For­get be­ing al­lowed to drive – life for women in Saudi is hell

The Herald on Sunday - - GUEST COMMENT - BY PAIGHAM MUSTAFA Paigham Mustafa is a Mus­lim scholar and au­thor of Qu­ran: God’s Mes­sage to Mankind

SAUDI Ara­bia, the only coun­try where women are for­bid­den from driv­ing, is now lift­ing the ban. By June 2018, all Saudi women will be al­lowed to drive a car.

But should we be toot­ing our horns in cel­e­bra­tion at this benev­o­lent act by King Sal­man? Well, yes. But per­haps not just yet. Cyn­ics may be for­given for think­ing that this an­nounce­ment is noth­ing but a di­ver­sion from the many prob­lems that be­set the King­dom. Oil rev­enue is down and, with elec­tric cars just around the cor­ner, the fu­ture for oil ex­ports does not look good.

Equally, if not more sig­nif­i­cant, the acts of ter­ror that the King­dom is in­flict­ing on neigh­bour­ing Ye­meni civil­ians is caus­ing hu­man rights groups to urge an in­quiry into Saudi abuses.

But these are not the only things that are caus­ing in­ter­na­tional con­cern. Other long­stand­ing is­sues in­clude restric­tions on free­dom of ex­pres­sion, ar­bi­trary ar­rests and de­ten­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion of mi­nori­ties, mi­grant work­ers’ rights and, of course, women’s rights.

Young girls and women con­tinue to face dis­crim­i­na­tion in law and in daily re­al­ity. If you hap­pen to be fe­male, there is lit­tle pro­tec­tion against sex­ual and other forms of vi­o­lence. Un­der Saudi law, women re­main sub­or­di­nate and in­fe­rior in sta­tus com­pared to men. Women can­not eas­ily ac­cess ed­u­ca­tion, take paid em­ploy­ment, and lose out when faced with di­vorce and in­her­i­tance. Un­til the Royal de­cree comes into force next year, they also re­main banned from driv­ing.

Saudi Ara­bia is a monar­chy ruled ac­cord­ing to Sharia law, and the Royal de­cree stip­u­lates that the new rules must “ap­ply and ad­here to the nec­es­sary Sharia stan­dards”. These laws, based on Saudi Ara­bia’s rigid Wa­habi strain of Sun­nism, which are in di­rect con­flict with the val­ues of ba­sic hu­man rights. As well as pre­scrib­ing ex­treme and cruel pun­ish­ments such as ston­ing, flog­ging, am­pu­ta­tion and public hang­ing, Sharia also rules that apos­tates should be killed.

Women are treated by Sharia as in­fe­rior to men, with fewer rights in di­vorce cases (in ef­fect, only men can start di­vorce pro­ceed­ings and they are al­ways given cus­tody of chil­dren) and over in­her­i­tance rights. Sharia is an op­pres­sive sys­tem and con­flicts with the Ko­ran, the book Mus­lims be­lieve to be the ver­ba­tim word of God.

The Ko­ran does not give rites and ri­tu­als but core val­ues that raise the mea­sure of hu­man be­hav­iour. In verse 33:35, the Ko­ran is ex­plicit that both men and women who live by high stan­dards of per­sonal pro­bity are of equal worth and says: “God pre­pared for them a great rec­om­pense.” Also in verses 3:145, 4:124 and 16:97 the equal­ity of men and women is made clear.

In com­plete con­trast to Sharia law, the Ko­ran de­crees in verses 24:6-10, that when ac­cused of adul­tery, a wife’s tes­ti­mony should have greater stand­ing than her hus­band’s tes­ti­mony.

In con­trast, Sharia is based on a cor­pus of works known as Ha­dith, and at­trib­uted to Muham­mad, but in fact was writ­ten around 200 years af­ter his death. While Mus­lims hold the Ko­ran as the ab­so­lute au­thor­ity, in prac­tice it is the Sharia they turn to – sim­ply be­cause the au­thor­i­ties who im­pose it se­verely pun­ish those who chal­lenge it.

IT is Sharia law, for ex­am­ple, that al­lows brides to be as young as six. In no civilised so­ci­ety could a child be con­sid­ered to have the men­tal ca­pac­ity to con­sent to her mar­riage or ma­ture enough for con­sen­sual sex of any de­scrip­tion. How­ever, the Sharia al­lows this – even though it is against the Ko­ranic prin­ci­ples and laws for mar­riage.

In Saudi, Ha­dith and Sharia take prece­dence over the Ko­ran and is the rea­son why child mar­riages are per­mit­ted – Saudi has no min­i­mum age for mar­riage. It was only in early Septem­ber that some Saudi sheiks were ar­rested in Hyderabad, India, try­ing to buy child brides.

The Ko­ran, in verse 2:221, per­mits mar­riage only be­tween sin­cere and con­sci­en­tious peo­ple with the same high prin­ci­ples of in­tegrity. How can a child un­der­stand, let alone im­ple­ment such val­ues de­creed? Fur­ther­more, the Ko­ran says that mar­riage is a con­tract; to un­der­stand this com­mit­ment, the ma­tu­rity and re­spon­si­bil­ity re­quired for mar­riage as stated in verse 4:6 can­not be ex­pected of a six-year-old.

If the Saudi king­dom truly wants to be an ex­em­plary Is­lamic coun­try then it should have the Ko­ran and not the Sharia as its driv­ing force, which would form a plat­form to bring their do­mes­tic laws into line with in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian laws.

It is this that will give Saudi women, and the Saudi peo­ple, all the rights that they de­serve and which are long over­due.

Saudi jus­tice: a woman gang-raped by seven men is pun­ished with a public flog­ging, and later jailed

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