Friday, November 23, 2007

Saudi Arabia and the Rule of Law

The recent decision of a Saudi Arabian court to award a rape victim a sentence of 200 lashes and six months is prison is indeed condemnable. The court not only punished the victim, called the "Qatif Girl" for allegedly violating Islamic law by being present in a car with an unrelated man, but also banned her lawyer from practising and stripped him of his license. This cannot be justified on the grounds of religion and tradition by any stretch of imagination. This is not the first time that a rape victim is treated as a criminal. Nor is Saudi Arabia the only country to criminalise a rape victim. It is easy for us, as Indians, to blame the entire episode on a faulty interpretation of the Sharia, but what happens in India is no better. While the courts in Saudi Arabia have sentenced the girl on the grounds of violation of some ridiculous law, courts, prosecution lawyers and law-enforcement officials in India shame the victim into withdrawing her case and disappearing from public view.

If in Saudi Arabia, the problem lies with the absence of proper laws, in India the problem lies with interpretation of existing laws. The social stigma surrounding a rape victim is such that many incidents go unreported. If ever a woman finds the courage to report what has happened to her, she finds herself under the scanner and is made to answer humiliating and insulting questions about her behaviour. "The Qatif Girl" is just one among millions of women around the world to be suffering persecution because they dared to speak out. Remember the case of Mukhtaran Mai of Pakistan who was raped because her brother was caught talking to a girl from another community? Every culture, every country and every religion has treated women like objects. This sentence by Saudi Arabian courts is just an extension of the attitude. While the rest of the world obsesses with the US elections, bomb blasts, political gimmicks and global warming, millions of such women across the world will continue to suffer in silence.

What are the democratic and liberal countries of the world doing? Where is the self-righteous indignation of the US and the UK? Does Saudi Arabia's loyal and blind support of the US "War on Terror" push such blatant human rights violations under the carpet? If the same thing were to happen in Iran, would Bush and Co. not have called for boycott, protest or sanction? What is it that makes Saudi Arabia immune to such international pressure? Or is it stupid on my part to expect that the violation of the rights of women be taken up with as much seriousness as the development of a nuclear programme by Iran? I suppose human rights do not really apply to the allies of the US. Noises about human rights records are made at appropriate intervals, while negotiating deals with China and other undemocratic countries. But, Saudi Arabia is obviously not on the human rights radar of the US. The less said about India's reaction (or lack of it) to the Saudi rape case the better. After all, it is politically incorrect to criticise Islam (or Islamic countries) in this country. I had better shut up now, lest I be accused of hurting minority sentiments (which seems to be increasingly fragile nowadays).

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