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A Tragic Fire Unveils Saudi Arabia's Misogyny

March 25, 2002|FRIDA GHITIS | Frida Ghitis is a journalist and author. Her latest book is "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television" (Algora, 2001).

The treatment of women in the Muslim world is part of a dangerous pattern of abuse of power by religious authorities whose interpretation of Islam has been embraced widely, and not just by people like Osama bin Laden. Take, for example, the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. This is not just a curious cultural difference that women are enduring; this is an abuse of human rights.

During my days in Saudi Arabia covering the Gulf War, I had my own minor encounter with the feared Saudi religious police. Infuriating as it was, my experience was trivial compared with that of most women whose lives come into contact with the enforcers from the kingdom's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

The rule of terror by the religious police reached new depths of horror during this month's deadly fire in the city of Mecca. The fire erupted in a girls' school in Islam's holiest city. There were 800 students inside when the flames engulfed the building. The gates were locked, as is usually the case in girls' schools, partly to ensure that the sexes remain segregated. Witnesses said the ever-present religious police quickly reached the scene and wasted no time carrying out their duties.

According to local news reports, when the girls tried to flee the fire without first making sure they were fully covered with their scarves and abayas--the black robes women are required to wear in accordance with Saudi Arabia's interpretation of Islam--religious police beat many of the girls back toward the burning building. They also reportedly kept male would-be rescuers from rushing in to pull students out of the fire because their interpretation of Islam says men may not approach women.

In the end, 14 girls were killed and scores more were injured in the fire. Nobody knows how many of them would have escaped but for the deeds of the religious police.

In 1991, when I was in the kingdom, I was visiting a sheep market with a television crew to record images in advance of Ramadan ceremonies. Suddenly I felt pain in the back of my leg. I turned to see a bearded man hitting me with a stick. My transgression consisted of straying from the men on my crew. As much as authorities had eased the rules for the visiting press covering the war against Iraq, I had, literally, gone too far--about 10 feet from the men. No woman was allowed to walk alone in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Women who live there are not allowed to drive, work, vote or perform any of the functions that normal human beings can carry out in today's world. Women are subjected to constant harassment, beatings and arrests by the religious police. They are second-class citizens in their own country.

That, of course, is not something we hear about from Washington, even as the Bush administration self-righteously proclaims its heroic liberation of Afghanistan's women.

The United States' silence regarding women in Muslim countries is a crass display of hypocrisy, the kind of hypocrisy that undermines U.S. credibility and brings into question its motives as it engages in battles around the world. Some honesty is in order.

The actions of the religious police in the Mecca school fire outraged even the people of Saudi Arabia, who are used to the abuses of religious authorities. This provides an opportunity for Washington to show it stands for the rights of people, not only for convenient geopolitical alliances and assured access to oil.

No one is suggesting that the U.S. break relations with Saudi Arabia or go to war to save the women of Saudi Arabia. But the U.S. must speak out and pressure Saudi Arabia to ease the grip of the clerics on women.

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