Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Hillary Lashes Out

The appalling case of the 19-year old Saudi girl whose vicious gang rape at the hands of a seven strong armed gang earned her a prison sentence and 200 lashes has gone virtually unreported in Britain. In the USA, however, it has been quietly bubbling away for the past week, as an increasing chorus of outraged feminists, human rights activists and commentators digested the full horrors of the story.

And horror it undoubtedly is, even by the none-too-civilised standards of the medievalist Saudi despotism.

The young woman's crime was to have been sitting in a car with a man who was returning a photograph; she had become engaged to another man to whom she is now married. This, according to the "legal system" current in the country, was a criminal offence; and the fact that she was kidnapped at knife-point and subjected to an attack of savage brutality in no way mitigated the outrageousness of her conduct. If women start sitting in cars, sooner or later they might want to drive them. They might want to go out alone. Heavens, they might even want to show their hair.

She was sentenced to receive 90 lashes, while her attackers were let off with token jail terms. When her lawyer appealed, he was struck off and her sentence was more than doubled. Apparently she, her husband and the lawyer had drawn public attention to the case, which, the judges felt, threatened to bring the revered system of Sharia courts into disrepute. I wonder why. It was for this, rather than her initial flouting of Islamic righteousness, that led to the increased sentence.

The girl's husband has been speaking to the media. He said his wife is "a crushed human being," and that he believed one judge had a personal vendetta against the lawyer.

"From the outset, my wife was dealt with as a guilty person who committed a crime," he said. "She was not given any chance to prove her innocence or describe how she was a victim of multiple brutal rapes."

The attack, trial and sentencing have taken a heavy toll on her already poor health, he added.

"Since the attack, she's been suffering from severe depression."

The US administration has said little publicly. This is Saudi Arabia, after all, the West's vital ally in the war against terrorism, a country whose rulers are close personal friends of the Bush family. According to the State Department's official spokesman, "These kinds of decisions are going to have to be decisions that the people of that country -- in this case, Saudi Arabia -- are going to have to take for themselves." That's telling them.

Tonight, however, Hillary Clinton has entered the fray. She called the sentence an "outrage", criticised the administration for not speaking out, and demanded that President Bush tell King Abdullah to do something about it. She also promised to put international human rights at the centre of her presidency. Unfortunately for Hillary, Barak Obama beat her to it, writing a concerned letter to Condoleeza Rice on Monday. Fellow Democrat contenders John Edwards and Joe Biden have also joined the rush. This now has all the makings of a significant international incident.

Will these interventions do any good? The Saudis are notoriously chippy, and are unlikely to relish being told what to do by a woman, even one as expensively groomed as Hillary. It may even play into the hands of the hardliners: incredibly, Saudi watchers count King Abdullah as a reformer.

Getting the sentence rescinded must be the priority, but this is unlikely to be achieved by pussy-footing around the issues involved. Human rights are universal. This young woman grew up in a culture that treats women like chattels, where the prevailing Wahhabite interpretation of Islam shows its "respect" for half the human race by imprisoning them behind walls and veils. But that does not mean she is actually a lesser being, nor that the system that has so scandalously failed her deserves the dignity of the word "law".

See also: Saudi: Why we punished rape victim (CNN)
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