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The Real Issue Raised by the Qatif Verdict

Published on: December 2007​
Genre: Gender​ Category: Op eds​

 "Have you heard about the case of the Saudi Arabian girl who was gang-raped, yet sentenced to two hundred lashes?"

I was faced with this question over a dozen times during the span of the last few weeks by friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who heard about the “Qatif girl” story. I have also received numerous articles and forwarded e-mails about the case and a number of interview requests from the media about the topic. Everybody seems to want an opinion. Because I’m Saudi. And because I’m a woman.

How can I even start to take a position about an incident that is so heinous that it remains abstract no matter how much I read about it?

Along with the barrage of inquisitive e-mails and requests, I also found myself surrounded by many Saudi colleagues and friends who would come into my office cringing to seek refuge from the embarrassing and painful discourse surrounding the story and to ask for advice about how to deal with the situation. It is not easy to have to be the unofficial spokesperson for an atrocity that one can’t imagine, let alone dissect.

"What can we say? I feel horrible. How could they allow this to happen? We spent years telling people that Saudis are not monsters. That our religion is one of peace and fairness. How can we defend anything anymore?"

I must admit that I desperately needed this feeling of camaraderie. To find myself among my countrymen and women who needed to rekindle a sense of humanity in the midst of this whirlwind of incredulous questions.

The need to connect is mostly because the incident is heart wrenching and painfully grotesque. But also because those of us who have studied or lived abroad have worked very hard to tell a story — a story about who we are and where we are from. Being Saudi means we are constantly bombarded by stereotypes, hidden agendas and loaded questions. In our engagement with "the other" we strive to explain who "we" are.

We try to be as honest as possible but also to combat the assumptions that we are faced with. We problematize issues. We speak about diversity, complexity, and change. We are sometimes defensive but also proud and optimistic. We speak about the potential for recent reforms to touch the lives of those who have been marginalized and about the serious efforts to combat internal terrorism, foster moderation, and national dialogue.

Unfortunately for the thousands of Saudis who, in their personal capacity, have struggled to reach out and engage or for those formally involved in intercultural exchange programs or businesses diplomacy initiatives, it is clear that the Qatif verdict has single-handedly hijacked the entire story. For years to come no one can think about Saudi Arabia without thinking that it is a place where a gang-rape victim was sentenced to 200 lashes. This country will be plagued by a demonic stain of injustice and violence that no amount of dialogue will fix.

The serious risk to Saudi Arabia is not merely a PR crisis as the judge implied when punishing the victim for talking to the media about her plight. The real risk is that Saudis will not feel that they can tell an honest story about their place in the system. The real risk is that Saudi Arabia will lose an entire generation who has been struggling to claim the country as their own and who wants to believe that the future is going to be inclusive.

As we purge ourselves of the tainted 9/11 legacy and support the government-led initiatives to fight internal "terrorism," perhaps it is time to adopt a more comprehensive definition for our security. Security is not limited to protection from snipers and suicide bombers but includes protection from injustice and exclusion. Human security means that one’s access to safety is not dependent on the discretion or whim of an individual but is a right that every citizen is entitled to have. The morality of the Qatif girl is not (and should not) be the main discussion point. The real issue at hand is that of a due process within our judicial system.

This is the time to seriously consider the scope and purpose of our judicial reform. The legitimacy of our entire justice system is unquestionably a matter of public policy. There are thousands (if not more) of undocumented stories of injustice in our courts. Not all are as wretched as the fate of the Qatif girl but all are dishearteningly unjust. The King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue should take it upon itself to address this issue as a national priority and a matter of public service. There is a real need to document the experiences that women and men have had in our courts (both as defendants and lawyers) to understand how we can better improve this public service.

Never has there been a more appropriate time to present and implement an alternative transparent regulatory legal framework that does not depend on the discretion of an individual.

Let us dream of a country that truly feels safe and inclusive — a country that we can call our own.

May Al-Dabbagh is a Research Fellow at the Dubai School of Government.

Full text of this publication is available at

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