by Patricia Meehan Vásquez
Managing Editor, The WIP
- USA -
In 2006, what to Saudi society seemed a routine case settled in Sharia court, exploded into headlines of outrage, protest and disbelief across the globe. Qatif is a center of the very large Shia minority in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, near where I lived for almost eight years. Most of Saudi practices the Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam.
Back then, I often saw women, both Westerners and non-Saudi Arabs, pulled off the streets and hauled to jail for wearing “immodest” clothing that did not completely hide all but their faces. On one of my first ordinary shopping trips, I stood next to a Saudi woman as she was grabbed by the religious police and dragged off to the police station (she had just spanked her badly misbehaving son of about five). Her arrest was at the urging of the shop owner whose fragile merchandise was being pulled off his shelves and smashed on the floor. I learned the lesson quickly: in Saudi, you never humiliate a male, even if he is your own spoiled child! Thieves’ hands were occasionally lopped off in the public square on Fridays, the day of rest, and Scandinavian stewardesses showing their blonde hair while shopping in the souk (market) were unceremoniously escorted to the square where their tresses were hacked off publicly so all could witness the Wahhabi version of Islamic justice.
So when I heard what was happening to “The Qatif girl” I was appalled to see that nothing had changed for women there. Nor was I surprised to find that those subjected to this “special” justice were Shia.
What triggered so much attention? Aladdin Elaasar of the Arab Writers group described it in an article entitled “Blame it on the Victim: Saudi rape victim gets 200 lashes and prison”:
It happens only in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi 19-year-old girl in a car with a male acquaintance was attacked by a gang of seven Saudi men who raped her and her male partner multiple times. After reporting that to authorities, the girl was sentenced to 100 lashes and six months in jail because she was in an unrelated man’s car!
Although far from the scene of the crime, the Belfast Telegraph gave a painfully detailed account of her ordeal:
Inside Saudi Arabia she has come to be known simply as the "Qatif girl", a teenager who was gang-raped then humiliated by first the police, then the judicial authorities. Her case has propelled her into the international headlines and made her an acute embarrassment for the House of Saud.
Today she lives under effective house arrest. She is forbidden to speak and may be taken into custody at any time. Her family's movements are monitored by the religious police and their telephones are tapped.
The crime of "Qatif girl", it seems, has been to refuse to be silent about what has happened to her. Coverage of the case this month in the usually tightly censored Saudi media infuriated the authorities.”
The “Qatif girl” defies custom to tell her own story
Farida Deif, a Middle East expert with Human Rights Watch interviewed the Qatif victim; she is among the few independent observers to have met the girl.
The young woman explained: "I had a relationship with someone on the phone. We were both 16. I had never seen him before. I just knew his voice. He started to threaten me, and I got afraid. He threatened to tell my family about the relationship. Because of the threats and fear, I agreed to give him a photo of myself."
Then a few months later, she was married to another man and became concerned that the photograph might be misused.
"I asked him for the photo back but he refused. He said: 'I'll give you the photo on the condition that you come out with me in my car'."
She agreed, reluctantly, to meet. "I told him we could meet at a souk near my neighbourhood."
They were driving toward her home when a second car stopped in front of them. "I told the individual with me not to open the door, but he did. Two people got out of their car and stood on either side of our car. The man on my side had a knife. He let them come in. I screamed."
“They took us to an area with lots of palm trees. No one was there. If you kill someone there, no one would know about it." They took her to a building. Then two men came in and stripped her.
“The first man with the knife raped me. I was destroyed. If I tried to escape, I don't even know where I would go. I tried to force them off but I couldn't. In my heart, I didn't even feel anything after that. I spent two hours begging them to take me home."
The second man raped her.
“I saw a third man come into the room. There was a lot of violence. After the third man came in, a fourth came. He slapped me and tried to choke me.
In the hours that followed her attackers told the girl they knew she was married. She was raped by a fourth man and then a fifth. The fifth and sixth attackers were the most abusive. "The fifth one took a photo of me like this. I tried to cover my face but they didn't let me. After the seventh one, I couldn't feel my body any more. I didn't know what to do. When a very fat man was on top of me I could no longer breathe."
Her ordeal did not end there. Two more men, one with his face covered, entered and raped her. She spent hours begging to be released. Before she was eventually taken home by the gang, she was raped yet again -- by all seven attackers.
“When I got out of the car, I couldn't even walk. I didn't eat for one week after that. Just water. I didn't tell anyone. I can't sleep without pills. I used to see their faces in my sleep."
The girl is a member of the Shia minority and her attackers are Sunni.
What followed was almost worse than the attack
The girl told Al Arabiya she has been "a body without a soul" since the incident.
“Two men placed a knife on my neck to prevent me from screaming. They dragged me to an isolated place, and despite my pleadings, took turns raping me. I was tied up with iron chains and sustained deep wounds in different parts of my body."
"[Then] the criminals started talking about it [the rape] in my neighborhood. They thought my husband would divorce me. They wanted to ruin my reputation. I was trying to fix something by getting the photo back and something worse happened."
Her husband stood by her; he could not bear to see his wife's attackers walking free. "Two of the criminals were walking around in our neighborhood right in front of me. They attended funerals and weddings. They [the police] should have arrested them out of respect for us. I called the police and told them, 'Find me a solution. The criminals are out on the street. What if they try to kidnap her again?' The police officer said, 'You go find them and investigate'."
In Dubai, Farrag Ismail picked up on the legal implications:
Abdul-Rahman Al-Lahem [her lawyer] says, "The fact that the girl was with another man should not interfere with the verdict or be considered the reason for the crime like the court claimed. Plus, she was forced to meet this man because he was blackmailing her with pictures of her. And she met him in a public place."
Frida Ghitis of the Miami Herald took a feminist perspective:
In the stirring arguments of Muslims who demand progressive reform in their societies, it's impossible to miss the fact that many of the most outspoken and courageous among Islam's critics are women.
A Saudi court has ordered punishment for the victim, yes, the victim, of a violent rape. When it comes to oppressive interpretations of Islam, the principal victims are women.
Not incidentally, the people who make the interpretation are men.
The Sharia Court operates on its own interpretation of the law
Surprisingly, the girl's husband did not divorce her when news of the attack reached him; instead he sought justice in the courts.
Not only did the Sharia judges insult and belittle her, but they refused to allow even her husband in the room. Incredibly, in the end, the attackers were only convicted of kidnapping. The judges felt the prosecutors had not “proved” rape even though the rapists’ own sadistic mobile phone images of it were presented in court! According to her lawyer, the judges simply ignored them.
At that first sentencing, her husband exchanged sharp words with the judges. "It was like she was the criminal," he said bitterly.
With the backing of her lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Laham, Saudi’s leading human rights activist, she went public with the facts, even giving an interview to an Arab TV channel. But rather than embarrassing the authorities, this merely enraged them.
A Saudi newspaper then published an interview with Judge Dr Ibrahim bin Salih al-Khudairi of the Riyadh Appeals Court, in which he said that he would have sentenced her to death!
Unfortunately for her, the Appeals Court on which Judge al-Khudairi sits will consider the appeal she intends to file.
The Daily Mail in the UK specifically discussed the effects of a country ruled entirely by Sharia law:
She was only 19 and a new bride when it happened. Seven men held her at knifepoint and she was subjected to a horrific gang rape. But when she later went to the authorities, they sentenced her to 90 lashes.
She complained in the media, so the punishment was increased to 200 lashes and imprisonment. Her lawyer has been suspended for speaking out against it.
This has shed embarrassing light on one of the world's most authoritarian and oppressive regimes. It has exposed the power of a judicial system based on the Sharia law of the extreme Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam and its appalling treatment of women and persecution of religious minorities.
The girl grew suicidal. Her own brother blamed her for the attack and his family's shame.
"He hit me and tried to kill me," she said.
The girl from Qatif laments, “Everyone looks at me as if I'm wrong. I couldn't even continue my studies. I wanted to die."
The Saudi government was not pleased to have its courts questioned
Human Rights Watch accuses the Saudi Justice Ministry of deliberately engaging in a ''defamation campaign'' against the rape victim.
Once international recriminations began, government sources spread the word that she had been committing adultery, punishable by death under Sharia law.
Last week while in Washington to attend a Middle East peace conference in Maryland, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters, "What is outraging about this case is that it is being used against the Saudi government and people." His remarks, made at the conference in Annapolis, were carried by the state Saudi Press Agency.
"Issues like that, bad judgments by the courts, happen everywhere, even in the United States," he said. "It is a process that is still going on. This is being reviewed by a legal process and we hope it will be changed."
He affirmed that "the Saudi judiciary will review the case", although that grudging offer comes only after intense international criticism.
What of the Qatif girl now?
The Qatif girl and her husband face an uncertain future.
As might be expected, the girl is still suicidal. But then, as the Daily Mail commented, in the medieval world of Saudi law, she has only herself to blame.