Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Saudi Arabian "Justice"

By Mona Eltahawy

If justice really was a woman she would not survive long in Saudi Arabia.

Between the Kafkaesque-sounding Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice and its infamous morality police, and the hardline Wahhabi clerics who serve as judges with wide-ranging powers run amok in the absence of a written penal code, justice couldn’t stand a chance in the royal kingdom.

More barbaric than Kafkaesque is the case of Fawzia Falih, a 51-year-old Saudi citizen of Jordanian origin who is awaiting public execution -- by beheading -- for “witchcraft.” She had already been hospitalized from weeks of beatings by the morality police (the mutaween) prior to her conviction in April 2006.

Judges sentenced her to death based on a confession extracted during those beatings. Falih, who is illiterate, was made to fingerprint that confession although she could not read what it said. One witness against her was a man who claimed he had suddenly become impotent after Falih “bewitched” him.

In a rare moment of lucidity in September 2006, an appeals court threw out her capital conviction after Falih retracted the confession. But a lower court later ruled she should be executed in the “public interest.”

It would be macabre to call Falih lucky, but at least she understood the proceedings against her. I doubt that Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan maid who just turned 20, understood a word of her “trial” which sentenced her to be beheaded.

Nafeek was accused of murdering a baby -- who she says choked as she was feeding it. She was only 17 at the time. She had no access to lawyers during either her interrogation or her trial. Like Falih, Nafeek also retracted a “confession” extracted during police questioning.

A Saudi court is said to be considering Nafeek’s appeal but human rights organizations are concerned because of Saudi Arabia’s alarmingly high rates of execution. At least 26 people, including three women, have been executed since 8 January, and at least 158 people -- including three women -- were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2007.

As those groups point out, Nafeek’s execution would be in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which prohibits the execution of offenders for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old.

In its complete mockery of justice, Saudi Arabia ignores these UN conventions -- even the ones it has signed. In 2000, it ratified an international bill of rights for women but stipulated that Islamic law (Sharia) would prevail if there were conflicts with its provisions.

A farce played out in Geneva earlier this year, when a Saudi delegation appeared for the first time before the UN women’s rights panel. Finally an international body grilled the Saudis to explain why, in the 21st century, women have to have a male guardian’s permission to do almost everything in the kingdom, and why women cannot drive.

It was absurd to hear the Saudis insist that women in their country faced no discrimination. But the most ludicrous claim came when the UN committee asked why Saudi men could marry up to four wives. With a straight face, a Saudi delegate -- a man of course -- explained that it was to ensure a man’s sexual appetite was satisfied legally if one wife could not fulfill it.

Not surprisingly, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Erturk, soon went to Saudi Arabia on a 10-day fact-finding mission. She criticized the mutaween and the cleric-judges, mentioning two more cases of women whose treatment at the hands of those entities is nothing short of surreal.

Erturk met with Fatima Azzaz who was forced to separate from her husband Mansour al-Timani in 2006 after her brothers persuaded judges that Timani was from a lesser tribe. Azzaz is being held in a government home for orphans with a young son. She refuses to return to her family home as required by a court order divorcing her from her husband, who has custody of their daughter.

One of the latest atrocities of the mutaween was the arrest in early February of a businesswoman known only as Yara, a 40-year-old mother of three, for sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop in Riyadh with a male colleague. She told the English-language daily Arab News she was taken to a prison, strip-searched and forced to sign a confession of being caught alone with an unrelated man. Yara said the morality police released her several hours later after her husband intervened. The man with whom Yara had coffee, an unidentified Syrian financial analyst, had also been arrested and released the following day.

As these cases show, a grilling by a UN watchdog and a fact-finding mission to explore the miserable state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia were long overdue. But they are meaningless when Saudi Arabia daily abuses the very rights it has promised to uphold. It must choose -- either its Wahhabi 'justice' or international conventions.

By forcing it to choose, the civilized world supports Saudis who refuse to be intimidated by the morality police and the Wahhabi judges. Last year, several Saudis sued the mutaween for their abuses But my favorite story is of two young women out shopping last year who were chided by the mutaween apparently for wearing makeup. One of the young women pulled out a can of pepper spray and she emptied it into the face of the morality police as her friend filmed the incident with her mobile phone while calling the mutaween "terrorists."

You can't say Saudi women aren't fighting back.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.