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Monday, October 24, 2016

A friend of mine, an environmental consultant working at a research compound in Saudi Arabia, had a memorable moment when she tried to visit an archaeological museum in Riyadh. She found a time when the museum was “open to individuals” and requested a driver, but was told she could not go. “You don’t understand,” the man at the help desk said with a chuckle. “Individuals means men.”

And so it goes in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated as children and worse under a system that makes apartheid in South Africa seem like a beacon of liberty.

The Saudis, key suppliers of oil and allies in the fight against terrorism, are hardly on the receiving end of sanctions or boycotts despite their egregious brand of gender apartheid. Rather, as they mourned the death of King Abdullah, they welcomed a U.S. delegation that included President and Michelle Obama, three current or former secretaries of state, two former national security advisors, the director of the CIA, Sen. John McCain and other members of Congress.

The massive VIP presence is an important signal at a time of transition, but it’s also a galling, glaring acknowledgment of impotence. Saudi women live under soul-killing and sometimes physically threatening laws and traditions, and there’s very little we can do about it. When she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton once said publicly that she was moved by brave protesters defying the Saudi ban on women drivers. Once. More typical was Obama urging the newly ascended King Salman in a private meeting this week to let civil society “take hold.”

Abdullah is viewed as a reformer. He gave women seats on the unelected Shura Council that advises the king and the government, and said in 2011 that they could vote and run — both firsts — in 2015 local elections. He also established a university where men and women attend class together. But the deeply disturbing fundamentals, as catalogued in the State Department’s human rights report on Saudi Arabia, remain untouched.

The core of the oppression is the requirement that all adult women have a close male relative as a guardian. The polite fiction is that this is to protect women — the first meaning that comes up in a Google search for “guardian definition.” But the second definition is much closer to the truth: “a person who looks after and is legally responsible for someone who is unable to manage their own affairs, especially an incompetent or disabled person or a child whose parents have died.”

A Saudi woman needs her guardian’s permission to study, travel, marry, work and receive some medical treatments. Women cannot get driver’s licenses or share public space or offices with men. Outside their homes, they must wear long black abayas, cover their hair and, in some areas, cover their faces, hands and feet as well. Foreigners are supposedly exempt from the head-scarf rule, but that didn’t stop intimidating religious police from ordering my friend to cover her hair, or hundreds of Twitter users from criticizing Michelle Obama for going bareheaded during her condolence visit.

The State Department list goes on and on. Girls can’t play sports at school. Women are well educated but few have jobs. In court, “the testimony of one man equals that of two women.” Reporting a rape is a huge risk. Following sharia law, “courts punished victims as well as perpetrators for illegal ‘mixing of genders,’ even when there was no conviction for rape.” There have been “reports of police or judges returning women directly to their abusers, most of whom were the women’s legal guardians.”

“Behind the Veil,” a 2013 report from the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, describes a woman admitted to the hospital in 2006 after her guardian — her husband — shot her. Police said they could not intervene unless her guardian filed an official complaint, which of course he did not. She was readmitted two more times with gunshot wounds. The third time, she died.

Obviously, Saudi Arabia is no paradise for anyone. It mistreats guest workers and minorities, and imprisons dissidents. It is similar to the Islamic State in its array of barbaric punishments, including stoning, lashing and amputation. The case of blogger Raif Badawi, convicted of insulting Islam and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, has triggered international outrage.

Badawi’s case prompted the Washington Post editorial board to propose an “international commission of inquiry” to take testimony on the repression of dissidents and the absence of rights for women. Good idea. Investigators should look into reports by Channel 4 News in Britain that four of Abdullah’s daughters have been held against their will in a Jeddah compound for 13 years. “Our father said that we had no way out,” Princess Sahar said in a chilling email to reporter Fatima Manji, “and that after his death our brothers will continue detaining us.”

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Photo: President Barack Obama is greeted by Saudi Arabia King Abdullah upon his arrival at King Khalid Airport on June 3, 2009 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s King Abudllah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has died at age 90, state television announced on Jan. 22, 2015. He had been in the hospital for several weeks suffering from a lung infection. Abdullah, a U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda, came to power in 2005 after his half-brother died. (Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

  • Dominick Vila

    We are day dreaming, and very arrogant, if we expect to change the values, way of life, and traditions of other people who find ours representations of immorality or corruption. When are we going to learn to respect other nations, stop preaching to them, and stop trying to impose our way of life and culture on others?
    Like most Westerners, I don’t understand or don’t approve of many of the things that people in other cultures do, and that includes Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and most Christian denominations; but I respect their right to live their lives the way they believe is best for them.

    • janis mcdonald

      I agree 100%. Imagine if other countries had decided to pressure the U.S. when OUR women couldn’t vote or get equal pay or get mortgages or credit cards, etc. We would have thought they were nuts, justifiably so!

      • hicusdicus

        Pressure from a lot of different directions gave women the right to vote.

        • janis mcdonald

          That battle was fought — and won — by American women. The battle was long and hard — against their government, their dads, their brothers, their own mothers, the Supreme Court at one point. They wanted it for themselves — and the won it for themselves.

          • hicusdicus

            Are you agreeing or disagreeing? Is that not what I said?

          • janis mcdonald

            I agree if you mean “pressure from a lot of different directions” was basically internal; i.e., had the Swedes come here in 1900 insisting that our women be given voting rights — we would have thought the were nuts.

      • Other countries DO pressure America through our Emperors favorite organization, the UN.

        • janis mcdonald

          Women received the vote in 1920 — U.N. was established in 1945. I’m not saying no outsiders were involved, but American Women fought the voting battle and won (jail, forced feedings, defying their families, etc).

    • Paul Bass

      Sorry Dom,
      I agree with you 99% of the time, but here I have to disagree. Just like slavery is no longer considered acceptable behavior, gender bias should also be assigned to the dustbin of history.
      We are not trying to impose our way of life, we are trying to give BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS to ALL peoples, even those unfortunate enough to be born in the “wrong” country.
      Respecting others cultures does NOT mean we have to accept their bigotry.
      I believe all religions can do whatever they want UNTIL they start to infringe on the right of others, especially those “others” who might not be in the mainstream.

      • Dominick Vila

        I support societies where all citizens enjoy the same rights and opportunities. The question is, is it right for us to impose our beliefs and values on others? Most importantly, are we willing to accept foreign interference in our internal affairs by those who disagree with our social, economic, and political systems?
        Of course the treatment of women in Islamic countries is abhorrent. Of course political persecution such as that in Tibet and so many other parts of the world is abhorrent. Of course all forms of slavery and exploitation are abhorrent. Again, do we have a right to go around the world preaching to others and imposing our cultural values on others? I understand why President Obama preached in India and Saudi Arabia, but is he prepared to hear foreign leaders preaching to us in Washington?

        • FT66

          It is not about preaching to others how to live like us. It is about enlighten to those who turn a blind eye, while they know what they are doing to women is not right. The right to live in an acceptable manner, is uniform to everyone regardless of one’s culture.

          • hicusdicus

            You are correct but it not my obligation to secure them their rights. The only rights people have are the one they take for themselves . The rights the constitution gives us will remain in place only as long as we make them stay in place.

        • Paul Bass

          Because Americans “air their dirty laundry”, unlike most other nations, we get to hear foreign leaders (and everyday citizens, Jon Stewart, etc.) preaching to us everyday.
          One party or the other has ALWAYS preached to us, which is little different from what foreign leaders have preached to us.
          Whatever party is out of power can be depended upon to “preach” to us our supposed faults, foreign leaders will just take up this call.

        • Vincent Harriman

          Thomas Jefferson said that there were two parties in the US, those that supported the common man, the republicans, and those that supported a monarchy. 225 years after our founding there are still a number of people here in both political parties that would support a monarchy, both at home and abroad. The Saudi royal family does not support the Arab spring. Probably does not want to encourage its own people. However, it is up to them to determine their own government, not ours.

    • hicusdicus

      I don’t respect anything they do. The Muslims have no respect for human freedom or rights and they need to be stopped from imposing them on us. They sure don’t respect anything you believe or you for that matter.

      • Dominick Vila

        I don’t expect Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christian evangelicals, or atheists for that matter, to respect my views or myself, I simply believe that it is incumbent on civilized people to respect the opinions and values of others. That does not mean we should embrace, condone, or approve of things that are against our core beliefs, it simply means, that the arrogance of preaching to others and trying to impose our cultural values on others is inappropriate, and often counter productive.

        • hicusdicus

          Enforcing the sanctity of human life on everyone is our duty as humans. Freeing humans from the yoke of tyranny is also another human obligation which we are failing miserably

      • TZToronto

        Get something straight, please. We’re talking about Saudis here, not Muslims in general. Yes, other countries have similar restrictions on women (yes, Islamic countries), but not all Muslims consider this type of treatment of women to be OK.

        • hicusdicus

          If you don’t follow the Koran you are not a Muslim. The Koran dictates how women will be treated.

  • juli1

    Wow !!!!! So basic human rights (make no mistake, that *is* what we are talking about here) is “trying to impose our way of life and culture on others”? Both of you are horrible people, especialy as you would deny others the same basic rights and freedoms that *you* enjoy and then have the nerve to white wash your hate, ignorance and indifference as “respect”. You state that you ‘respect their right to live their lives the way they believe is best for them” but then write the *half that very population* should have no rights whatsoever ! Shame on you !!!! I hope that in your next lives, the both of you come back as two of these very women you hate so much!

    • mike

      Dom, and I have had many heated posts, but never once has he ever expressed being a misogynist. He is a compassionate person and would never denigrate women.
      Th Middle East has a religion that belongs in the Dark Ages.
      What you should be concerned about is what is happening in this country and Sharia law. There are enclaves, no doubt small, in this country having or trying to establish Sharia law. These enclave in Texas, Michigan, Minn. are pushing Sharia. Texas now has a “voluntary Sharia tribunal” to resolve civil suits.
      Islam is diametrically opposed to the Constitution, If given the chance will destroy all western values.

      • madmatthew56

        I live in Dearborn, Michigan. and the notion of Sharia law being imposed in this city that is currently about one-third Muslim — It’s a lie. Complete BS. Untrue. Fox News propaganda. It also would come as real news to our Irish Catholic mayor, Jack O’Reilly. Please stop spreading this “sharia in the US” BS, which is just one more lie being pushed by Fox News.

  • Gary Miles

    I spent seven not so great months in that shithole of a country. For the most part, the men were polite (how else would one act when confronted with a heavily armed man). Women were rarely seen, and when seen were completely covered. I even met the Crown Prince one day, no, I didn’t bow! I don’t care how they live or what their customs are, it’s their country, none of my business. Maybe if the idiot politicians going back to the 50’s would have minded their own business (Democrats and Republicans alike), we would be locked in perpetual war. But they, like the Author, think the US has some higher calling and can push our way of life on to others. Typical propaganda to get the emotions fired up to support illegal government actions and interference. And many of you wonder why I claim that so many are brainwashed.

  • FT66

    Some here are confusing traditions, culture and women treatment. Wherever all women are in each corner of the world, must be treated like human beings. The culture of giving orders or dictating to women and make them look like slaves or have no value , is not acceptable at all. Culture was established thus the fight for Human Rights including women rights to live without being oppressed by men. This fight MUST continue.

    • dpaano

      Tell that to the Republicans!

  • annienoel

    having had a run in with King Abdullah’s daughters (I was a nurse in Riyadh and one of his daughters was my patient) he had to do something for women even if it was just cosmetic. Putting up with the women in his family must have been a daily trial.

  • Eleanore Whitaker

    In case some of you missed it, “culture” is one of the most, if not nearly impossible things, to change.

    Can you change the drawling and swaggering in the south? Or the Great Depression We Must Live in Hardship of the midwestern culture? Or the northeastern ultra progressive culture ready to upturn the world?

    Culture is that deeply embedded factor that is part of the lives of every infant that comes into certain parts of the world they live in.

    President Obama is one of the most misunderstood presidents for one reason: Most of those who misjudge him are guilty of mass superficiality. They see only what is external, not internal.

    It is and always has been the culture of Big Oil to schmooze the Saudis. The Bush family accumulated a legendary association with the Saudis due to their oil interests.

    Yet, President Obama knows that there’s more to the Saudi’s than meets the eye. He is perfectly capable of schmoozing them…but, without the demands of US Big Oil.

    Which is better? A president who can schmooze based on his state’s oil interests? Or a president who can get the Saudis to reinvent the regime of terrorists in Yemen and other countries?

    • dpaano

      And this is why, when Bush wanted to go to war with Iran/Iraq to bring them to Democracy, I said this was BS…you can’t change a culture that has been around thousands of years! But, who would listen?

      • Eleanore Whitaker

        I so agree. The problem is that this is a particularly unwieldy culture bent on destruction. When you read the history of Ghengis Khan, you see the same vengeance, violence and lack of human civility. Most of the greatest conquerers of World History used the same tactics as the Middle Eastern culture does: subjugate women to uselessness and the pleasure of men and conquer anyone who dares to disagree or attempts progress or advancement. Oh gee…I’ve now just described our own American Conquerors of the Right..rofl.

  • charleo1

    If only they would be more like us, instead of such backward Bedouins. If only we didn’t need them so. Then we could sanction them more. Threaten them more. Call out to the World to shun them. If the World didn’t need them just as badly as we. There would be a lot we might say, and some of it might make a difference. We did after all, take Europe from the Nazis, and give it back to civilization, back in the day. Now, all the genuflecting, kissing, and hand holding our Presidents must do in front of the King of all that oil, is humbling. And the fact we know the King loathes every democratic civil, and secular Civil Right we hold scared in this Country, doesn’t make our situation any easier to stomach. Or to know that thousands of our bright young men, and women, have died, and will probably die again in the defense of his oil, his wealth, and by extension his Kingdom. But, on the other hand. Let’s continue to fight, both tooth, and claw against every renewable energy bill, every cafe standard, and every carbon cutting measure, that somehow makes it through the corporate gauntlet into the hallowed halls of Congress. And while we’re at all that. Let’s make the Government the Guardian of women’s bodies in this Country. And so protect her from the transgressions wrought by the use of contraceptives. And respect her frailty, and possible poor judgment in such matters. And thereby prevent the sin she might decide to commit by having an abortion. The King would be pleased.

  • A.Rizvi

    Not letting women drive has nothing to do with Islamic rules. She can not take her dying husband to hospital because of restrictions on driving in Saudi Arabia. In Islam pig meat is prohibited but if you are in a desert and you have nothing to eat but pig’s meat, you are allowed to eat pig’s meat. Restriction on driving is holding back Saudi families,driving children to school etc. It is time SA. should wake up.

  • Allan Richardson

    Several years ago there was a documentary about Muslims from around the world making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. One of the people profiled was a single mother, divorced years before converting to Islam, in the United States (a “white” woman if anyone wants to know). The Saudi government, in accordance with THEIR view of Muslim tradition, required this 50 year old woman to get permission from HER TEENAGE SON in order to get a visa to attend the Hajj.