I don’t think that Khamisa Sawadi celebrated International Women’s Day last Sunday. No, more than likely the 75-year-old widow was wondering abut the 40 lashes and four months in prison she is facing for mingling with two young men, which included her late husband’s nephew, who had brought her bread.
International Women’s Day celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women in the past and the present.
While the event is a national holiday in some countries, such as China and Russia, it goes largely unnoticed by women n Saudi Arabia. The case of Khamisa Sawadi is evidence that the social achievements of Saudi women remain a distant dream.
Sawadi is Syrian but is the widow of a Saudi. The nephew and his friend and business partner had delivered bread to Sawadi to her home in Al-Chamil. They were immediately arrested.
In court Sawadi testified that she had breast-fed the nephew as an infant and considered him her son. But her argument was rejected by the court, which based its conviction on testimony from the father of the nephew’s friend who alleged that Sawadi corrupted his son.
After Sawadi serves her sentenced she is expected to be deported to Syria.
Saudi Arabia has made significant strides in the advancement of women in key government positions. The appointments of Noral Al-Faiz as deputy minister for Girls' Education and Dr. Fatimah Abdullah Al-Saleem as cultural attaché at the Saudi Embassy in Canada by the Ministry of Higher Education, inspires Saudi women. Saudi women view Al-Faiz and Al-Saleem as role models, recognizing that they, too, can achieve success on their own terms.
Yet the social realities are that Al-Faiz and Al-Saleem are the exceptions, not the rule, of what Saudi women face in the future. For every Al-Faiz and Al-Saleem there are 100 Khamisa Sawadis. For every female Saudi graduate student studying abroad, there are 100 other Saudi women denied their right to divorce abusive husbands or to gain custody of their children.
A Saudi delegation can stand before the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and provide a laundry list of all the good things the Saudi government has done for their women. But closer scrutiny of Khamisa Sawadi, the Qatif Girl, forced divorces and the countless 13-year-old brides married off to men four times their age tarnishes the appointments of Saudi women to high places.
While we have seen remarkable changes recently in the general presidency of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevent of Vice and a new chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Council, it’s the judges in court that seemed to have lost sight of their religious and social obligations and revert to tribal customs.
A friend of mine has had her divorce case in the courts for 10 years. No matter how many appeals she makes to the court, she is refused a divorce. Another friend is scorned and humiliated by government officials as she attempts to gain permission to marry a non-Saudi. And for what purpose? A woman is entitled to a divorce as long as she complies with Islam and is prepared to return the dowry. A woman is entitled to alimony, but rarely receives it. A husband can only take a second wife if his first wife approves, yet these religious obligations are often subverted by the husband and later upheld by the courts. A woman is entitled to marry whom she pleases, but the obstacles are so great to receiving permission it’s virtually impossible to get married to who she wants.
There is no religious prohibition preventing women from driving yet we are forced to mingle with unrelated men who are employed as our drivers. If Sawadi is guilty of mingling with men who are not her close relatives, then 95 percent of the Saudi women are guilty of the same thing. Imagine if the laws, as interpreted by the Saudi courts, were administered in an equitable manner. The jails would be bursting at the seams with thousands upon thousands of Saudi women bearing the scars of hundreds of lashes.
Saudi Arabia is witnessing an unprecedented brain drain of female post-graduate degree holders who find jobs and freedom in other GCC countries – notably the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain. They know they can live productive lives, work alongside whomever they want, and drive a car without looking over their shoulder for the Hai’a. They can live their lives without being exposed to the risk of facing a judge who parses every word of a Hadith to reach a verdict he had already decided on or who will succumb to tribal pressures.
I have great hope for the future of Saudi Arabia. Certainly change, especially in our society, comes slowly. But tell that to Khamisa Sawadi and my friend who hasn’t been granted a divorce after 10 years. What about their future?