When the whip comes down

Our country should speak more forcefully against this affront to women.

It’s often said that the world is a cruel place, but nowhere, seemingly, is that more true than in Saudi Arabia. Last month a Saudi court decided to increase the sentence of a woman who was gang raped by six men. You see, at the time, the 19-year-old woman was in a car with a man unrelated to her, a crime in sexually segregated Saudi Arabia. Instead of 90 lashes, the Girl of Qatif, as she’s known in the Saudi media, will receive 200 lashes and six months in prison for daring to appeal her sentence and for airing the kingdom’s shameful excuse for a justice system to the media.

Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human-rights records in the world, but rather than receive even a stern warning from our country, we only hear a deafening silence. According to a State Department spokesman, “This is a part of a judicial procedure overseas in the court of a sovereign country.” That’s bureaucratese for “We don’t want to anger the Saudis by criticizing them because they have their hand on the world’s most important oil spigot.” President George W. Bush said Tuesday that if something like this happened to his daughters, he’d be “angry at a state that didn’t support the victim.” Angry, perhaps, but not angry enough to broach the subject with King Abdullah, who was at the Annapolis peace summit last week and has the power to reform his country’s primitive attitude toward women’s rights.

The Saudi legal system is based on a strict form of Shariah, or Islamic law, which bans women from voting and driving completely, or traveling without the explicit permission of their husbands. Whether their interpretation of Shariah is accurate or not is a question for theologians, but what isn’t in question is how religion is used to subjugate women in Saudi Arabia as it does elsewhere, to varying degrees, throughout the Middle East. In religion’s tawdry history as an instrument of oppression against women, Islam is far from alone, but as the rest of the world marches toward more justice, Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah seem intent on keeping things as they are. It is a strange and cowardly thing when our country cannot make a firmer stand against punishing rape victims because of who it risks offending.