Babylon & Beyond

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SAUDI ARABIA: A beguiling case of rape

November 22, 2007 |  1:04 am

Even in a Saudi Arabia, where evildoers are beheaded and the hands of pick-pockets are amputated, the case of the young woman from Qatif was viewed by many as a startling injustice and disturbing reminder of how little rights women have in the kingdom.

The 19-year-old "Qatif girl," nicknamed for her native province, was raped 14 times at knife-point. But the courts ruled that because she was out with a man not related to her — a violation of this nation's strict Islamic code — she, too, was a criminal. She was sentenced to 90 lashes. When she appealed and took her case public, the judges, angered that a woman would challenge their wisdom, increased her sentence to 200 lashes and six months in prison. The court also suspended the license of her lawyer, Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, a well-known human rights activist.

"It is a tale that is more reminiscent of the cruel callous punishments meted out to women in medieval times. And yet sadly it is a case that is making headlines in the 21st Century," Lubna Hussain wrote in an Op-Ed piece in the Saudi-based Arab News. "The judges looked into their crystal ball and saw that she had 'the intention of doing something bad' and this, therefore, constituted a very good reason for her to be gang raped. Always the woman's fault, but of course!"

The case has become a beguiling window onto the lives of Saudi women, who exist in a parallel, sequestered world that denies them the right to drive or to leave the house unveiled. The Qatif girl's plight seeped into the blogosphere and spread across the world. Human rights groups offered fresh condemnations and U.S. Democratic hopefuls worked her into soundbites while criticizing the Bush Administration for not admonishing its close ally. TV cameras panned the kingdom, cranking out grainy footage of women covered head to toe in billowing black abayas.

The Qatif woman has also focused attention on the Saudi legal system, which critics contend is presided over by judges who often pervert religious and civil law. The country's leader, King Abdullah, has vowed to reform the courts and increase the rights of women. But the Qatif woman, a few simple syllables on the lips of many Saudis, has revealed a system that is privately reviled by much of the country, especially one that in recent years learned to navigate the internet and satellite TV.

"So what is the wider message being delivered to us citizens who may, God forbid, find ourselves at the mercy of the justice system here? Stay at home and keep our mouths shut." wrote Hussain. "And to the outside world? I will leave this to your imagination. Suffice it to say that no amount of money spent on PR is going to be able to whitewash the irreparable damage caused by grave injustices such as this."

— Jeffrey Fleishman in Riyadh