Saudi Arabia is considered one of the most conservative countries in the world, especially in regard to the status of women. Saudi Arabia is an extreme Islamic country where its legal code is based on Shari’a Law. They therefore believe that there is no separation between church and state and the state’s laws are heavily based on Islamic teachings. Because of this strict Islamic culture, women in Saudi Arabia are treated and acknowledged very differently than the women who live in the west. For example, in Saudi Arabia, there are laws that require women to wear a hijab, a head scarf, as well as dress in loose, long garments that do not show the shape of the woman’s body. To do so would be shameful and secular. There are other laws such as this one that are meant to protect the virtue of women in Saudi Arabia.
Knowing this about Saudi Arabia, I had assumed that women there would be relatively safe since there are such strict laws regarding the protection of a woman’s virtue. I assumed incorrectly when I was studying a WomanStats map that displayed the rape scale of each country in the world. On a scale from one to five, Saudi Arabia had a ranking of a four. I was confused by this since, as briefly described above, Saudi Arabia is considered one of the most conservative countries in the world where women are highly secluded. I would have thought these practices and laws would have decreased the rape rate substantially.
The question I pose then is this, why does Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative countries in the world have one of the highest rape scales in the world?
While there are many interconnecting reasons why rape occurs so often in Saudi Arabia, I have chosen four possible causes to narrow down the research for this project. The four causes I have chosen are one, a secular society, two, insufficient laws, three, taboos against reporting rape and four, an ineffective judicial system.
The first cause, a secular society, was quickly dismissed because as was mentioned in the introduction, Saudi Arabia is considered one of the most conservative countries in the world. The society of Saudi Arabia is especially conservative when it comes to women. For example, it is illegal for women to drive or intermingle in public with males that are not related to them. It is also illegal for a woman to go out in public without a male-escort who is related to her as well as go out in public without wearing her hijab (WomanStats). Violence or legal prosecution usually ensues if any of these are broken. To further illustrate this point, the following maps show how strict Saudi Arabia is in regard to dress code and intermingling in public laws compared to the rest of the Middle East, a very conservative region itself.
It is clear from these maps that Saudi Arabia has one of the strictest dress codes and intermingling laws in the Middle East which is the most conservative region in the world. Based on these findings, one would sense that these women are highly secluded from society and thereby would be more protected from instances of rape and other forms of violence. On the other hand, one may argue that because women are treated so differently, they could be seen as inferior and thus suffer more abuse because of the lack of secularism.
Insufficient Laws Against Rape
The next probable cause studied was the possibility of insufficient laws against rape in Saudi Arabia. Since there were reported convictions of rapists, it can be assumed that there are laws against rape. Also, Saudi Arabia’s legal code is based on the Shari’a law, which criminalizes rape as punishable by death. However, spousal rape is not included in this criminalization according to Shari’a law. Although these laws exist against rapists, the actual conviction process is complicated and nearly impossible. In order for a perpetrator to be convicted he or she must confess or there must be four witnesses of the act (FreedomHouse). Usually in these certain circumstances, there are only two witnesses present, the perpetrator and the victim. Since it would be hard for a victim to find four witnesses, it is very unlikely that a perpetrator would admit to such a heinous act that he or she could very well get away with. Another example of the insufficient laws against rape is that foreign female domestic workers, which consists of 1.5 million of foreign nationals, receive no protection from the labor laws and are more prone to be victims of abuse. Based on this research, it can be concluded that while there are laws against rape, the actual conviction of rapists is very rare. This could be a plausible cause of the high rape scale since the punishment of such an act hardly occurs.
Taboos Against Reporting Rape
The third possible cause of a high rape scale in Saudi Arabia is the taboos against reporting rape. There are many social stigmas that scare women away from reporting a rape to the police. One social stigma is that in many instances, the law enforcer will accuse the woman of having illicit sex instead of accusing the man of the crime (FreedomHouse). As a consequence of this accusation, societal reprisals take place such as a woman being seen as unfit for marriage or even violently punished for bringing shame to the family. In some extreme cases, honor killings have been committed against women who have been raped (Zoepf). One may wonder why these crimes take place if the laws in Saudi Arabia are supposedly meant to protect women. There is another cultural stigma that plays a role here. In Islamic society, a family’s honor, particularly the male family member’s honor is based on the purity and virtue of the women in their family. If a woman in the family becomes “violated” either by choice or by force, the family’s honor is seemingly stripped from them. It is not so much about the concern over the woman but over the honor of the men. Because of this engrained belief, already victimized women are sometimes further victimized by their own family members. This causes great fear among the women in these types of societies and if one is raped, it is very unlikely that she will report it based on the potential ensuing consequences.
Ineffective Judicial System
The last possible cause studied was an ineffective judicial system. As was mentioned before, Saudi Arabia’s legal code is based on the Shari’s law, an extreme version of the Islamic code. Because of this, women are not given the same rights as men, especially when it comes to the courts. For example, in most cases, women are unable to speak for themselves in court. They must be represented by a male-relative or lawyer. It is considered shameful for a woman to speak to the sheik or judge and is only sometime allowed to do so if her face is covered (WomanStats). Because of this, if a woman is raped, and a man’s honor is based on her virtue, what male relative would want to shed further light on the subject by representing her? Also a man’s testimony is worth two women’s testimonies. So if a woman had four witnesses to testify against the perpetrator, if some of them were women, the number of females would have to be doubled for the accusation to be considered.
Another clause of the judicial system is that most clerics were taught in Wahhabi schools where extreme Islam is taught extensively. Because of this, most clerics demand the seclusion of women and often hold an unforgiving attitude toward accusations of violence against men (WomanStats). A Saudi Arabian attorney even said, “Unfortunately, judges consider women to be lacking in reason and faith, so generally do not agree with her arguments” (HumanRights).
The following stories illustrate the point explained above. The first is about a young girl who was being molested by her father. She went to the courts to file a complaint. The law enforcers did not believe her and told her, her father needed to come in to file the complaint (Economist). The obvious ignorance need not be explained in this situation. The next story tells of a nineteen year-old woman who met a man not related to her in a car. They were both kidnapped by a gang and she was then gang-raped fourteen times. Seven men of the gang were convicted and were sentenced to prison ranging from one to five years. This was a light conviction given they could have received the death penalty according to the law. The woman was also convicted to six months of prison as well as ninety lashes for being associating with a male who was not related to her in public (Harrison). The woman was later pardoned by the King of Saudi Arabia, not because he disagreed with the punishment but because he was being merciful and thought it was best for the whole of the country, not to mention international relations with countries that were in an absolute uproar over the ordeal (Zoepf).
Based on my research I propose that the main perpetrator of the high rape-scale in Saudi Arabia is the lack of conviction of rapists due to the taboos against reporting rape and the ineffective judicial system. If perpetrators are not being punished then there is little incentive to not rape woman if that is the desire. To illustrate how low the conviction rate actually is, in 2002, there were 59 reported rapes out of a population of 26,534,504 (WomanStats) The perpetrators are getting away with a heinous crime and the Saudi Arabian government must pass more effective legislation that enables law enforcers to convict those criminals. The social stigmas will be very difficult to overcome regarding seeing a woman unfit for marriage or taking away the family’s honor because of being raped. However, if women continue to speak up about the issues they face, solutions will come, just as they have in other parts of the world. Also international pressure must always be present to give those women courage to stand up.
Double indemnity a bizarre application of the law. (2007, Novem 22). The Economist, Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/10191773
Eleanor Abdella Doumato, Rowman & Littlefield. (2012, April 4). Freedom House, Saudi Arabia Freedom House Report. Retrieved from http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/inline_images/Saudi%20Arabia.p df
Harrison, F. (2007, Novemeber 15). Saudi Gang-Rape Victim is Jailed. BBC. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7096814.stm
Womanstats project. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://womanstats.org/CodebookCurrent.htm
United States Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights- Saudi Arabia, 2007
Zoepf, K. (2007, Decem 18). Saudi king pardons rape victim sentenced to be lashed, saudi paper reports.The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/18/world/middleeast/18saudi.html