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Living Under Sharia: The Plight of Women in Saudi Arabia

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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% 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, are showing increasing support for Sharia, demand for Sharia Court 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. In order to get a grasp of the nature of Sharia law, one may have a look at Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran and Saudi Arabia, where Sharia laws are applied to varying strictness. 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 even 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 Arabiathe birth-place and heartland of Islamreveals 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 lawsthe Sharia, which should ideally guide Islamic societies for eternityare 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. 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 itSaudi 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 relativefather, husband, grandfather, brother or son.

A man can divorce his wife as he wishes; Muhammad bin Laden, father of Osama, accumulated more than twenty wivesmarried and divorcedin 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 70:2930, 23:56].

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.

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M. A. Khan is the author of Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery. He is a liberal humanist and edits the islam-watch.org Website.

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