By BENJAMIN JOFFE-WALT / THE MEDIA LINE
The scene: a city brimming with sexually deprived, lonely men, the vast majority of whom have either never met or spoken with a woman outside their family or been away from the women in their lives for many years.The entrance: Women, innocently looking to get out of the house for some exercise, on brisk, bouncing jog.The action: As the women jog across the city, men harass them, touch them, follow them and in some cases attack them.Such is the quandary faced by municipal authorities across the Middle East and particularly in the Gulf, where large populations of male foreign workers have severely tipped the gender balance throughout the region's urban parks and promenades.But over the last two weeks, authorities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seem to have developed a unique solution: close the parks and promenades down.Late last month, the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Saudi Arabia's religious police known locally as the 'Haia', announced that women would be banned from jogging in certain parts of Asir town, in the southwest of the country, in an effort to protect them from unsavory men and street criminals.“The Haia did not exactly ban women from physical exercise, it only intervened to guarantee their safety from criminals who frequently harass them as they walk in lonely places,” Bandar Al-Mufreh, a spokesperson for the religious police in Asir province told Al-Watan, a Saudi daily which first reported the story.AdvertisementReligious police officials claimed some of the town's streets to be poorly lit, frequented by drug addicts and misfits and therefore inappropriate for women wishing to head out for an evening stroll.There was no reaction from the kingdom's national leadership.But the little-noticed story was followed less than 10 days later by the closure of all public parks in Sharjah, the third-largest city in the United Arab Emirates, to prevent municipal gardeners from leering at women on their morning jog.As if following the cue of the religious police in neighboring Saudi Arabia, Sharjah municipal leaders decided to keep all the city's public parks closed until 4pm, ten hours later than the previous opening time, so gardeners tending to the greenery could work without distraction."The municipality cannot accept the responsibility of having its employees staring at women and making them feel uncomfortable," Yaseen Mohammad, director of the Sharjah Agricultural Department told Gulf News. "To combat this threat, the director-general of the municipality has instructed all parks to be closed during the morning, and all parks have to follow the new system."Dr. Mohammed Aboelenein, chairman of the sociology department at United Arab Emirates University, who has written extensively on harassment in public spaces, said the city was misguided in its approach."Public places are no one's sphere or domain, they belong to everyone and women have the right to be present in public places," he told The Media Line. "We cannot stop women from jogging just because a few people here and there do not understand the meaning of women in a public space.""The fact that they are being harassed by men has to be dealt with," Dr Aboelenein said. "There are two channels for this: using the law to forbid people from harassing anyone, not just women, and to punish those who do, and educating our men that if they see a woman jogging it doesn't mean that she's 'asking for it'. Getting that message to men is much more important than closing the parks.""From my research, I have noticed that harassment is not just a moral issue, it has to do with culture and the kind of male female relationships we have in this society," he continued. "Men and women are so segregated throughout their lives, then men suddenly see women jogging or in a shopping mall and they don't understand that they have no right or to talk to her, or touch her, or follow her or ask her for something that she doesn't want to give. We need to get this message into our schools, into the press, and raise awareness."Dr. Rima Sabban, a sociologist at Zayyed University in the UAE, argued that the problem originates with a gender imbalance in UAE society."It's not just about jogging. The vulnerability of the female body is there in every society, and women have been attacked in public spaces everywhere," she told The Media Line. "The problem is more difficult here because of the ratio of men to women. The large number of male bachelors in this society - be they gardeners or whatever - puts women in danger, as when you are in public around men who have issues with their sexuality, if you are not careful and well protected, you could be attacked.""So it's not just about these conservative ideologies deciding this or that," Dr Sabban said. "It's a complicated issue, as the public sphere in the UAE is problematic for women, andthe state is increasingly going to find itself in a position in which they have to interfere in such situations.""It's much easier for them to just shut the park than to deal with everyday issues of women being harassed or attacked in the park," she continued. "But the government should not have the right to close the public sphere for women, they need to protect the park, rather than closing it, so maybe government needs to have special places for women where they can walk and feel protected."Reem Asaad, a lecturer Dar El- Hekma College in Saudi Arabia, said the authorities were avoiding the central problem."It's like when you have a computer virus, rather than getting it fixed, you just shut down the computer or buy a new one," she told The Media Line. "I think what the authorities are trying to do is minimize the crime rate. But rather than provide suitable security, they are doing the wrong thing.""Our streets are not safe enough, not only for women but also for children and men," Asaad said. "First there is the traffic hazard we have all over Saudi Arabia. I wouldn't walk or jog, not because I don't want to, but because of the traffic and the danger of kidnapping and rape.""The other thing is that women walking alone in the citeis is often not safe simply due to the lack of an emergency number," she said. "If I get harassed or abducted, there is no 911 to call for help. You have to rely on the public."Saudi analysts were just as critical of the decision."If the place is unsafe for women then please make it safe for women instead of banning women from jogging," wrote Ahmed Faraz Rao, a columnist with Arab News. "If some place is unsafe for people then should people leave that place or should police come into action to make it safe?""This decision by Haia is part preemptive strike, part blaming the victim," wrote Ahmed Al-Omran, an influential Saudi critic and blogger. "Instead of watching these so-called unsafe areas and protect the women by arresting people who attempt to harass them, they go and prevent women from exercising there."Carol Fleming Al-Ajroush, an American blogger in Saudi, added that it was an issue of female fitness."There has already been intervention by government ministries towards women and exercise," she wrote. "Last year many fitness facilities for women were declared illegal if they were not approved by government ministries. Instead of being viewed as a business, because these were places where women exercised rather than shop or get their hair done, government approval was required.""Many of the Saudi schools, primary and secondary, do not have physical fitness for children," Al-Ajroush added. "Women are not encouraged to exercise. Unless a woman is very motivated and disciplined to work out within her home, not every woman can easily arrange her schedule to go out and walk or organize transport and pay the fees to join a private fitness center."
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