By Martin Surridge – Of the dozen or so countries that Article18 has profiled so far, Saudi Arabia might be the most repressive when it comes to religious freedoms. The famously oil-rich Middle Eastern nation is one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies, and the west consistently turns a blind eye towards its human rights abuses because of its international financial clout. Despite these problems, the United States counts Saudi Arabia as one of its closest allies in the region and the Saudis are technically a partner in the War on Terror, despite the fact that many of the world’s most violent terrorist groups have their origins there. But our focus this week is not global terrorism, but the actions of one brave woman, who refused to allow Saudi Arabia’s religiously-inspired sexism shape her life.
This is Article18-RLTV’s weekly blog specifically dedicated to religious liberty issues in other countries around the world. Each week, we focus on a different nation, and the struggles facing one of its religious communities. This week: Saudi Arabia, where one woman’s vehicular rebellion is causing a stir in a nation that prohibits females from driving for social and religious reasons.
In November, the U.S. State Department released a report declaring that Saudi Arabia has “no religious freedom in theory or practice” and that religious liberty is “neither recognized nor protected under the law” Such a statement was hardly revelatory, as Saudi Arabia, an officially Muslim nation, was already one of the State Department’s eight “countries of particular concern.” The short list of CPCs includes the worst of the worst–North Korea, Iran, China, Sudan, Eritrea, Burma, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia. According to the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, almost all citizens are Muslim and conversion from Islam carries the rarely-enforced death penalty. Public practice of non-Muslim religions is strictly prohibited and the Ministry of the Interior routinely raids private gatherings of other religious groups. The nation’s constitution is the Quran and the judicial system is “based on laws derived from the Qur’an and the Sunna (traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).”
With such a suffocating framework, it is hardly surprising that there is zero religious liberty in Saudi Arabia. The country’s responsibility of looking after the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina further enhances its prominence as a strictly Muslim state. Because of the limited number of Christians and Hindus in the country, the largest religious minority are Shi’a Muslims. While they may still be a mainstream branch of Islam, the Shi’a population of Saudi Arabia faces considerable discrimination and many “believe that openly identifying themselves as Shi’a would negatively affect career advancement.”
The case that has caught the attention of the international media recently has been a Saudi Arabian woman who defied society by illegally driving a car with her brother and his family as passengers. An article from the Heritage Foundation explains that “it was the religious police-officially called the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice-who were called to the scene after authorities stopped her while driving her brother and his family through the city. Though women aren’t legally prohibited from driving, religious fatwas have been issued against the act.” You can see video footage from her previous driving experiences, which have since gone viral on YouTube. The driver’s actions were part of a deliberate woman’s movement in Saudi Arabia called “Women2Drive,” where women are encouraged to drive on June 17 to put pressure on the Saudi government.
The issue ultimately boils down to the way women are treated in the Islamic kingdom because of conservative interpretations of the Quran. According to an article on Foreign Policy’s website, the extremists who prefer to keep women in the passenger seat are “drawing on an extremist Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, according to which God forbids any mixed-gender mingling outside the family. Giving women the freedom to move around on their own would be to tempt God’s wrath.”
Saudi cleric Shaykh Abd-al-Rahman al-Barrak spoke out forcefully against any women who intend to violate the driving ban saying that, “What they are intending to do is forbidden and they thus become the keys to evil in this country. They will die, God willing.”
I’d like to tell Cleric al-Barrak that when I was growing up in the evil western nations of Great Britain and the U.S., I remember feeling far more comfortable with my mum rather than my dad behind the wheel. I think my dad was just a little too enthusiastic and easily distracted while driving, whereas my mum was more focused and road-smart. My dad was also the more religious one in our family considering he was the pastor of a local church. I wonder what God would say about that?
* * * * * * * * * * *
Don’t forget to check out other recent Article18 entries.