Arabia has never been good news for women. Lately,
however, things have gone from bad to worse, whether one is a
ten-year-old female living under the kingdom’s oppressive laws or
a seventy-five-year-old accused of “mingling” with men who are not
acceptably close to her by marriage.
The seventy-five-year-old, Khamisa Sawadi, has been sentenced to
forty lashes and four months in prison, in addition to facing
deportation after serving her sentence, as she is not a Saudi
citizen. The courts have rejected her defence or appeals to her
advancing years. Her male co-defendants face similar sentences.
Furthermore, it appears that the courts have turned on these
defendants because they challenged previous court decisions and
also filed lawsuits against the police. The defendants are also
accused of “attacking” the Committee for the Prevention of Vice
and the Promotion of Virtue.
Suffice it to say that such punishments have no basis whatever in
the Quran or the Sunnah. The prophet himself interacted with women
for various reasons, sometimes advising them and other times
seeking advice from them. Women were also fully involved in the
affairs of the community, and interaction between men and women
was permissible. Islamic history is replete with incidents of
women interacting with men without being escorted by their close
Moreover, while the Quran prescribes punishment for adultery and
fornication, it is silent on the issue of men “mingling” with
women. If anything, it acknowledges some interaction between
members of the opposite sex when it says:
The men and women of the believers are friends of one another.
They command what is right and forbid what is wrong, keep up
prayer and give the alms, and obey Allah and His Messenger. They
are the people on whom Allah will have mercy. Allah is Almighty,
All-Wise ( Quran : 9: 71).
The case of a ten-year-old Saudi girl, on the other hand, may very
well find some basis in the religious texts of Islam. She has been
packed off to her eighty-year-old husband’s house by her own
father after hiding at her aunt’s home to avoid such a fate. While
accusing the aunt of meddling in his affairs, the eighty-year-old
stated: “My marriage is not against Shariah. It included the
elements of acceptance and response by the father of the bride.”
Orthodox Muslims must ask whether Shariah should permit such a
union. Even though there is evidence to support the claim that
Islam permits child marriages, our modern sensibilities force us
to revisit these allowances in the interest of the weak and
vulnerable members of society, which include women and children.
Although according to orthodox Islam, a girl is considered
marriageable when she reaches puberty, it is appropriate to ask if
she is indeed emotionally, physically or psychologically ready to
assume the responsibility of being a wife and parent.
Saudi Arabia, as the cradle of Islam, has a double responsibility
to lead the world in bringing about equality in the legal and
social rights of women and minorities. It must model a peaceful,
egalitarian, non-militaristic and pluralistic religious tradition
that recognizes the rights of all human beings universally, rather
than one that discriminates on the basis of gender or creed.
Laws must treat all citizens equally. Saudi Arabia, as a powerful
nation wielding tremendous influence on Muslims across the world,
must deliver this responsibility in a way that attracts the
admiration of the world, rather than its contempt.
The writer of this article is an author and former president of
the Muslim Canadian Congress