After centuries of methodical Islamic gender apartheid that holds Saudi women in virtual enforced slavery as possessions of men, slight signs of rebellion are being seen, as many women are defying the fatwa against women drivers.
In order to understand why recent driving protests are an enormous step forward for Saudi women, one must comprehend the brutal world in which Saudi women are forced to live.
According to Freedom House, Saudi women lack all equality, are denied benefits of citizenship, their employment is limited, and laws are designed to discriminate against women. This is because a female is not considered a full person. Thus, a woman can be arrested for eating in public without a male family member, an act considered immoral and punishable in court. If a woman marries a non-Saudi, her children are considered foreigners. In order for Saudi women to receive identity cards, virtue, through state officials, must be proven in court.
According to the Center for Democracy and Human Rights, Saudi women are forbidden from studying biology and chemistry, and girls are banned from playing sports in school, something the CDHR reports is creating serious health problems in women. Saudi women are also forbidden from studying abroad.
Amnesty International reports that Saudi laws are purposely intended to discriminate against women for the purpose of subjugation. Conspicuously, for example, unmarried women are forbidden from establishing a business without a male benefactor. Also, women are prohibited from riding in the front of public buses, “even when the buses are empty.”
Women in this brutal regime are forced into arranged marriages—not by mothers, but male family members who have absolute authority over Saudi women’s lives. Women rarely initiate lawsuits, in part because of strict laws stipulating that two male family members must speak on behalf of women as witnesses. Even then, women are at the mercy of men, who provide help depending on whether or not the case brings shame to the family.
While Saudi women, like many women in Muslim countries, live under harsh laws constraining them as prisoners in their very homes, Saudi Arabia’s laws are more brutal than those of other Arab countries. Saudi laws forbid women to go out in public unaccompanied by male family escorts. Any woman caught in public without a male family member is automatically accused of prostitution under Saudi law and must be imprisoned. As punishment for such “crimes,” Saudi woman are made to endure physical as well as mental torture before being sentenced to severe lashings or death.
Furthermore, it is illegal for Saudi women to remove the veil in public, or even to appear in public without being accompanied by male relatives. Violations of such strictures can invite rape. When rape occurs, only the female victim bears the sin and shame of the act: rape is declared a crime of the woman. Under Saudi laws, women must have four witnesses to the rape or the court throws the case out. And women’s rights in court are only worth half that of a man. If the shame of rape is exacerbated, it is the victim who may incur the extreme penalty of execution.
Freedom House also reported on the 2002 tragedy involving the Saudi veiling laws and a deadly girls’ school fire. Rescue attempts were prevented because many girls fleeing the blaze were not wearing their head scarves. Thus, firefighters “intentionally obstructed the efforts to evacuate the girls. This resulted in the increased number of casualties.”
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