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Saudi Arabia: Something out of the Middle Ages

by Archives March 17, 2009

Last week, CNN reported that religious police in Saudi Arabia sentenced a woman for the crime of having two non-relative men in her house without a male relative to chaperone her. Her punishment: 40 lashes, four months in prison, and deportation back to her native country of Syria.
The woman in question, Khamisa Sawadi, is 75-years-old. She had breastfed one of the men, now in his 20s, as a baby, who was now visiting her with a friend. They were committing the terrible sin of delivering her bread. One of the men had stated he’d done nothing wrong, because he considered the woman who’d nursed him as a child to be a mother to him. This would have made it legal under Wahabism, the kingdom’s legal interpretation of Islam.
In the name of morality, they’re going to throw a 75-year-old woman in jail for four months after whipping her 40 times. It is a symbol of the utter madness of Saudi Arabia’s religious law. Whose sense of morality could be satisfied by such barbarism?
The men were sentenced to lashings and imprisonment for several months as well. The sentence may sound disproportionate but manageable, until you consider that Saudi Arabian jails aren’t the same jails as in North America. Just ask William Sampson, a Canadian man imprisoned on trumped up charges and tortured for three years in a Saudi prison, before finally being released as a “gesture” to Canada. This is no place for an elderly lady.
Wahabism, otherwise known as Unitarianism, is a form of Islam that started in the 18th century, based on a literal interpretation of the Koran. It purports to be a recreation of the original Muslim community, and a pure form of Islam that eliminates all non-scriptural traditions. Wahabism has come under much criticism from other Muslims for being extremist and exclusionary, yet the Saudi royal family and their religious policy continue to enforce it.
In this day and age the very idea of religious police sounds like an anachronism. It certainly ought to be. Saudi Arabia is one of the most wealthy, modern nations in the world with a powerful, advanced economy, fancy cars and a growing number of oil millionaires. Yet at the same time it is a country where woman have few legal rights, a country where minority Shi’ites are harshly discriminated against as heretics, banned from government and occasionally targeted by fatwas. Wahabist law brooks no dissent.
There may be some hope for Sawadi and her two visitors. The Saudis have given way to international pressure in the past in the face of widespread outrage. There’s even an easy way here – the religious police have just to declare the relationship between the woman and the younger man to be maternal, equivalent to blood relation and that would remove the punishment for all three of them. But occasional token cases of clemency do not fix the underlying injustice.
There have been some hopes for reform in Saudi Arabia in past years, most of which have been sorely disappointed. Theocracies, whether Christian or Muslim, have a long, sorry history of human rights. There can be no possibility of significant reform until the utter perversion of morality and religion that is Wahabist law is done away with.

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