A lot of you have sent me varying versions of this story: A rape survivor in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to 200 lashes for the crime of being alone with an unrelated man. For vigorously defending her, her lawyer has had his license revoked and faces a disciplinary hearing. She was initially sentenced to 90 lashes, but her sentence was raised after her attorney told her story to the media.
I don’t think I need to emphasize how disgusting and horrible this is; but I do think it’s interesting that the Western media is reporting that there was a singular rape victim, and saying things like, “Some liberal commentators said her sentence highlighted the justice system’s failure to treat women fairly.”
The Saudi justice system does fail to treat women fairly, there’s no question about that. But here’s what happened:
The young woman’s offense was in meeting a former boyfriend, whom she had asked to return pictures he had of her because she was about to marry another man. The couple was sitting in a car when a group of seven men kidnapped them and raped them both, lawyers in the case told Arab News, a Saudi newspaper.
Emphasis mine. The boyfriend was sentenced to 90 lashes as well; the only information I could find about his sentence was from Arab News, which states that the man decided not to appeal his conviction.
What’s interesting to me is how this story is getting molded into the traditional narrative that seems to surface whenever a crime against a woman in a majority-Muslim nation becomes publicized (this post by Fauzia explains the issue much more eloquently than I can). There’s no question that women are treated as second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia; but turning the story into a “women-are-always-mistreated (and see how much better we have it here?)” lesson obscures a messier reality. Yes, women are mistreated there, and yes, they get completely and totally screwed by the justice system; there’s no question that this is an issue of misogyny. But it’s also an issue of broader human rights abuses. Now, justice systems in misogynist societies have a nasty habit of particularly handicapping women, and that shouldn’t be ignored. And when judicial systems are already corrupt and ass-backwards, women are going to be treated even worse.
This is a women’s rights issue, and it’s a human rights issue. But the erasure of the male rape survivor serves a variety of purposes, of which highlighting women’s rights abuses is only one. It lets us separate us from them; when we highlight the atrocity of a rape victim being put on trial, we allow ourselves to ignore all the other ways that our own systemic human rights abuses reflect those of Saudi Arabia: the death penalty, secret prisons, harsh punishments for juvenile offenders, lack of due process rights, disproportionate prosecution of minorities, and on and on. We position ourselves as the enlightened saviors, the ones who speak truth in the face of a nation of backwards Muslims. Of course, the people who were initially outraged over this case and who publicized the woman’s cause are Saudi — the lawyer, human rights activists, the media. And while that gets a mention, it’s only to further highlight the backwardness of Saudis.
Now, make no mistake, Saudi law is backwards. But individual Saudis are speaking out, at great personal risk, for human rights, women’s rights, and feminism in general. That deserves to be highlighted. I’d rather go to trial here than in Saudi Arabia any day of the week, so I’m not suggesting that we’re on equal footing when it comes to our criminal justice systems. I’m not suggesting that we should ignore these issues, or that we should white-wash how horrific they are. But I am suggesting that legitimate women’s rights issues are too often twisted in order to suit other ends, and in our current Islamophobic culture, misogyny is highlighted “over there” as a way to demonstrate our moral superiority, not as a way to express genuine concern for women’s rights (just look at how women’s rights in Afghanistan got tossed to the side as soon as they were no longer politically expedient). We wring our hands over the horrible misogyny in cases like this, and yet we remain allies with some of the worst human rights abusers in the world (like Saudi Arabia). We continue to imitate others (like Egypt and Syria) in our War on Terror. We exploit stereotypes about women’s rights in the Middle East in order to justify wars in countries like Iraq, where women are worse off now than they were before we invaded. We ignore the work of human rights activists in their own countries, and we regularly undermine them by positioning feminism as a Western concept and then dredging up anti-Western sentiments by invading their countries, killing people, and supporting oppressive regimes when it suits us. We breed anti-Americanism, claim feminism as an American invention, go to war with women’s rights as a justification, and then wonder why women’s rights are treated skeptically. We hold up the burqa as the ultimate symbol of misogyny, but seem unconcerned with things like torture, secret prisons, mercenary-led murders, and rape as a war crime.
It’s troubling, and it’s frustrating to see feminist issues used to foster bigotry, to back up the call to war, and to prop up abusive policies.
Ultimately, women’s rights are meaningless without human rights, and the other way around. Saudi Arabia violates both with astonishing regularity. But we need to maintain a skeptical eye on the way these stories are reported in the Western media, and we need to remember just how thoroughly politicians and media-makers have demonstrated their general disregard for women as a class, here and abroad. We need to keep that in mind when reading these stories, and we need to be simultaneously horrified at the situation and cynical about how it’s being reported and the agendas and assumptions behind the coverage.
If we really want to help — if we’re genuinely concerned about human rights here and abroad — we need to start cleaning up our own house, we need to cut ties with abusive regimes, and we need to make and follow through on commitments to human rights activists in their own communities.
I suspect, though, that we’ll just get more articles like these, and no action to back up our supposed outrage.
Thanks to Teddy for the link — and I’m interested to learn that I’m one of the “most ardent Islamophiles” you know (you don’t get out much, do you?). Hopefully I made you proud.
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