Two days after King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote and run for local office (in 2015), a court sentenced Shaimaa Ghassaneya to be beaten. Her punishment, 10 lashes, is a response to driving, a banned activity for women. Violation of the law usually results in detention rather than flogging, but Ghassaneya’s case is symbolic and likely a warning to other women, particularly given the recent underground campaign ( Women2Drive ) in Saudi Arabia to promote getting women behind the wheel. To prosecutors, the case was probably quite simple—the law was broken, and for the judge, the punishment fit the crime. Likely, there have been far more severe punishments for women breaking the law. After all, this is a part of the world where a gang raped woman can be subjected to a merciless beating of 200 lashes and six months of incarceration. Nor are foreign-born women exempt from judicially sanctioned government-enforced floggings as a response to their sexual victimization.
Thus, if understood as the Saudi courts hope, this beating (if carried out) will be a mild punishment in a society where women self-immolate to avoid government punishment and bringing shame on their families. In Saudi Arabia, public amputation, beheading, and flogging are commonplace responses to drunkenness, homosexuality, and apostasy.
Respect for the law matters for a number of reasons, including the promotion of a well-ordered society, the protection of vulnerable populations, the defense of property, the punishment of wrong-doing, and to promote the public welfare. But there are exceptions to the wisdom of law, and the Saudi government has presented the world with a compelling one with Ghassaneya’s case.
Corporally punishing women for driving is a disturbing reminder about the “culture” excuse. The culture excuse is a justification by the state based on cultural norms or traditions. Those norms or traditions are used to justify the very acts perpetrated or tolerated by the state. Consider the case of female genital mutilation, a widespread custom in some Muslim countries, involving surgically removing or altering young girls’ genitalia. For decades these medically abusive practices were ignored by women’s groups in the West and Western governments. It’s likely that the West fell for the culture excuse.
The culture excuse is deployed to justify outmoded, inhumane, socially unconscionable conduct sponsored or tolerated by the state. This is when the West turns its attention away from barbarism, genocide, and the most revolting forms of sexism and racism to protect the cultural privacy and traditions of allied nations. Culture and custom are at times treated as “law” in countries beset by the “woman problem.” In those instances, even progressive national legislation takes a backseat to cultural tradition. For example, although child marriage is illegal across the globe, in many countries the practice is so prevalent that judges participate in the ceremonies in which girl brides are married off to men, sometimes 20 years older.
But the West should be wary of the culture excuse. And there are times when the law must be taken to task, to advance legal reform or to promote human rights. When the law tolerates and promotes discrimination, imposes too high a moral cost on its citizens, compromises social dignity and integrity, and otherwise leaves a society worse off, it should be challenged. Most of us can challenge the law through our courts or the ballot process. In Saudi Arabia, women do not have access to those tools. This is why some were brave enough to drive.
In Saudi Arabia, a country eager to transform its public image, especially among academics, it’s time to abandon the whip and promote the full inclusion of women in every aspect of government leadership and participation. For Western universities, the flogging of women for being raped or driving should be reason enough to reconsider their roles in building campuses for the King.
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