Saudi Bloggers Shatter the Kingdom's Silence and Censorship

For Ahmed Al-Omran, a 25-year-old Saudi blogger, this has been a particularly frustrating week.

To begin with, an ultra-conservative cleric issued a fatwa concluding that people who oppose segregating Saudi men and women should be killed. Then Al-Omran was forced by death threats to remove pictures he had posted on his Web site of university women clad from head to toe in their black abayas, the shrouds they are required to wear in public.

And finally, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz al Sa'ud not only banned women and men from mixing together at the Riyadh book fair but also the display of books deemed "incompatible with religion and values."

"This country is so f—-ed up" Al-Omran tweeted, referring thousands of loyal fans to his latest postings on these and other topics on his English-language blog, Saudi Jeans.

Ahmed Al-Omran is not a household name outside of Saudi Arabia. Neither is Eman Al Nafjan, a 31-year-old mother of three, whose Saudi Woman's Web Blog in English has a solid, growing base of 500 visitors a day. And few outsiders may have heard of Basma Al-Mutlaq, whose English-language blog, Saudi Amber, advocates an end to what Eman Al Nafjan calls the kingdom's "gender apartheid," the religious- and cultural-based laws and traditions that have kept Saudi women both separate and unequal in their own land for decades.

But within the kingdom, such bloggers are Internet stars. Their readers and fans flood the Internet with spirited, supportive and angry commentary that is expanding the limits of what can be spoken about in this conservative, traditionally closed and painfully diplomatic society.

While the Saudi Ministry of Interior sees the Internet mostly as a threat — the nation's top venue for the recruitment of young, impressionable Saudis to the ranks of Al Qaeda and its affiliated and inspired violent groups — thousands of open-minded young Saudis have embraced the blogosphere to shatter the silence about problems long considered taboo — the separation of the sexes, sexual abuse of women and children, child marriage, the lack of democracy in the kingdom, the repression of the minority Shiite Muslim community, and even corruption among the nation's senior officials, if not yet the royal family.

While the kingdom's 15 daily newspapers and many magazines are created by royal decree and subject to government censorship, the World Wide Web offers Saudis a vast, relatively unregulated new frontier of self-expression about sensitive political, economic, and social topics. While most Arab newspapers tend to follow the lead of their state-run news agencies on whether to publish stories on sensitive issues, the estimated 5,000 Saudi blogs have given the more than 6 million Saudis who are online an outlet not only to vent their considerable frustrations, but a place to press for political and social change.

Initially, the Saudi government responded with force, apparently panicked by the implications of the technology. In December 2007, the government detained blogger Fouad al-Farhan for "violating the kingdom's regulations." But Ahmed al-Omran and other Saudi bloggers pummeled the government online. Protests from human rights groups and Western governments, publicized by the mainstream media, led to al-Farhan's release four months later. Since then, the government has invested heavily in security systems that can block access to Web sites it deems offensive. From time to time, such sites are shut down. But as in Iran, where government critics find alternatives to blocked sites, Saudi bloggers are also finding ways to get their message out, frustrating Riyadh's episodic efforts to reign in debate.

The government's blocking of sites is often arbitrary, Al-Omran said. For instance when his site was blocked for a few days in the summer of 2006 -- "by mistake," a government official later told some of his relatives and friends -- other sites that had nothing to do with politics were blocked as well. "One of them was a web site dedicated to donating goats to drought-ridden African countries," he said.

"The government is finding that censorship just doesn't work anymore," he said. "We've all become reporters without borders. The red lines of our society are slowly crumbling."

According to a Harvard University study last year, Saudi Arabia ranked second only to Egypt in the number of Web sites in Arab countries. But the kingdom's blogosphere is a decidedly mixed universe, one that devotes "far less attention to domestic political leaders" and issues than sites in other countries. Plus, 46 percent of bloggers are female, a higher ratio than in other Arab countries, perhaps because there are so many restrictions on their movement and activities.

Eman Al-Nafjan, for instance, said over coffee on the "all-female" second floor of the Kingdom Mall in Riyadh that she began blogging in English two years ago, after she returned from studying in the United States, in an effort to "break through stereotypes" about her country at home and abroad. "I believe in the Saudi monarchy," she said. "And I don't hate Saudi Arabia. But restrictions that people think are religiously based are actually rooted in our culture, not our religion. They must change. But I'm not optimistic that they will."

Many Saudis say that the ruling family — and King Abdullah and his daughters, in particular — are promoting the integration of women in society and what is known as "gender mixing." Indeed, hardly a day passes without an article appearing in the press about another breakthrough for women. In Jeddah, the nation's first "mixed" university has opened, and not without controversy. The king has appointed a woman to the post of vice minister for women's education, the only high-ranking woman to serve in government, and he has taken a woman financier on a trade delegation to China. The justice minister announced late last month that his department was drafting a law that would allow female lawyers to argue cases in court for the first time. Women may be permitted to vote in municipal elections, which have been postponed for two years.

But each action prompts a strong reaction from the powerful, entrenched conservative forces of the country. Last week, Sheik Abdul Rahman al-Barrak issued his infamous fatwa threatening death to those who advocate the mixing of the sexes, presumably including the king, in response to what conservatives see as a collapse of moral order in the kingdom. The liberal blogosphere promptly savaged the sheik. Ahmed al-Omran called him a "caveman," and Eman al-Nafjan denounced him as the "last living member of the traditional, misogynist ... rat pack of sheikhdom."

But even she acknowledged that 27 other reactionary sheiks signed a petition supporting his view. And when the government blocked his Web site due to the incendiary nature of his ruling, al-Barrak simply stole a page from the liberal bloggers' rulebook and popped up on another site.

"In Saudi Arabia, it is two steps forwards and ten steps backwards," said Basma Al-Mutlaq, whose "Saudi Amber" Web site is among the kingdom's most sophisticated English-language advocates for women's rights.

The majority of Saudi blogs dwell on personal and lifestyle issues, avoiding contentious political issues that many Saudis still feel uncomfortable debating in public. The English-language bloggers also agreed that blogging in English gave them greater leeway, and generated less government scrutiny, than an Arabic-language blog might create. Al-Omran noted that though he writes most often about the need for greater political freedom in Arabia — his "noble goal," he called it — many of his most popular postings have little to do with politics. For instance, he said, 3,000 people view his blog daily, but a satiric feature he composed on "how to wear a Ghotra" — the checkered headdress worn by Saudi men — drew 20,000 viewers, his most popular recent posting.

"It's a little discouraging at times," he said.

Fawziah Al-Bakr, a Saudi feminist who led the public protest over the ban on women driving 20 years ago — a prohibition that still prevails in the kingdom — called the Internet "the structure for non-governmental change in the kingdom."

But since most change in Saudi Arabia seems to come from the top down — often against the will of a more conservative majority of Saudis — Al-Omran and other bloggers say they are disappointed that the greater freedom of expression of the Internet has not resulted in the political change or enhanced accountability they seek.

"In Saudi Arabia, there are no elections, no real political culture, so venting and blogging is about all we can do," he said.

Still, he says, he won't stop blogging. "My family would like me to stop," he said, a sentiment echoed by Eman Al-Nafjan and other liberal bloggers. "They would like me to be one of those quiet Saudis. But I can't do that. We need to reform the kingdom. And we need voices who will insist on that reform."