for myself or my clothes.”

In a way, the woman was a prisoner before ever seeing the Riyadh jail. “She wouldn’t mail my letters to my family or let me send money to them,” the former maid said. “I would work from the early morning hours until the very late hours of the night — up until 3 a.m.” The safeguards put in place to protect foreign workers didn’t seem able to protect her. “I asked them to take me to my embassy, and they refused,” she said. “So I ran away and went to the embassy only to find it locked.”

Ironically, she found release — and peace — in a prison cell. “I stood in the street and took a ride with a stranger,” the former maid said. “He took me home where I was arrested. I spent six months in prison. I converted to Islam in prison when I saw my fellow inmates praying, which intrigued me. I’m so happy that I’ve converted.”

Perhaps her final thought is shared by all the women who watch the days and months go by at Riyadh jail, disgraced and shunned and haunted by loneliness. “Now, all I hope to do is to go home safely,” she said.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Back online

It has been a roller coaster 2 weeks. I have been offline and even back to KL and back here again. I am somewhat exhausted but just glad to be home.

Its funny to call this place home. It very difficult for me to describe this feeling, its a mixture of disdain and fondness for this place, but I am glad to be back to "normal" life as I know it again. Of course "normal" is relative really. When I am here, the difficulty of getting round as a woman in this country bothers me. But I like the space that I have with my loved one.

I now realize that home for me is where my Love is. And so this is Home for now and I am glad to be home.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

For some reason unknown to me, I am suddenly short of time. I am getting all sorts of invites to everything, so much so my schedule is jammed pack that I have to turn down some invitations. Lunch here, lunch there, dinner here and dinner there. I guess Ramadhan is coming and thus everybody is trying to meet up before this country comes to a standstill due to Ramadhan.

I have to say that this is very rare for me. I am very much a hermit who likes spending time alone. I don't converse very well and very often don't have witty or funny things to say. Thus when people request for my presence I am really surprised that they want my company at all.

I woke up at 7:30 to rush to the gym thinking that there was yoga class at 8:30. But nobody was there. Luckily I had the foresight to talk to the program coordinator in her office who told me that they have shifted yoga class to a different day and time. Instead, there was going to be a kick boxing class at 9.

So today was my first attempt at kick boxing. Boy! it is very demanding! I was sweating profusely within the firs 10 mins! But I have to say that I enjoyed it very much. But for how long I will persist to kick boxing class is something else all together.

Almost immediately after the class we had a ladies potluck. One of the ladies was leaving. *Sigh* The hard thing about being an expat wife is that your friends come and go all the time, and you would need to make new friends all the time.

I have to remind myself, the only constant in life is change.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Sorry guys I have been away in Dubai for a week. I tried to post something from the hotel but there were some server problems and I didn't have the foresight to save what I wrote and everything disappeared. Will try to get round to writing some of my impressions of my Dubai trip in the next few weeks.

I was reading this blog about a friend's experience and somehow it all came back to, that agonizing time.

And it has come again, a dear family member has been placed in the ICU and here we are thousands of miles away. (I was abroad when my friend was in a coma then.) What do we do? Rush home or just pray from afar?

Anyways, this is something I wrote on 5th October 2000, upon learning that my dear friend was in coma and was told by her doctors that her chance for survival was slim. (She is alive and well with us now!! I am so glad!)

Perhaps its all got to do with Allah's will, but I also believe that the prayers and love that we shower on the people around us is important.

Say a little prayer

It is amazing how the Internet has altered my world. Especially so with IRC(Internet Relay Chat). Gone were the days when we had to use a Unix based chat program. Black screen, lots of words. Sometimes the screen scrolls so fast that people have to write programs and commands to freeze the frame so that we could actually read what was being said. Now we have MIRC and PIRCH. Then came ICQ.

Being a student so far away from home, the Internet became the most ideal and least expensive method of connecting with friends. Through IRC I met people from as far away as UK, US and even people back home in South East Asia. Being mostly students, far away from home we shared the common solidarity of sharing our joys and pains. Before scanners were affordable, snail mail became the way by which photographs were exchanged. That was a long time ago.

I met some of these people in real life. Some refuse to give face to the voice, for whatever private reasons they may have. It is amazing to find sometimes that the most obnoxious voice on the net, belonged to the most meek and shy person in real life or vice versa. The impersonality of being in front of the computer in the privacy of our own room and yet with the ability to interact with people across the other side of the world was astounding.

That was how I met Adzleen. A student from Hull when I was in Calgary. She was doing law, and I, Literature. She used to tell us about the times she went to a rock consert, wearing her "tudung" and was greeted by the other Malaysian students there, "Oit! Pakai tudung pun datang rock konset ke?" All she did was smile back and tell the story to us. That was Adzleen.

When I came back to Singapore, I kept in touch of some of my friends from my student IRC days. Not as much as before unfortunately, as we were bogged down by things as mundane as work. A lot of times we do still keep in touch online though. Sneaked to chat from the office sometimes, or at late hours at night. Some has since retired, got married, moved on, but others still do log in, keep touch.

Just recently, I went to KL on an all girls trip. Girls of whom I originally got to know through IRC. Unfortunately our bus was due to arrive at 4 am and the hotel would only let us check in at noon. Without me asking, Adzleen asked if we had anyone fetching us from the bus station or someplace to hangout before we checked in. Of course we jumped at her offer. That is Adzleen. Caring, warm-hearted, with a splendid sense of humour (she uses the nick ldygodiva in irc) and generous. I must admit that I have never been able to meet her till that day, but she was very kind to me all the same. She was in the midst of changing jobs then, her road tax had since expired cause she hasn’t been able to renew it. Yet she was generous enough to fetch us and consequently bring us around. She took the wrong route once, and there was a policeman at the junction. Instinctively, she shielded her face from the policeman, hoping that he didn’t notice the expired road tax. We laughed at her so hard then!!! We told her that the policeman won’t really go after her because of her face but rather her road tax. She smiled sheepishly.

That was Adzleen.

Because we were all girls, we spent a lot of time in front of the mirror. One of the other girls offered to pluck her eyebrows to make them more shapely. At first she refused but finally caved in after we cajoled her. Sportingly she said, "Please do not give me the `surprised' look." We laughed really hard at her.

On Monday I talked to her online. She told me that she may not have the opportunity to visit South Africa because she is in the midst of changing jobs. I congratulated her and wished her the best. Just a few hours ago, I found out that Adzleen collapsed on Tuesday morning. They suspected it to be an asthma attack. Luckily she managed to call her house mate to take her to the hospital before she lost consciousness. Her house mate called 999, but there was no answer. Only after 45 minutes after her call for help that they managed to get an ambulance to bring her to the hospital. She is now on a life support system, in the ICU of the University Hospital. Word has it that the Doctors said that the infection has spread to her kidney and lungs. She still has a fever and she is still unconscious. I really wish her well. This is one of those instances I regret being so far away, not able to visit her myself. Sorry Adzleen. Maybe next time I will visit you!

Adzleen I do hope that you would be able to read this yourself soon. No matter what we wait in anticipation of your company. You said you were gonna bring me to Fatty Crabs. We miss you very much Adzleen, please, please, please get well soon.

Adzleen we love you.

NB TO you guys whose company I enjoy and dearly miss. (you know who you are!) I dont want to lose the oppurtunity to say that I miss you guys too and that I love you. The good days often come to mind even if I am lousy at keeping touch :)

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Garbage in, garbage out

Have you watched the film "The Net" starring Sandra Bullock? Some of us has since learnt that the computer is not always right, but obviously some people in this country don't think so.

We went to our favourite bookstore this evening. Yes books are really expensive here but at least a lot of the titles are available and its the books that keep me sane. We went there often enough to merit a 10% discount card and the manager there knows us by sight. How did I know that? One of our trips there he greeted us with, "You are always here aren't you?" Its a good sign.

However, the service can be appallingly poor especially when dealing with the locals.

We picked up a 3 copies of The Atkins Diet Revolution which had the priced marked as 35 dollars in local currency. However when the books were scanned at the cashier it come up the title "Die in plain sight" at 38 dollars in local currency. My husband pointed out to the cashier that both the title and the cost is not congruent to the book we bought.

I nudge at him and whispered, there is no use making a fuss dear, the computer is always right and winked at him.

But the Husband insisted that the cashier put it right.

Of course the cashier came up with the answer as I expected, the computer says its 38 dollars and it has to be 38 dollars. (The computer is always right.)

The Husband being the precise man that he is insisted that the cashier recheck the price.

The cashier told him to go to the second floor to check the price.

Being the meek woman that I am, I would have just conceded defeat and accept that the price is 38 (there is no point in arguing here if you are a woman, they ignore you anyways.)

But my husband stuck to his ground and told the guy to call the relevant section and ask the person in charge to check the price. So he called this guy on the second floor and tried to explain the problem to him. This guy came downstairs to the cashier to examine closely what the problem was. Realizing the title that came up on the computer is not the same as the title of the book he went to another terminal to check.

And then there was a huge deliberation.

It was obvious that the bar code has been wrongly programmed as reflected by the title.

But you see, the computer is ALWAYS right and there is no way that the intelligent humans in the store could do anything. They discussed how the problem could be rectified and decided that the best way was to give us a 10% on the title.

Of course the cashier didn't know how to input the discount in the computer. He had to call to the manager to help him ring it up in the computer.

Was it a good ending? Not really. We got a 10% discount from the books because we had the discount card. Instead of getting the book for 32.50 (10% off 35), we still paid 34.20 (10% off 38.)

Because you see, the computer is ALWAYS right. Despite the intelligence of humans, the computer ALWAYS determines the end result here, apparently.