The Age of Innocence: the Mistreatment of an Elderly Woman in Saudi Arabia

The internet is abuzz with talk of Khamisa Sawadi, a 75-year-old Syrian widow living in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 40 lashes and 4 months in jail for the crime of khalwa, being alone with a man who is not her relative. The verdict, issued on March 3rd, also demands that Sawadi be deported after serving her sentence. Sawadi’s husband was Saudi Arabian.

According to Arab News:

The elderly woman met the men [...] after she asked one of them to bring her five loaves of bread. [...] The men — [her late husband's] nephew, Fahd Al-Anzi, and his friend and business partner, Hadiyan bin Zein [both aged 24] — went to Sawadi’s home in the town of Al-Shamli.

Suleiman Al-Radhiman, director of the Hail office of the commission, told Al-Watan that his officials detained the woman after receiving a written message that two men had entered her house.

He pointed out that police had arrested the woman on two previous occasions.

Bin Zein said the commission officials arrested them about 200 meters from the woman’s house. “There were six commission members who all had their faces covered.”

The widely read CNN article (which made the top 10 most dugg stories yesterday) says the men were caught inside the house by one policeman, which doesn’t really make sense. Why would a member of the virtue police suddenly enter an old woman’s house? The answer: they didn’t. A little more research would be helpful CNN. And who exactly wrote the message? And Sawadi was arrested twice before? Why?

What makes the situation worse is the fact that Sawadi insists that Al-Anzi is her son, since she breastfed him as a child and in Islam breastfeeding gives a degree of maternal relation. But since she has no ‘proof,’ she cannot claim he is a relative. (Interestingly, the court can’t have evidence that she didn’t). So-called “Islamic” law was enough to charge her, but not to clear her name?

According to Yahoo! News, the court based it’s verdict on “citizen information” and testimony from Al-Anzi’s father, her late husband’s brother (!), who accused her of “corruption.”

Maybe he just didn’t realize his son would also get sentenced to 40 lashes and 4 months in jail? (The business partner got 60 lashes and 6 months). Sawadi’s verdict read:

Because she said she doesn’t have a husband and because she is not a Saudi*, conviction of the defendants of illegal mingling has been confirmed.

So if she was married and a Saudi Arabian it would have been okay? Her birth place and marital status make her guilty?

I can’t help but wonder at Saudi Arabia’s continued attempts at shooting itself in the foot. The Saudi Arabian judiciary and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) have once again come under fire.

Al-Watan, the Saudi paper which first covered the issue, actually interviewed Sawadi back in June 2008, who has not spoken to the press since her verdict was handed down. They quote her as saying the CPVPV entered her house under false pretences to investigate her:

They used deceit and explotation of my old age and poverty by saying they were from a charity organization. One was short and one was tall. They said they were there to see if I needed any financial or in-kind donations. I had called my son Fahd to get me bread and he did. I am a poor woman without air conditioning in my house and I only have my son from breastfeeding. When they left they were arrested for helping out an old woman.

Laila Ahmed al-Ahdab, a columnist in the paper, wrote:

How can a verdict be issued based on suspicion? A group of people are misusing religion to serve their own interests.

Media reports covering Sawadi’s case are varied.

One article comments:

It is not known if the religious police really believed the men were behaving improperly with a woman old enough to be their grandmother or if the prosecutions were just a matter of principle.

Some articles blur the line between Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam with Islam, calling Sawadi’s punishment “Shari’a law,” and not a country’s interpretation of what Shari’a law would look like. Almost all the articles make sure to mention that in Saudi Arabia women can’t drive, need a male relative’s permission to travel, etc.

Others make sure to mention some or all of the most recent (negative) stories in Saudi Arabia featuring women, including the Qatif girl rape case who was sentenced for gang rape, the case of two novelists last week who were questioned for wanting to get a female writer’s autograph, the 8-year-old married to a 58-year-old man who was denied divorce until she reaches puberty etc.

Others still mention several unrelated stories about Saudi Arabia, such as Saudi Sheik Saleh Lihedan who condoned killing TV channel owners that broadcast “immoral” content, just to plug in how “crazy” the country is.

An interesting thing I’ve noticed when reading blog posts about the issue is the degree to which Sawadi’s age affects people’s impressions of the charge. A story published today in the Al-Watan newspaper reports that a Saudi woman and man were arrested yesterday for being alone together in a car (car chase and accident ensued), and many of the commentators accepted this, saying the man and woman deserved to be punished because they were being ‘sinful.’

But Sawadi’s age makes a huge difference, say some bloggers. If it was a young woman alone with two men in an apartment, the situation might be different. If the men had spent a long time in the apartment, it would be different, and so on. I haven’t come across one post that heavily critiques the punishment for khalwa, especially when nothing was going on!

The only article I read about the Sawadi case which was somewhat balanced, trying to show that it’s all not doom and gloom in Saudi Arabia was in the LA Times, by Raed Rafei, specifically stating that:

A handful of changes in the past two months suggests an increase of freedoms for women, activists say.

It linked to an interesting article in the Middle East Online talking about Saudi women activists in Saudi Arabia. Rafei goes on to mention the fact that:

King Abdullah appointed last month the first woman to a ministerial post. [...] He recently dismissed a leading fundamentalist cleric and the head of the kingdom’s religious police, Sheik Ibrahim Ghaith. The monarch also removed Sheik Saleh Lihedan as chief of the country’s highest religious tribunal. The man issued a fatwa in September saying it was permissible to kill TV executives for broadcasting “evil” and immoral programs.

The latter fact being one other articles opted to ignore when they mentioned Sheik Saleh Lihedan.

It’s still not enough, as Sabria Jawhar, the once Jeddah bureau chief of the Saudi Gazette and leading Saudi Arabian columnist, writes:

For every [one success story] 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 Prevention of Vice and a new chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Council, it’s the judges in court that seem to have lost sight of their religious and social obligations and revert to tribal customs.*

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. [Some]  judges [parse] every word of a Hadith to reach a verdict [they] had already decided on or [are those] who will succumb to tribal pressures.

But they’re still steps on the road to reform. Let’s hope King Abdullah steps in and overrules Sawadi’s sentence, and that of the men who were only running her an errand.

* emphasis mine.

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