Friday, April 11, 2014

Society must show compassion toward female ex-prisoners

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 7/3/2013

F THERE is any doubt that women will make an impact as members of the Shoura Council, then we need to look no further than recent comments made by female council members during a session that discussed a report of the Commission of Investigation and General Prosecution.
Perhaps not for the first time, but nonetheless noteworthy for the fact that people are now taking notice, Hanan Al-Ahmadi, a council member, is taking issue with the commission’s role in the way women prison inmates are treated by their families once they serve their sentence.
Al-Ahmadi criticized the commission for its role in the lack of protection and justice for women who already paid their debt to society for crimes they committed. The upshot is that women often languish for months, if not longer, in custody although they had finished their prison sentences. This injustice is because many families refuse to accept the ex-prisoner back into the family.
By not allowing former prisoners to return home, families abdicate their role as the protector and guardian of women, thereby putting the pressure on government authorities to fill the void. In addition, these former prisoners continue to serve sentences far beyond the punishment they deserve for the crime they committed. To put it more bluntly, female prisoners are sentenced for a crime they committed, and then in effect sentenced to prison again because their families disowned them.
Al-Ahmadi suggests that family members, and certainly mahrams, should be punished for abandoning their responsibilities. She also assigns blame to the government for what constitutes as discrimination against women.
I agree with Al-Ahmadi that women should not be paying the price twice for their mistakes, but we should also not forget that Saudi society is a conservative one.
We still have a generation that believes in shame and family honor when it comes to women committing a felony. After reading Al-Ahmadi’s comments in the newspaper, I wanted to check the facts with a friend who works for the Administration of Prisons.
My friend did not deny that there are women who are still in prison after finishing their terms. However, he said that the government keeps them there in order to protect them from their own families.
“When a family refuses to receive the woman out of shame and honor, no one can force them to take her back,” he said.
He cited examples of tragedies that took place when tribal leaders and emirs of regions tried to force families to take their women back.
“They (family members) shoot them dead in front of the prison’s gate,” he said.
This brings us to the absent role of education, whether at school or through the media. Saudi society needs intensive awareness campaigns to shed light on such cases from an Islamic point of view. Imams also have a role to play to raise public awareness that the treatment of these women is against the basics of human rights in Islam.  
The common sense answer to such tragedy and social discrimination against women is to elevate the role of the Ministry of Social Affairs. Although the ministry has the word “social” in its title, it is still afraid of the  Saudi society.
The ministry should ensure that female prisoners who finish their sentences have a life beyond bars and to act as a liaison between them and their families to ease the transition from prison back into society.
During that time, women should be given full protection similar to witness protection system used in the West. They should be granted decent accommodations rather than the present shelters that present nothing more than a sophisticated type of prison. Women should also be provided with whatever it takes to make their lives easier. They should be given an opportunity to pursue their education and to get a proper job.
We all know the Shoura Council is not a legislative authority, yet we should applaud the fact that Al-Ahmadi and her colleagues brought such an issue to the table of discussion despite its sensitivity. By tackling this issue, they have demonstrated the vital role women play at decision-making levels. They bring a woman’s perspective to a woman’s issue. They bring to the Shoura Council the lost element in Saudi society: The role woman play as Saudis.
Women of the Shoura Council talk from experience and offer solutions because they are part of the community of women. They have insight that few men addressing the same issues could ever achieve.
Frankly, these women are more legitimate and more credible than men when it comes to bringing to an end the institutional discriminatory practices against women.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, in his wisdom, understands the impact female Shoura Council members have on Saudi society. Yet some female Shoura Council members are becoming the target of abuse on social media.
A female prisoner who remains in jail despite completing her sentence needs the government's attention to ensure that she receives justice. It’s a core value of Islam. Some people are so preoccupied with their definition of a woman’s role in society that they have forgotten about compassion, empathy, justice and offering aid to the 

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