Recently in Saudi Arabia, a young woman from the town of Qatif who had been raped by seven men was sentenced to prison and to 90 lashes, which were later increased to 200 lashes because of the woman’s denunciation of her case through the media. When Josée Verner, the Canadian minister for the status of women, called the sentence “barbaric” she was only voicing how most people feel about the situation.
The victim’s lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Lahim – a leading human rights lawyer in the country – was banned from the proceedings and his license revoked, thus depriving the young woman of any legal defense. “Barring the lawyer from representing the victim in court is equivalent to the rape crime itself,” stated Fawzeyah al-Oyouni, founding member of the recently formed Saudi Association for the Defense of Women’s Rights. The case has already provoked a reaction. According to Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, the Saudi judiciary will review the case. Although this is a positive outcome, raising hope of a change in the verdict, what is not positive is his contention that “…this case is being used against the Saudi government and people.” A system of religious courts administers justice in the country. Judges are appointed by the king upon the recommendations of the Supreme Judicial Council. Both the judges and the courts have total discretion in administering justice, except in cases where Sharia (Islamic law) already defines a punishment, as in the case of capital crimes. The Qatif case should be seen in the wider context of the role and rights of women in Saudi Arabia, where interpretation of the Koran is stricter than in almost any other Arab country, particularly with regard to women’s rights. The legal situation of women results from a mix of tribal, social, and historical circumstances, where religion plays an important role. This and similar cases have focused attention on the Saudi legal system, influenced by clerics who have a restricted interpretation of Islamic law. As a consequence, personal status law remains uncodified and sentencing is frequently arbitrary. The system doesn’t recognize the concept of precedent. The Saudi judicial system reflects the wider conflict between modernity and tribal law and customs. Islam in Saudi Arabia is practiced differently than in other countries. In fact, this restricted interpretation of Islam has been sharply criticized by those who argue that the Koran is very clear in terms of women’s rights. For women’s rights advocates, the Koran has many verses stating that men and women are equal in terms of their rights and responsibilities. In particular, they point to the Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon, in which he stated, “Treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.” Although the Saudi government has recently taken steps to improve the situation of women in the country, with the establishment of special courts to handle domestic violence cases, the adoption of a new labor law and the creation of a human rights commission, the case in question shows clearly that justice for women has a way to go. It is true that women are making strides in the country: they are participating increasingly in the commercial and educational system and they are determined to obtain more political rights. Still, although they may account for 55 percent of graduates, they make up less than 5 percent of the work force. The Qatif case offers the Saudis a unique opportunity not only to redress an unjust situation, but to move forward in reforming the judicial system so that abuse of this kind – so contrary to the tenets and spirit of Islam – will never occur again. More pointedly, it can serve to spur necessary change in the Middle East.
César Chelala, co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, is the foreign correspondent for the Middle East Times International in Australia. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).