Living Under Sharia: The Plight of Women in Saudi Arabia
14 Mar, 2009
Islamic legal code, the Sharia, continues to make grounds in the West. Sharia Court, operational in Canada since 1991, was abolished in 2006 in the face of intense campaign from human rights activists. Although widely practiced by the Muslim community over the year, Sharia Court received official recognition in the U.K. for dealing with civil and some criminal cases (domestic violence etc.) in 2007. Since some 40% of the British Muslims want the establishment of Sharia Court with a fewer of them opposed to it, this is possibly the first-step in the gradual process of establishing full-fledged Islamic legal codes in Britain. As Muslim immigrants in the West, from Europe to North America, show increasing support for Sharia, demand for Sharia laws in other Western countries will definitely intensify in light of this British concession.
What people in the West must make themselves aware of is that Sharia laws are extremely discriminatory, indeed humiliating and degrading, toward non-Muslims. It is also highly discriminatory and humiliating toward Muslim women. To make a grasp of its nature, one may take a look at Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran and Saudi Arabia, where Sharia laws were/are applied to varying strictness. Some 400 Girls Schools face closure in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where Sharia is poised to be instituted in weeks. In the wake of the just-concluded International Women’s Day, this essay will attempt to make it clear what Sharia law means for Muslim women.
When Australian Mufti Taj al-Din al-Hilali raised furor in 2006 by calling unveiled women “uncovered meat” to suggest that eighteen such white women, raped (some gang-raped) by Muslim youths in a Sydney neighborhood in 2000, actually invited the horrendous act upon themselves. Most Australians and Westerners have viewed it as utterance of a deranged ignorant cleric, not representing the Islamic creed and community. However, an investigation of the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia—the birth-place and heartland of Islam—reveals a strong Islamic rational behind the Mufti’s assertion.
Saudi Arabia, the sacred land of Islamic devotion, is the best place for evaluating the status of women in Islam, where Islamic holy laws—the Sharia, which should ideally guide Islamic societies for eternity—are implemented most rigorously amongst Islamic countries. The Saudi Basic Law says:
- General Principle, Article 1: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state; its religion is Islam; and its constitution is the Holy Quran and Prophet’s Sunnah (traditions)”
- System of Government, Article 7: “Government derives its power from the Holy Quran and the Prophet's Sunnah”
- Rights and Duties, Article 23: “The state protects the Islamic and caters to the application of Shari'ah; it enjoins good and forbid evil and undertakes the duty of call to Islam.”
Welcome to the Islamic heartland of Saudi Arabia: it’s a man’s world. Free Western women are truly “uncovered meat” here. Here, women almost invariably invite rapes; it’s rarely a fault of men, the rapists.
The Quran, which contains the unchanged words of the Islamic God (Allah) to guide the Muslim life and society for eternity, commands the “wives and daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed” [Q 33:59].
This is the last verse revealed by Allah to finalize the dress-code for Muslim women when they go out of their homes. It made veiling an obligatory eternal law of Allah. Women must be responsible and veil themselves not to attract molestation by men.
Due to changes brought about in Muslim countries during the European colonial period and pressures from the outside world (the U.N., Human Rights Groups and Western nations), most Muslim countries have relaxed this divine anti-women law. But many Arab countries apply it—Saudi Arabia being the strictest. In an ideal Islamic society, the divine laws of Allah cannot be violated under any circumstances. So, when a Girls School in Saudi Arabia caught fire in 2002, the Religious Police—the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—beat the unveiled girls to prevent them from leaving the compound on blaze. Unveiled women (Hilali’s “uncovered meat”) must not venture out; as a result, fifteen girls were burned alive to charred bodies.
Islamic law commands strict segregation of unrelated men and women, even within the confines of home [Q 24:31]. In 2007, a group of Saudi youths caught a woman with an unrelated man in a car and gang-raped her fourteen times. The Saudi Court convicted her of violating the segregation law and sentenced to six months’ jail and 200 lashes. The rapists were given light sentences of one to five years of imprisonment. When appealed, her punishment was doubled. Judge Dr. Ibrahim bin Salih al-Khudairi of the Riyadh Appeals Court later even regretted for not sentencing her to death.
Strict Islamic societies demand that Muslim women maintain their purity, both physically and mentally. When a Saudi girl was found chatting with boys over Facebook, her father beat her before shooting to death.
A woman, shot by her husband the first and second time, rejected a Social Worker’s advice to file a complaint as it required the presence of her obligatory male guardian, her husband; without him, her testimony would not be accepted, whilst the Religious Police might accuse her of “mixing” with the opposite sex, a criminal offense. “The third time her husband shot her, she died of her wounds,” the Social Worker told a 2008 Human Rights Watch (HRW) Report on Saudi Arabia (see also here).
Prophet Muhammad had set an ideal example for Islamic societies by marrying his 6-year-old niece, Aisha, at the ripe age of 52; he consummated the marriage three years later. Recently an 8-year-old Saudi girl was given to marriage by her father to a 58-year-old man. The girl’s divorced mother petitioned to the court to annul the marriage. It was rejected on the ground that only the girl can seek divorce only after reaching her puberty. She is old enough to get married, but not to seek divorce.
These are but a few examples of such incidences from the highly restrictive and secretive Saudi Kingdom that get into the media spotlight. A woman cannot go out alone, even if veiled. She must be escorted by a male relative. The HRW Report, cited above, found that Saudi women are treated as “Perpetual Minors”: they are disallowed by law to study, work, travel, marry, testify in court, legalise a contract or undergo medical treatment without the assent of a close male relative—father, husband, grandfather, brother or son.
A man can
divorce his wife as he wishes; Muhammad bin Laden, father of Osama,
accumulated more than twenty wives—married and divorced—in his
house. Since a Muslim man can only take four wives at a time, he
would divorce one of the four wives, not attractive any more, to add
a new one in his harem. The divorced wives stayed in his house as
unwanted slaves; men are divinely sanctioned to keep unlimited
number of slave-concubines in Islam [Q 70:29–30, 23:5–6].
American Women in Saudi
The condition of Saudi women can be best understood from the experiences of Western women in the kingdom. American woman Monica Stowers met a young Saudi man, Nizar Radwan, at the University of Dallas and married in the early 1980s. The couple moved to Saudi Arabia with their two infant kids. Stowers was in shock; Nizar already had a wife, which he kept secret. She protested and wanted to return to America with the kids. The Saudi Court gave the children’s custody to father, because the mother was an infidel, a Christian. She left Saudi Arabia alone hoping that the U.S. Government would help in acquiring the custody of her children, which never came.
She returned to Saudi in 1990, met her son Rasheed at the airport, picked daughter Amjad from school and headed to the U.S. Embassy, hoping to find refuge there. She had the biggest shock of her life: when she pleaded for help, the Embassy officials called two marines to kick her out. She was arrested by the Saudi police and imprisoned.
Amjad was sodomized by her half-brother (Rasheed was also sodomized by the same half-brother, as well as by his uncle) and married off by her father at age 12. She ran away and was divorced by her husband. In 2003, Amjad, 20, along with her mother and brother (all American citizens), was living in miserable condition in an abandoned Saudi school, not permitted to leave the country. Meanwhile, the members of her father's family travel to America freely.
Similar or worse is the story of Alia and Aisha al-Gheshayan: their Saudi father Khalid al-Gheshayan abducted them from their mother’s home in Chicago in 1986 when they were 7 and 3, respectively, and smuggled to Saudi Arabia. Barred from leaving the Saudi Kingdom, as of 2002, Alia, 23, was married off to a cousin of her father, while plans were in place to marry off Aisha, 19. Their mother had lobbied with four successive State Department officials and members of Congress, but failed to get any help in bringing her daughters home.
In February 2008, a 37-year-old American businesswoman, married mother of three, was thrown in jail by the Saudi Religious Police for sitting with a male colleague at a Starbucks in Riyadh.
innocent American citizens are condemned to jail or life-long misery
and horror is Saudi Kingdom. The U.S. Government does not dare
protest these gross violations of human rights of U.S. citizens by
the Saudi authority. On the contrary, Saudi citizens, who commit
grave crimes in American soil, are let go almost scot-free. Saudi
Princess Buniah al-Saud shoved her Indonesian maid down a
flight-stairs in Orlando (Florida) Airport in 2001. She was
repeatedly beaten previously and kept as a virtual slave. The
princess was allowed to leave America while her case on charges of
felony was pending. She was eventually let go by paying $ 1,000 fine
upon pleading guilty.
A German woman is Saudi
Dr. Sami Alrabaa, a former Muslim—who has taught in universities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and America—lists many harrowing tales of sufferance of foreign women in Saudi Arabia in his book, “Karin in Saudi Arabia”.
Karin, a German
woman, fell in love with a Saudi man while briefly living in Saudi
Arabia. The bestial Religious Police arrested her for going on a
drive downtown alone in a taxi. Upon arrest, she was raped and
thrown in prison. Her German-Saudi baby son was taken away and she
was deported to Cyprus without passport and money.
Other foreign women in Saudi
Nisrin, a Bangladeshi woman, married a Saudi man. Saudis belong to an important tribe; they cannot just marry anyone, definitely not a lowly Bangladeshi. The marriage was annulled. The Religious Police raped her before deporting.
Luckier, young Moroccan woman Muna managed to smuggle herself and baby after one-night marriage with Sultan, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
Tragic are stories of Mimi and Najat; they were brutally stoned to death.
Mimi, a Filipina house-maid, worked in Karin's lover’s house. Denounced by his wife, she was picked up by the Religious Police and stoned to death.
When such treatments are meted out to foreign women, including from powerful countries like America and Germay, it would not be difficult to grasp the treatment and cruelty the Saudi women suffer in the holy kingdom. Here is a story of a Saudi woman. Deaf-and-dumb Najat was arrested by the Religious Police, suspected of being a prostitute, as she waited for her brother in front of a shop-window. The Police Chief quickly passed sentence on Najat that "[She] was working as a prostitute and was caught in the very act of picking up a client. We advise that she be stoned to death..." Riyadh’s governor, Prince Salman, approved the punishment; Najat was publicly stoned to death the following Friday.
In the introduction of his book, Alrabaa writes,
“When I delivered the manuscript of this book to friends outside of Saudi Arabia, asking them to read it over, their response was uniform: they shook their heads in disbelief. Nobody in the civilized world seemed able to fathom the extent of the arbitrariness and atrocities to which victims in Saudi Arabia are subjected. To them, it was incredible. Some remarked that I was telling stories about the actions of monsters from another planet. They could not believe that any human could act as a Saudi corrupted by power does.”
In order to understand the kind of restrictive life women live in Saudi Arabia, one must read Inside the Kingdom by Swiss-born Carmen Bin Laden (who married a brother of Osama bin Laden and later divorced), sketching her rather liberal life there, owing to her belonging to the great bin Laden family.
But no such restrictions apply to men. Nesrine Malik, a young Muslim woman from Britain, writes of her experience of harassment in Saudi Arabia that “My sisters and I have been chased by cars full of youths many times through the streets of Riyadh, harassed through car windows and had telephone numbers expertly tossed in our laps when we had made the mistake of leaving the car window open.”
Ed Hussain, a reformed British Islamist and former member of Hizb-ut Tahrir, wrote of his experience of living in Saudi Arabia, that “In supermarkets I only had to be away from Faye (his wife) for five minutes and Saudi men would hiss or whisper obscenities as they walked past. When Faye discussed her experiences with local women at the British Council they said: ‘Welcome to Saudi Arabia.’”
He heard of a Filipino worker, who had brought his new bride to live with him in Jeddah. The couple took a taxi after visiting the Balad Shopping District. On the way, the Saudi driver complained that the car was not working and asked the man to push it. As the man came out, the driver sped away with the man’s wife. There was no clue about her whereabouts.
“We had heard stories of the abduction of women from taxis by sex-deprived Saudi youths. At a Saudi friend’s wedding at a luxurious hotel in Jeddah, women dared not step out of their hotel rooms and walk to the banqueting hall for fear of abduction by the bodyguards of a Saudi prince who also happened to be staying there,” wrote Hussain.
Prophet Muhammad’s child-wife Aisha had said, “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women…” [Bukhari 7:72:715]. The plight of Muslim women has remained the same at the birthplace, the heartland, of Islam.
MA Khan is the editor of islam-watch.org and the author of Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery.
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