Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia Under Scrutiny—Again

Unconfirmed reports that a Saudi Arabian man who brutally murdered his five-year old daughter would be released after paying “blood money” to the girl’s mother have sparked intense debate and condemnation.   The victim suffered horrific injuries, including a crushed skull, broken back, broken ribs, a broken left arm and extensive bruising and burns.  The father, a self-styled “cleric,” has claimed that he was motivated by the child’s “inappropriate” behavior and his suspicions about whether her virginity was still intact.   Reports of the case coincided with a heavily lampooned call by a Saudi cleric for babies to be dressed in burkas as a prophylactic measure to protect them from sexual crimes.

While it appears that a final ruling is yet to be issued in the murder case, the debate does highlight—rather graphically—some of the most glaring obstacles faced by women in accessing justice in an embedded patriarchy.  To wit, the girl’s mother flatly denies that the child was raped, labeling the very charge of rape as an “assault” on her daughter’s honor.  However, the medical examiner in the case has confirmed that the “offender committed all sorts of physical abuse on the victim” and that she exhibited clear evidence of sexual abuse and rape, including “swelling in the region of the genitals and laceration in her anal area.”

The legal guardianship of women by a male (Mahram), is practised in various forms and degrees in Saudi Arabia, and permeates major aspects of women’s lives.  The system is predicated on social conventions—including the importance of protecting women—and seeks legitimation from narrow religious precepts on travel and marriage, which are arguably applicable only in particular situations.  The guardianship system has provoked a polarizing debate among Saudi Arabian women, with some rationalizing and even praising the system for the care and protection it affords them.  Others are critical its strict curtailment of women’s autonomy, freedom of movement, the exercise of legal capacity in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and property ownership/control, as well as decision-making.  Moreover, at a symbolic level, they claim that the existence of the system infantilizes women and demeans their existence as human persons complete in and of themselves. In November 2012, the Saudi Arabian government was castigated for sending text alerts to male guardians whenever a woman under their guardianship left the country, even if the guardian in question was accompanying her.

One of the most pernicious fallouts of the guardianship system is on display in the case at hand.  In general, it appears that a man cannot be executed for the murder of his wife or children in Saudi Arabia.  Consequently, courts often “let fathers and husbands literally get away with murder,” and monetary penalties are deemed sufficient in most cases.  However, the amount to be paid for killing a woman or girl is only half the amount paid for killing a man or boy.

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