Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Inequality: A Rape Victim Shows How Saudi Arabian Women Face Constant Injustice

I try to keep an open mind when it comes to alternative religious and political agendas, and to remember that just because another culture’s morals don’t match my moral convictions doesn’t mean that culture is necessarily evil or wrong; it just means we have different perspectives.

Still, this headline challenges my desire to be open minded!

A woman, in Saudi Arabia, who was engaged at the time to a man she had never met, was gang raped by seven men over a year ago. But worse yet, she has been brutalized again, this time by the Saudi Arabian government, who has punished her in multiple ways for being attacked.

The saga begins with a 18-year-old Saudi Arabian woman preparing for her arranged marriage and relocation to the United States with a 24-year-old Muslim American business man. The woman was contacted by a man claiming to have pictures of her, and requiring blackmail to return the photos. The photos were not compromising in nature, but were embarrassing, and the woman agreed to pay to keep her family’s honor intact.

She agreed to meet the blackmailer to purchase the photo. They met at a mall in Qatif, and were preparing for the exchange when a group of seven men abducted the pair from the mall. The woman was raped by all of the men, while the blackmailer was left untouched. At present the blackmailer has not been linked to the attack, and remains a free man.

The trial, in October of 2006, was a perfect example of the victim being on trial. She was forced to wait through the proceedings in a room with the rapists, who made offensive gestures at her regularly. One of the three judges had an issue with her lawyer, a human rights activist Abdulrahman al-Lahim, and eventually removed him from the trial, leaving her without a lawyer.

The seven men were sentenced to between 10 months and five years in prison for the attack. But surprisingly, the woman was also sentenced to 90 lashes for having met with an unrelated male, clearly indicting the woman for her own rape.

Al-Lahim felt that the punishment of the seven men was too short, indicating the attack constitutes Hiraba, or sinful violent crimes, and the punishment should be death, as indicated by the standing fatwa (edict) against Hiraba. Al-Lahim filed an appeal under these grounds, not even addressing the injustice of the woman’s lashes.

The court did not take the same attitude. They extended the prison sentences of the rapists to between two and nine years, nearly doubling the prison sentences for the attackers. But the court also doubled the sentence of the woman, giving her 200 lashes and a six month prison sentence, citing her contact with the media regarding the case. Al-Lahim has been stripped of his license to practice law, and faces a judiciary ethics hearing.

Saudi Arabia maintains many strict Islamic laws with regards to the rights of women. They must maintain a strict dress code, they aren’t allowed to drive, and require permission from a man to travel or have surgery. They are not allowed to testify in court except when not observed by a man, and they are not permitted to vote.

The Saudi government claims to have bettered the situation for women by creating courts to handle domestic abuse cases, creating labor law for woman workers, and establishing a human rights commission. And I admit these are all good steps. But in my mind, people are people, and everyone should be equal, and that includes women.

Of course, here’s where I find it difficult to maintain my belief that each culture has a right to its own beliefs. Fundamentally, I believe that no government has the right to pass laws that make any individual a second class citizen simply because of characteristics outside their control, such as religion, skin color, or sex. But I also have to admit that my values do not necessarily carry over into other cultures.

So where is the line? At what point do we say that something is a fundamental truth and must be recognized in all cultures, where as other things are variables that every culture has the right to decide on for them selves. All I do know definitively is that I am not qualified to define that line, though I can comment when I believe that one culture has crossed it.

Posted by Scottage at 3:18 PM / | |