A sand bank in flames

17 02 2011

The Arabic Revolution has crept eastward, to Bahrain. The tiny island in the Persian Gulf is now also caught up in the wave of anger sweeping across Northern Africa and the Middle East. And here the fight for democracy and social justice has only just begun.

The night before. (Bahrain, February 16, 2011 - KEYSTONE/AP)

Bahrain holds a special place in my heart even though there is really not much there. Not even oil. My first visit in 1997 was for fun and for fun only….to visit Ironic Mom long before she became a mom. Fortunately no digital photographic evidence exists. (Hmm…. come to think of it…. where are those negatives?)

The second time I went to Bahrain it was as a working journalist, to wait for a war.

Between October 2001 and April 2003 I spent almost six months on the island on four different occasions. After a while, the tiny, friendly monarchy earned itself the sub-title: “Your favorite sand bank in the Persian Gulf”.

My Bahrain adventures started four weeks after 9/11. While Marines stormed the Hindukush about a thousand miles to our east, we already suspected the Bush administration was desperately trying to find an excuse to go after an old nemesis just north of us, Saddam Hussein. By September 2002, there was no doubt the powder keg would soon explode and the question was no longer if, but when. And because Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet, it was the logical place for journalists to congregate. And wait.

I will admit, the life of a waiting journalist in the field is a rather comfortable one, with editors safely in bureaus a couple of time zones away. Our days in lovely, warm Bahrain usually started with a breakfast buffet in the Diplomat Hotel, followed by a quick call to London to let them know the coast was still clear. Afternoons at poolside included  hummus and iced tea, served at my lounge chair. And for dinner it was either “Fiddler’s Green” Irish Pub, a fabulous Asian restaurant called “Monsoon”, and on really special occasions we went all the way to the Ritz Carlton to feast at Trader Vic’s.

This was, after all, a time when we all still had corporate credit cards and generous expense accounts.

The international appetite for news from Bahrain was rather limited and any remotely exciting event drew a disproportionately large western media crowd. An anti-U.S. march here, a Chess tournament between a human and a computer there, and – our biggest story while on the island – the first fair and free national election in which women had the right to vote and stand as candidates.

I still bathe in the glory of that day in October 2002, when we got the Emir’s only quote to a western media outlet. (But please don’t ask me what it was.) For my efforts in that scrum, a resentful Arabic television journalist speared me in the ribs with his microphone pole.

That's us on the left: Western, blond and female. Eye candy for the Emir and his entourage.

Fun and games aside, the pictures coming out of the Gulf state in the last couple of days – of demonstrations and protesters camped out under the Pearl Monument in the center of Manama – I guess surprised me more than they should have. I remember Bahrain as an exceptionally peaceful place (except for that MBC cameraman), with an autocratic but mostly harmless, benevolent ruling family and a couple of drunk obnoxious Saudis on the weekends.

What disturbed and shocked me to the core was the news this morning that the government broke its promise and used violence – teargas, rubber bullets and buckshot – to attack sleeping men, women and children in the middle of the night on Pearl Square. Six Bahrainis died and hundrends were injured.

But the voice of the people is getting louder even in Bahrain. And the royal family would probably be wise to listen up. Inshallah.

The morning after. (Bahrain, February 17, 2011 - KEYSTONE/AP)


Here is a New York Times opinion piece – worth reading – about the protests in Bahrain.

Go play with guns, kids.

14 02 2011

The Swiss never cease to underwhelm me. Yesterday’s national referendum on weapons control which I wrote about a month ago (here), went down in flames. More than 55 percent of the population voted to keep semi-automatic military weapons in homes, garages, sheds, stables, cottages and greenhouses across the country.

And they said loud and clear: Children, you can continue to have fun playing with firearms you find in the closet. Men, you can continue to threaten your families with your weapons. And suicide-endangered individuals, Hey – go for it!

The trench was clearly drawn between the country’s small urban, cosmopolitan population and the vast majority of (backward, insular, godforsaken mountain) folk that live the Alps and behind the moon. There is also a marked division along language lines – the French-speakers said mostly “yes”, the German-speakers said mostly “no”. The so-called Röstigraben, the ditch dividing the two language regions, just got that much deeper.

The French and the Zurichers got it right this time.

Some German-speaking cantons declined the measure with majorities of more than 72 percent. 72 percent! If this had happened in any other country on the planet, the OECD election observers would declare the vote unfair and corrupt and say ballot boxes had been stuffed. But because it’s Switzerland, nobody bats an eyelid.

Why does this make me so angry? Because the referendum’s opponents knew nothing better than to use propaganda and intimidation to get their point across to a willfully brainwashed public. There was no single logical, rational reason to decline the referendum, as there is no single rational reason to keep these lethal weapons (responsible for more than 300 deaths every year) at home and not locked up in an armory. But the opponents’ message rang loud and clear: “Take away our weapons and you take away our traditions.”

Well you know, I’m not sure that would be such a bad thing. Some ancient traditions, established in the dark ages, really need to be done away with. One such tradition is the annual Zurich holiday called “Knabenschiessen.” Literally translated that would mean: “Young Boys Shooting (Day)”.  (No, young boys are NOT lined up to be shot – as much as we might wish that to be the case sometimes.) It’s a day when a canton-wide shooting tournament is held for young people. A few years ago, the organizers graciously started to invite the girls too.

And simply questioning the status quo or any God-given rights regarding guns those oh-so-traditionalist Swiss claim for themselves instantly draws their (f)ire and an emotional overreaction. On Knabenschiessen day two years ago, I was filleted by a Facebook friend when I posted an anti-childrens’-shooting status note. Shortly thereafter she defriended me.

Yesterday’s vote is another prime example of where direct democracy just doesn’t work, and where a country’s population must be protected from its own supidity.

After more than six years in Switzerland, I think it is time for greener pastures. And the winters here are too damn cold, anyway.

Singapore is starting to look pretty good right about now.

Happy Anniversary, ladies.

7 02 2011

Today is a very, very important 40th anniversary. It is the 40th anniversary of womens’ right to vote in Switzerland. Fortieth, you ask? Only the fortieth? Yes, folks, women in Switzerland have had the right to vote for less time than I have been alive.

Shocking, is it not? I certainly think so.

In the run-up to this anniversary, there have been a number of news reports about the referendum that took place forty short years ago. The vote was, of course, open only to men. Swiss men, not usually known for their progressive, open, liberal nature, had to decide if, in the future, women would be allowed to take part in the political process, or if 50 percent of the population would continue to live in silence. Fortunately, a majority of these men noticed that the times, they were a-changin’ (only seven years after the song was released) and voted “yes”.

In the recent news coverage, the media dug up a few classic referendum campaign posters, which I would not want to withhold from my international readership. They range from the simply unbelievable to the simply unbelievably absurd.

For the English-speakers among you, here just a quick German-English mini-dictionary of words used in the posters:

Frauenstimmrecht = Womens’ voting rights

Nein = No

So ladies – look and weep. This is what we would have had to deal with, had we been born a generation earlier, in Switzerland.

Interesting. No flies on my pacifier.

“Is this the kind of woman you want?"

(And… what kind of woman would that be? Possessed? Terrorized? Frazzled? Shell-shocked? Demented? Witch-like?)

"Leave us out of the game!"

(Somehow I can not believe this young woman actually volunteered to have her photo on this poster. And notice the very subtle claws…)


This last poster I find particularly disturbing, because it seems to me not only to support the “no” vote, but also to be advocating violence against women. Or maybe it just challenges the viewer to find 101 household uses for a carpet beater, at least one of which surely has to do with female suffrage.

I am simply aghast.

Fortunately, on that fateful Sunday in 1971, a majority of Swiss men had the good sense to decide that running the country alone was a miserable task. So they offered women the opportunity to join them in the political trenches. One lonely backwater Kanton in eastern Switzerland needed 20 more years to grant women the right to vote on regional issues. Today there are more women (4) in the federal cabinet than men (3), and so far, they seem to be rather successful at what they do.

In corporate life, however, there is still a veeeerrrrry looooong way to go. Don’t even get me started on that.

Women Matter

1 10 2010

Last week, Switzerland’s parliament elected two new members of cabinet to replace two elder gentlemen who had recently stepped down. There is now a female majority in the seven-member cabinet – four women and three men.  This, just 39 years after national female suffrage was introduced, and just 20 years after the last Swiss canton finally allowed its women to vote in local elections (as a result of a Supreme Court case, against the will of the canton’s men).

It’s a bit distressing to know that I live in an industrialized, first-world country where women have had the right to vote for less time than I have been alive.

Last Wednesday, the parliament had the opportunity to elect a fifth woman to the cabinet instead of a man, but I guess that was a little too much of a good thing for the (male-dominated) legislative body.

It's hard work, climbing a mountain.

I grew up in a household where I was told that pretty much anything was possible. My parents did their best to open doors for me, sent me to top schools, and told me I could go out and be whatever I wanted to be. But amid all their motivation, when it came time to strike out on my own, they were surely silently aghast at (and hopefully a little proud of) some of the decisions I made. I became a journalist and went to dangerous places, I learned to fly small airplanes, I expressed no interest in having or being around children.

My fortune would be found on the road less traveled by, my career would certainly not follow a straight line – of that I was convinced. By no means a trailblazer, I just wanted to do something unusual with this life, and saw no reason to do what people expected of me. Or to worry about what the neighbors and relatives would think. One uncle declared me lesbian when, at 30, I still wasn’t married.

An international management consultancy recently published a series of studies on the effectiveness of women in upper echelons of management. The main conclusion: the more women in positions of responsibility, the better a company does financially. Why? Because female managers use a wider range of techniques to motivate employees (like “inspiration”), thus improving performance. Very, very simple concept, folks.

Yet women continue to remain outside the old boys clubs, noses pressed to the windows, looking in. In order to advance up the ladder in the workplace, women are required to display the same dysfunctional patterns of behavior and play the silly power-games that men have cultivated for years. They must take on a dress code and a language which is often all too foreign to them. Sometimes other women are our own worst enemies – mistakenly thinking there is room for just a very few of us at the top.

Will the female-majority cabinet in Switzerland make a difference in the everyday lives of women here? Probably not. Misogynic attitudes don’t change in an instant, and the everyday challenges women face will not disappear overnight. Government business will go on as it has always has – with the exception that cabinet meetings might be a little more colorful in the future.

But it’s nice to see that we are finally getting somewhere, ten years into the 21st century. And boys, don’t worry – when we women end up ruling the world we promise not to silence you. Unlike some of you, most of us believe gender diversity is a good thing.