Friday, 27 May 2011

End apartheid for women in Saudi Arabia

I was watching an episode of the West Wing lately in which women's rights in the Muslim world were discussed.

CJ Craig (Allison Janey) made the point that discrimination against women in the fictional Gulf Arab state of Qumar was no different to discrimination against black people under apartheid in South Africa.

She also compared the way South Africa was viewed by the rest of the world with the blasé way in which appalling discrimination against women is tolerated.

I hadn't thought of the similarity before but I think it's a correct one.

Examples such as the arrest of Manal al-Sharif highlight the shocking treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, the most regressive country the Middle East.

The 32 year old computer security consultant was arrested for driving on Sunday 22 May. Al-Sharif is the organizer of an online campaign (#women2drive) encouraging Saudi women to drive en masse on 17 June.

According the the Saudi Arabian interpretation of Sharia 'law', women should not drive. This makes driving a de facto illegal activity for women.

Women also suffer in the state's public transport system, which is segregated along gender lines. Women are made to sit at the back of buses, like African-Americans were made to in the southern USA.

(You'll notice how the people demanding segregation never place themselves at the back of buses or anywhere else, something that in theory could happen if segregation was not intended to imply that one group was superior to the other – which of course it does in both cases).

South Africa enforced similar policies against black people under apartheid, and became an international pariah because of it. Campaigns, protests and sit-ins were organised, songs were written, films were made and sanctions were enforced over these policies.

Yet we blithely accept similar oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, no doubt because of the amount of oil their royal family controls.

Not being able to drive is just one of the many ways in which women are discriminated against in Saudi Arabia. According to Amnesty International women are denied the right to vote, and must obtain the permission of a male guardian before they can travel, take paid work or higher education, or marry.

Saudi Arabia is not the only country in which women are treated as second class citizens. Overt legal discrimination against women is found in many parts of the Muslim world, and in general the more influence Sharia law has on a country the worse off women are.

I started to read the Koran recently, to get an insight into the holy book of Islam. I have to say it's a bit of struggle, as it doesn't seem to have much of a structure or chronology.

One thing I have noticed so far however is the clear message that women are inferior to men. For example, men receive twice the inheritance of women while the word of a male witness is equal to that of two females.

If that's what God says, and you believe God should be obeyed, then it doesn't leave much room for interpretation.

Manal al-Sharif is a very brave women, she is the Rosa Parks of Saudi Arabia, and deserves the praise and support of all those who value equality.

Best of luck to her and her campaign.

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