40 Lashes for 75-Year-Old Woman
Posted by shadmia on March 10, 2009
It is hard to believe that in the 21st century there are laws that would punish a 75-year-old woman for associating with two young men who were not her close relatives. It is hard to believe but it is true. This is the fate that befell Khamisa Mohammed Sawadi. Her punishment – 40 lashes, 4 months in prison and possible deportation.
While I believe that imposing one’s culture, religion and value systems on someone else that does not share them, is wrong; there are certain basic human rights that should be universally acknowledged, respected and protected. The following is a story of how differently (and in my opinion – wrongly) the judicial system works in Saudi Arabia where the ultra-conservative religious police and judiciary work hand in hand to dispense their own brand of justice.
Khamisa Mohammed Sawadi’s story
Khamisa Mohammed Sawadi lives in al-Chamil, a city north of the capital, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She is a 75-year-old widow who was born in Syria and married a Saudi man. She met with two 24-year-old men and asked them to bring 5 loaves of bread to her house. One of the men, Fahd al-Anzi, is the nephew of Sawadi’s late husband, and the other his friend and business partner Hadiyan bin Zein.
Both men were arrested by the religious police after leaving Sawadi house. Sawadi was accused of mingling with two young men who were not related to her. Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam – called Wahhabism – prohibits men and women who are not immediate relatives from mingling.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, feared by many Saudis, is made up of several thousand religious policemen charged with duties such as enforcing dress codes, prayer times and segregation of the sexes. Under Saudi law, women face many restrictions, including a strict dress code and a ban on driving. Women also need to have a man’s permission to travel.
At her trial Sawadi tried to explain that she considered one of the men, Fahd al-Anzi, as her son because she breast-fed him when he was a baby. But the court denied her claim, saying she didn’t provide evidence. In Islamic tradition, breast-feeding establishes a degree of maternal relation, even if a woman nurses a child who is not biologically hers.
The court, basing its ruling on “citizen information” and testimony from al-Anzi’s father, who accused Sawadi of corruption, said:
“Because she said she doesn’t have a husband and because she is not a Saudi, conviction of the defendants of illegal mingling has been confirmed,” the court verdict read.
The court also doled out punishment to the two men. Fahd was sentenced to four months in prison and 40 lashes; Hadian was sentenced to six months in prison and 60 lashes.
Abdul Rahman al-Lahem, a top Saudi human rights lawyer, said that he would appeal the verdict against Khamisa Sawadi and the two men. He said the verdict also demands that Sawadi be deported after serving her sentence.
Complaints from Saudis have been growing that the religious police and courts are overstepping their broad mandate and interfering in people’s lives, and critics lambasted the handling of Sawadi’s case.
“It’s made everybody angry because this is like a grandmother,” Saudi women’s rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider told CNN. “Forty lashes — how can she handle that pain? You cannot justify it.”
“How can a verdict be issued based on suspicion?” Laila Ahmed al-Ahdab, a physician who also is a columnist for the Saudi newspaper, Al-Watan, wrote. “A group of people are misusing religion to serve their own interests.“
Sawadi commonly asked her neighbors for help after her husband died, said journalist Bandar al-Ammar, who reported the story for Al-Watan. In a recent article, he wrote that he felt the need to report the case “so everybody knows to what degree we have reached.”
“This is the problem with the religious police,” added Al-Huwaider, “watching people and thinking they’re bad all the time. It has nothing to do with religion. It’s all about control. And the more you spread fear among people, the more you control them. It’s giving a bad reputation to the country.”