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SAUDI ARABIA: A nightmare for women

April 22, 2008 |  8:39 am

Saudi

Human Rights Watch today released a 54-page report criticizing the lack of women's rights in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of America's key allies in the Middle East.

It is a lengthy indictment of a a legal system that deprives women of basic rights considered ordinary almost everywhere else in the world.

According to the report, the law treats Saudi women like children, maybe worse.

If you're a Saudi woman, you can't board an airplane, get a job, go to school or get married without the permission of a male "guardian," whether a husband, father or, if they're both out of the picture, your son.

You're not even allowed to make decisions on behalf of your own children without the approval of your husband or father.

Sometimes you're even barred from undergoing a medical exam or leaving a hospital without the permission of a male relative.

The report also delves into the consequences of the system of gender segregation that governs Saudi cultural life.

The strictly enforced separation of men and women is used as an excuse to prevent women from voting. It discourages employers from hiring women, because they have to spend extra to set up women-only areas. It makes it difficult for women to pursue higher education or obtain benefits from government agencies.

Saudi officials told the New York-based advocacy group that their society needed time to absorb the notion of women's rights. But the Human Rights Watch report's summary takes them to task:

The government has done little to end these discriminatory practices and plays a central role in enforcing them. In doing so, the Saudi government chooses to ignore not only international law but even elements of the Islamic legal tradition that support equality between men and women. The religious establishment has consistently paralyzed any efforts to advance women’s rights by applying only the most restrictive provisions of Islamic law while disregarding more progressive interpretations and the evolving needs of a modern society.

U.S. officials consistently decline to harshly criticize Saudi Arabia for its human rights record.

Many in the region call this hypocritical: the Bush administration repeatedly criticizes countries it's not friendly with, especially Iran, for using Islam as an excuse to deny women's rights.

With the decline of Egypt, oil-rich Saudi Arabia is becoming a center of cultural power in the Arab and Muslim world. It funds mosques and cultural centers around the globe, and its attitudes on women and Islam heavily influence Sunni Muslims from North Africa through South Asia to the Far East.

The Saudi influence is even felt here in relatively libertine Lebanon, where more and more Sunni Arab women are taking to wearing the all-covering niqab.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: A Saudi student takes notes as she attends a medical gathering at King Fahd Medical City in Riyadh. Credit: Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the confrontation between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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