The Crime of Qatif
by Stephen Schwartz and Irfan Al-Alawi
MUCH OF THE WORLD has expressed shock and outrage at the sentences recently handed down by a court in the Saudi Arabian city of Qatif. Judicial authorities there ordered that a 19-year-old woman be lashed 200 times and jailed for six months after she was kidnapped at knife-point and raped by seven men, twice by each. Her assailants received "enhanced" penalties--two to nine years in prison.
The pretext for this atrocious treatment of the victim was that she had been found in a vehicle with a man to whom she was not related. On Sunday, November 25, the Saudi ministry of justice affirmed its support for the punishments, claiming the woman had engaged in an illicit affair with the driver of the car.
The rape victim has vowed to appeal the judgment against her. She has said she recently married someone else, and was only meeting the man in the car, a friend from school, to retrieve a picture from him. She further disclosed that her male friend was also raped by the criminal gang.
The woman's lawyer, the well-known Saudi human rights activist Abd Al-Rahman Al-Lahem, has been suspended from the Saudi Bar Association for communicating with media about the case. This was not the first official sanction against Al-Lahem, who has been repeatedly imprisoned and forbidden to travel outside Saudi Arabia. Saudi bloggers and liberal journalists have commented extensively on the situation of "the woman from Qatif." Saudi sources indicate that punishment of the rape victim and penalizing of her attorney were motivated by the irritation of court officials at having public opinion aroused against them.
The rape took place a year and a half ago. Although much has been said and written outside Saudi Arabia about the case, few foreigners have noticed the cultural and sectarian background of these crimes. Qatif is a center of the large Shia minority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and the victim herself was Shia. Her attackers were Sunnis. The so-called religious police or mutawiyin, who are brutal in any case, were also acting here in support of Sunni domination over Shias in Qatif.
Al-Lahem has correctly denounced the whipping of his client as a violation of Islamic legal precedent. But the court decision illuminates three injustices prevalent in Saudi Arabia:
A Shia woman suffers further in such a case, because it is likely the aggressors in the incident, aware of her minority identity, knew that they could act with relative impunity, as a crime against a Saudi Shia will not be considered as grave as the same crime perpetrated against a Sunni victim.
The attention to the crime of Qatif has had some salutary effects. First, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, who is believed to be aligned with King Abdullah in seeking reforms that would make the country more respected, criticized the sentence against the rape victim, on Monday, November 26, as a "bad judgment." Second, also on Monday, White House spokesman Dana Perino condemned the Saudi court action in sharp language that is all too rare in Washington when it comes to atrocious official acts in Saudi Arabia. "I don't think it matters if you're a female or a male. I think that the situation is very discouraging and outrageous," Perino said. "There is an appeals process, and we hope that the verdict changes. It is certainly not consistent with the judicial reforms that the Saudis have said that they would undertake." Third, her courageous lawyer's outspokenness is a hopeful sign. Al-Lahem was quoted in the Washington Post on Thanksgiving: "That verdict signals the death throes of the judiciary's old guard. They can see the end is near... I saw that the overkill in that verdict was a sign of desperation." Regarding his suspension from the bar, Al-Lahem said, "I will have time to document the details of the last five years. They have changed the social and judicial history of Saudi Arabia."
Close observers of Saudi Arabia have argued for some time that extremism by the country's authorities signals a crisis of the regime, and is not a sign of self-confidence. The abominable verdict in Qatif is unfortunately in keeping with the ruling Wahhabi ideology of the Saudi kingdom. Wahhabism has a long record of humiliating women, and Wahhabi hatred of Shias is grossly visible not only in the kingdom itself but in neighboring Iraq, where Saudis have been incited by Wahhabi clerics to join the terrorist campaign against the Shia population and its shrines.
As Saudi Arabia becomes even richer based on the rise in oil prices, and its middle class expands, its citizens and residents (a quarter of its population are foreign workers without rights) are demanding political change. The hard core of Wahhabi elements in the royal family have responded by multiplying their extremist actions. A Saudi transition to accountability, pluralism, and popular sovereignty must come, slowly but inevitably.