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Tradition be damned

india Updated: Dec 18, 2007 22:33 IST

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has pardoned a woman sentenced to 200 lashes for the crime of pressing charges against seven men who raped her. It’s downright offensive for most of us to consider the woman requiring a royal ‘pardon’ for the crime committed on her. And however much customs and laws may be localised, there is a bottomline for every culture — in this case that being the trauma and victimhood of rape. Despite being a key ally of the democracy-loving US, the oil-rich country observes laws in keeping with the Middle Ages. The woman in question was raped nearly a year-and-a-half ago in Qatif, when she allegedly met a former boyfriend to retrieve a photograph of herself. Saudi Arabia’s strict and harsh Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law prohibits a woman from meeting any man who is not a relative. Strict Sharia laws often endorse even the killing of women deemed to have violated the ‘honour’ of the families.

Saudi Arabia has refused so far to change its draconian laws regarding women. What seems different this time is that the pressure has come from both within and outside the Arab world. King Abdullah has cast himself in the role of a reformer and, even though his courtiers have said that he agrees with the spirit of the censure against the woman, has chosen to be ‘lenient’. The criticism that his country’s Foreign Minister faced at the Annapolis meet on the Israel-Palestine issue may have nudged things along. In this particular case, what was reassuring was that the woman’s husband came forward in her defence. He dismissed his wife’s attempt to meet a former boyfriend as bad judgment rather than any moral lapse on her part — a rare and brave act in this part of the world.

The publicity that has surrounded this case should serve as a wake-up call to Saudi Arabia’s Taliban-like legal system. The Arab countries themselves, let alone others, have been less than complimentary about the outdated laws imposed on Saudi society. The first stirrings of discontent were discerned with this case. It would be in the best of Saudi interests to reform since the country is already facing censure from the international community and, most important, the Arab world. King Abdullah needs to build on what he has already done in the case of the rape victim. This, more than anything else, would be a lasting legacy of the House of Saud.