Saudi Arabia's gender apartheid

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- Once upon a time, in a country called South Africa, the color of your skin determined where you lived, what jobs you were allowed to have and whether you could vote.

Decent countries around the world fought the evil of racial apartheid by turning South Africa into a pariah state. They barred it from global events such as the Olympics. Businesses and universities boycotted South Africa, damaging its economy and adding to the isolation of the white-minority government, which finally repealed apartheid laws in 1991.


Today, in a country called Saudi Arabia, it is gender rather than racial apartheid that is the evil. But the international community watches quietly and does nothing.

Saudi women cannot vote, cannot drive, cannot be treated in a hospital or travel without the written permission of a male guardian, cannot study the same things men do, and are barred from certain professions. Saudi women are denied many of the same rights that "blacks" and "coloreds" were denied in South Africa.


To understand the heinous double standards at play, look no further than the case of a 19-year-old Saudi woman who was gang-raped last year. A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced her to 90 lashes because she was in a car with an unrelated man before she was abducted and raped by seven men. Saudi Arabia's ultraorthodox interpretation of Islamic law preaches a strict segregation of the sexes.

The young woman had the temerity to appeal - and publicize her story in the media. And so, earlier this month, the court increased her punishment to 200 lashes and six months in jail.

And the abductors and rapists? They got between two and nine years in jail. A rape conviction in the kingdom usually carries the death penalty, but the court said it did not impose it because of a "lack of witnesses" and the "absence of confessions."

A few governments here and there have condemned the Saudi court's behavior, but you can be sure that Saudi Arabia will be there at the next Olympics - even though it bars women from the national team - and the world will continue to fete the kingdom's representatives without a word of chastisement. Just by agreeing to attend yesterday's Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Annapolis, Saudi Arabia merited headline news.

The easy explanation of the world's apathy to the plight of Saudi women is that the kingdom sits on the world's largest oil reserves. True.

The more difficult explanation - and the one that too many avoid - is that the Saudis have succeeded in pulling a fast one on the world by claiming their religion is the reason they treat women so badly. I am a Muslim who is constantly wondering how it is that I worship the same God as the Saudis. Islam may have been born in Mecca, in what is today Saudi Arabia, but the warped interpretation of my religion prevalent in that country is like a perverse attempt to undo any good that Muslims believe was revealed in the Prophet Muhammad's message in seventh-century Arabia.

What kind of God would punish a woman for rape? That is a question that Muslims must ask of Saudi Arabia, because unless it is we who challenge the determinedly anti-women teachings of Islam in Saudi Arabia, that kingdom will always get a free pass. It is easy to dismantle the Saudi clerical claim that Islam justifies the outrageous treatment of girls and women. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, is a place where women enjoy rights a Saudi woman could only dream of, where they recite the verses of the Quran on television for all to see and hear. In Saudi Arabia, a woman's voice is considered sinful.

Saudi Arabia's neighbors - Egypt, Syria and the United Arab Emirates - are all Muslim-majority countries: Women drive, vote, are judges and hold ministerial portfolios.


The international community must not forget the many brave Saudis - such as the gang-rape victim and her lawyer (who was suspended) - who continue to question this oppression by their government and clerics. Their courage deserves the same kind of support the world offered anti-apartheid activists in South Africa.

Nor should the victims of Saudi atrocities be forgotten. In 2002, 15 schoolgirls died when officers of the morality police would not let them out of their burning school building - and barred firefighters from saving them - because the girls weren't wearing the headscarves and the black cloaks that all women must wear in public.

How many more girls must die and women must suffer rape before the international community names this gender apartheid and condemns it appropriately?

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based journalist and a lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. This article was distributed by Agence Global.