Twitter war over writer’s call to molest Saudi women cashiers

May 28, 2013 4:33 pm

Twitter war over writer’s call to molest Saudi women cashiers

By Abeer Allam and Michael Peel in Abu Dhabi

A Saudi woman works in a lingerie shop at a mall in Jeddah January 9, 2012

A Saudi writer has urged his Twitter followers to sexually molest women hired to work as cashiers in big grocery stores, the latest backlash from conservatives who want to roll back limited social and economic reforms launched in the world’s leading oil exporter.

Abdullah Mohamed al-Dawood, who writes self-help books including one called The Joy of Life, has stirred fierce debate this week via the internet microblogging service with the use of the hashtag harass_female_cashiers, to press for Saudi women to be forced to stay at home to protect their chastity.

His campaign against official moves to encourage women to work in mixed gender environments has led some Twitter users to denounce him. Others however applauded him as a fighter against government efforts to westernise and corrupt the country.

More than half a million Saudi Arabian nationals, including unprecedented if still modest numbers of women, have surged into the country’s private sector since late 2011 under a government-driven programme aimed at turning the Gulf giant’s sclerotic non-oil economy into a regional powerhouse.

Khalid Ibrahim al-Saqabi, a conservative cleric, endorsed Mr Dawood’s calls and said a law proposed by the government against sexual harassment in newly mixed workplaces was “only meant to encourage consensual debauchery”.

He added: “Why is the labour minister concerned with finding jobs for women instead of men?”

Mr Dawood, who has more than 97,000 followers on Twitter, justified his call to harass female workers by using an obscure story from the early days of Islam about a famous warrior, Alzubair, who did not want his wife to leave home to pray in the mosque. Mr Dawood claimed that Alzubair hid in the dark one night and molested his wife in the street. The wife rushed home and decided against ever going out of her house again, saying that the “there is no safer place than home and the world out there is corrupt”.

Scores of Mr Dawood’s followers supported his campaign and condemned the planned anti-harassment law, which comes as employers respond to government financial incentives to hire more Saudi workers, and in particular more women.

One user wrote: “It is a man-made law and it can’t be accepted in a kingdom ruled by God’s law. They had better ban mingling of the sexes, not protect it.”

But Mr Dawood’s hashtag drew condemnation from others, who said the writer was a disgrace to Islam. One, Waleed al-Khawagee, asked: “What kind of person urges the youth to commit debauchery?” Another urged Mr Dawood to follow his own example and harass his wife and sisters.

The Twitter battle illustrates how the social and economic questions facing Saudi Arabia are being fought online due to the ban on public protests and the lack of a parliament or civil society movement through which to lobby for change.

‘Not that many women are able to go and work, given the environment and the set-up’– Kindah Sais, Procter & Gamble

While Saudi women have for several years worked in segregated and closed environments such as factories, some are now working for the first time in public in retail outlets – albeit often behind a partition from the main mixed shop floor. The government is keen to get more women into work to help reduce unemployment and the annual social benefits bill.

Progress has been slow in many sectors, however, with women held back not just by familial conservatism but by practical problems such as the ban on female drivers. While Procter & Gamble, the US consumer goods company, says about one-third of its 70 Saudi head office staff are female, women account for fewer than 10 of the 1,000 or so employees in its Saudi factories.

Kindah Sais, P&G’s senior Saudi talent practice leader, said it had been difficult to attract more workers to the factories, partly because the facilities were out of town and also because the flowing abayas traditionally worn by Saudi women were not allowed in the production areas for safety reasons.

“Not that many women are able to go and work, given the environment and the set-up,” Ms Sais said.

The push by Riyadh’s dynastic rulers to get more women into the workforce is part of a broader efforts to “Saudise” the economy, with hundreds of thousands of companies facing a deadline of July to meet quotas of Saudi employees, or else risk having their trading licences revoked.

The Saudisation programme is part of broader economic project that includes heavy government spending on housing, transport and education in the face of uprisings across the Arab world and growing concerns in Saudi Arabia about inadequate infrastructure and a fast-growing population.

The Saudi labour ministry declined to respond to questions from the Financial Times.

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