I have been appalled at stories of the crushing system of gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia ever since childhood, when I first heard harrowing tales of life in that country from various friends who had lived there. I was possibly even more appalled to be told, "It's just their culture, dear."
The Saudi system includes the absolute and total relegation of Saudi girls and women to second class citizenship, including:
-- not being allowed to drive
-- not being allowed to travel without a husband or male escort
-- not being allowed to leave the country without one's husband's or father's permission
-- having to get one's husband's or father's permission to do other basic things, like change cell phone numbers
-- being required to be covered from head to toe
-- being subject to physical attack on the streets by the religious police if one is not deemed to be properly covered
-- not being permitted to vote or run for office (although supposedly the restrictions on voting may be lifted in a few years).
-- having the right to inherit from one's parents only half the amount one's brother may inherit
-- having to have corroboration from three eyewitnesses in order to prosecute a sexual assault (in essence, meaning one cannot prosecute a sexual assault)
-- having one's testimony in court be worth only half that of a man's
-- having one's marriage arranged by one's male relatives
-- automatically losing custody of one's children (those over the age of six) in the event of divorce
-- suffering gender segregation in all areas of public life-- separate and definitely unequal
And this is just a bare outline of the laws. Imagine the day-in and day-out degradation of having to live under these rules every day. Imagine being subject to total control by one's own family members and not being able to do anything about it. The Makkah school fire of 2002 is one particularly atrocious example of how women's second class citizenship actually plays out: the religious police essentially killed 15 young girls by preventing them from fleeing the grounds of a burning school because they were not clad in proper Islamic dress.
So here's my question. I grew up in the '80s and early '90s when race apartheid in South Africa was a constant concern here in the U.S. and Europe. Throughout my high school and college years, South Africa was constantly in the news. There were plays and books everywhere devoted to exposing the injustices in South Africa. There were rock concerts held to draw attention to the plight of black men and women under apartheid. Students at my high school and college were always demonstrating to protest my schools' investment in companies that did business with South Africa. South Africa was considered a rogue nation and its athletes were not permitted to compete in the Olympics.
So why is it that since the '70s I have only heard bits and pieces in our media about the mistreatment of women in Saudi Arabia? Why is there not more of an international outcry over this? (I know, I know, oil and the U.S. need for a military ally in the region may have a little something to do with it.) But where are the idealistic college kids? Where are the protests over investment in Saudi? Where is the outrage over the systematic degradation of half of the human race that is occurring in a modern, industrialized ally of the United States?
It may be that there are more efforts underway than I am aware of in this regard, but if so, they certainly aren't getting much media attention, and certainly not compared to the constant outrage one used to hear over the situation in South Africa. Indeed, I had never heard Saudi Arabia compared to South Africa until I did some internet research in preparation for writing about this idea and found this editorial from five years ago. I will admit that I have never been much of an activist (time to rectify that now?) and I may not have too many effective ideas about this issue, but I would like to know why this doesn't get more attention at least from the liberal/activist community, what can be done about it, and how I can contribute.
Other helpful information can be found in this article from women's enews entitled Taking the Gender Apartheid Tour. Also see the segment on women's right from the webpage for The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.