A Rape Case in Saudi Arabia Explodes into International Headlines

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.

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12 comments on “A Rape Case in Saudi Arabia Explodes into International Headlines
  1. adam says:

    this is really fucked up
    it’s the only appropriate word i could think of
    its such a terrible thing that countries are like this today
    and the Saudi Foreign Minister said misjudgments like this happen everywhere
    i’m glad i don’t live in the countries where such misjudgments abound

  2. Nancy Van Ness says:

    This is atrocious and it is good to live where this kind of injustice does not prevail. I am concerned that those of us who are not vigilant right now in the US fail to see that the erosion of human and civil rights in this country, while still far from this, are steps to repression.
    In a conversation with a friend just last week, I was told that people here should expect to be persecuted for speaking out against US injustice. It was surprising to me to hear that. We are becoming accustomed to blaming the people who take up for themselves and who stand by those treated unjustly here. This dreadful situation in Saudi Arabia is where that leads. We are beginning to blur the lines between those who break laws and those who disagree. We are beginning, just as the Bush regime wants, to equate dissent with treason. It is a scary declension.
    Thank you to the WIP for publishing this article. I am grateful for every one of the courageous people who have tried to help that young woman and who refuse to be cowed, especially her young husband and her lawyer.
    May others there support them. May people all over the world work for human rights, justice, and peace.

  3. Elisa says:

    How frightening when the judicial system is the victims worst enemy. Good coverage of a very sad story for women everywhere. One hopes that interntional criticism will be severe enough for the Saudi government to truly review and change “bad judgements by the courts.”

  4. Louise Belfrage says:

    Wahabism is no joke.
    I listened to some strong radio documentraies about it from the BBC and the elite in Saudi preach “tolerance” and “peace” and “respect” – words taken from interviews with ministers and religious scholars. None of which is practiced towards the women of Saudi Arabia.
    Such high-voltage hypocricy can only exist in oppressive countries, void of the freedom of expression.

  5. Victoria Benavides says:

    Needless to say, this is an absolutely chilling story. Being an educated, middle class woman sitting in the comfort and security of my privileged, suburban American environment, it is easy for my first reaction to such a horrific tale to be to view it as a wholly aberrant, distant phenomenon. And while the severity and brutality of such a situation may be an extreme example of how some women are treated in our present day world, what I challenge myself and and all individuals who aspire to be productive, positive and engaged members of our global society is to take a step back from the superficial “foreignness” of such a story and instead connect with the very real underlying themes of current injustice and human struggle that it conveys. Only then, will we truly be called to action internationally and in our own communities.

  6. Victoria really hit the nail on the head for me.
    Geographical distance allows us to be complacent and simply cluck our tongues at the injustices of the world. But women’s rights should be no different than those of men. Anywhere. Period.
    As we become more and more of a global society, the intersection of culture and religion continues to inspire a debate that often results in an “us” against “them” mentality. I can respect cultural differences in our roles as human beings, but ones based so obviously on the oppression of women under the guise of religion will be harder and harder for oppressive societies to hide. I find it terribly appalling that the US administration continues to nurture its ties with the Saudi government while it purports to fight for freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq.
    The Internet is facilitating a global community that would otherwise not exist on such a huge scale. I hope that those of us who are concerned come together and do something about it!

  7. george l. vasquez says:

    The sad irony of this story is that Arab women have been better treated and enjoyed more rights in Sadam Hussein’s Iraq than in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — the land, incidentally, which supplied the majority of the terrorists on 9/11 and which continues to be provide the greatest amount of funds to Al Kaeda. Why doesn’t the Bush Administration turn its focus to this corrupt and hypocritical despotism and plant the seeds of democracy and human rights there???

  8. Robert MacLean says:

    I am writing under a pseudonym because my work still takes me to Saudi Arabia. It is a measure of the intrusive and oppressive nature of the regime there that it is dangerous to make a public criticism of that country if you have any connection with it.
    Wahhabism is a puritanical sect – strict and inflexible in its application of the harshest interpretation of religious rules. In this case, the hapless girl was punished not for being the victim of a rape case, but for allegedly having an adulterous relationship with the man with whom she was in the car. From a Saudi perspective, she has “got away” with it lightly, because the punishment for adultery is not the Christian idea of let the man who has committed no sins cast the first stone, but the Old Testament punishment of stoning to death.
    It is high time that a little enlightenment was brought into Wahhabism and Saudi society, otherwise such inhumane practices will continue unabated.
    In this particular case, thanks to the international publicity brought about by publications such as WIP, the girl has been “pardoned” by the Saudi king. But how many thousands of other victims of the harsh Wahhabi Sharia courts go unreported?

  9. Louise Belfrage says:

    Great to read you Robert MacLean – here is another article related:
    The Saudi pardon –
    “Abdullah should understand that cruelty and sex discrimination must be excised from any culture that longs to participate in the modern world or purports to adhere to global standards enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention against Torture. Abdullah has demonstrated a laudable readiness to nudge Saudi Arabia in the right direction. Let’s hope the Qatif incident shows him just how far Saudi Arabia has to go, and how urgently.”

  10. Viktorija says:

    What a horrific story! When I read something like that, it makes my blood boil. Can I even remotely imagine what this girl has been through? Where do we stand here in our attempts to eradicate this kind of behaviour towards women? We lament over our own destiny, national politics or corrupton. What can we really do internationally for these sick bastards to get what they deserve?
    When I walk down the streets of the UK, USA, Germany, Austria, Italy, etc. and see women covered from head to toe, I just wonder how deeply rooted this tradition must be. Does it really make sense to see women living in these countries, some only girls, wearing their robes? They are in foreign countries, for goodness sake! What angers me most is that if I want to visit any of these countries, I should cover myself. I am a free woman and I do as I please, and that does not mean I have no respect for their tradition. It is the problem of the male society in these countries if they think women tempt them with their looks, and if they think with their penises instead of heads! And how much longer will it take for the oppressed women to realize all over the world that only by revealing their stories and joining their forces, they can achieve something; we can all achieve something.
    As it is, I have no interest in venturing to these countries however beautiful and historically interesting they might be. The fair punishment for all these countries would be to stop trading with them and boycott all their activities, but we won’t do that, will we, since we depend on them for oil. What is worse, no matter how disgusted and infuriated I am by the story, I’m totally powerless, and that stings much more than anything else. Of course, we can write about it, but are we really helping? Can we cross the boundaries and raise awareness where this can count for something?

  11. Ellensnortland says:

    One of my fondest wishes is to find an Arabic speaker to volunteer to translate my book, “Beauty Bites Beast” into Arabic. I would start getting it out to women in Lebanon and then hopefully, it’d be smuggled into more repressive societies. There’s nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. We’ve got to somehow empower our sisters in the Arabic world to rise up as safely and powerfully as they can. It almost boggles my mind when I perceive the task at hand.
    My biggest kudos and respect for Patricia Vasquez for writing this piece. I’m heart-broken and then enraged at the same time.

  12. grant says:

    To Adam:
    You dont live in those countries but your country is supporting those countries. You are a partner in the injustice taking place in those countries.
    To Robert Maclean
    I agree with you.
    To Victorija
    I Think you have misunderstood about Islamic veil. Please refer to Sistani’s shia version of veil. Veil is mandadory for women in Islam but not supposed to be forced on them. A non muslim woman not wearing veil is not supposed to be forced to wear veil.
    Islam has been distorted by the Wahabbi and Taliban with the help of West intentionally.

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