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Global daughters and sons

Andrea Laidman | Monday, November 19, 2007

Last week’s production of Loyal Daughters and Sons drew large audiences to Washington Hall and spurred conversation in Notre Dame’s dorms and dining halls – as well as headlines in this paper – focusing on issues of gender and sexual violence. And rightfully so, as U.S. Department of Justice statistics cited by Observer reporter Karen Langley on Nov. 16 (“Campus engages sexual violence issues”) report that 20 to 25 percent of American women are raped during their time in college. These numbers make it likely that most of us know someone who has experienced sexual assault, proving the current topic of conversation on campus one that ought to be particularly sustainable, engaging and important.We should maintain this focus on gender issues not only to better our own campus atmosphere and community, but also to engage in an international debate about sexual violence. Our discussion must extend beyond the borders of Notre Dame since, as a recent news story indicates, injustices surrounding sexual assault continue around the world.While Loyal Daughters and Sons was being performed last week, a 19-year-old woman was jailed in Saudi Arabia – an unexpected consequence of her appeal in a gang-rape case. During the first trial of seven men who abducted her and a male friend and raped both of them multiple times, the woman received 90 lashings for violating laws on segregation of the sexes. She had been in a car with an unrelated man at the time of the attack.The seven men received sentences ranging from 10 months to five years in prison at the first trial. This was considered a lenient sentence since their crime was death-penalty eligible under Saudi and Islamic law. In the new decision handed down by the Qatif General Court last Wednesday, the defendants’ punishment was changed – now two to nine years.With this change, however, the Court more than doubled the victim’s sentence, not due to the severity of her own offense, but because of “her attempt to aggravate and influence the judges through the media,” as reported by Arab News.The young woman’s attorney who won the appeal had his law license revoked in the ruling and was explicitly barred from defending his client. He is adamant that he will appeal this decision:”Currently she doesn’t have a lawyer, and I feel they’re doing this to isolate her and deprive her from her basic rights,” he said. “We will not accept this judgment, and I’ll do my best to continue representing her because justice needs to take place.”The victim’s lawyer added that the decision is astonishing because “justice is supposed to be independent from all pressures as well as personal considerations, be it a feeling towards the lawyer or defendant herself.”He said the ruling reflects the court’s displeasure over the young woman escalating the issue of the original sentence, with her lawyer and with judicial authorities who granted the appeal.”My client is the victim of this abhorrent crime. I believe her sentence contravenes the Islamic Sharia law and violates the pertinent international conventions,” he said.The Saudi lawyer is not alone in thinking that this ruling lies outside of Muslim belief and law, but very much within the current power structure and gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia. Muslim leaders from outside the Middle East have called for a more just sentence, while hundreds of internet posts on the topic – many by citizens of Saudi Arabia – stress that the ruling is a reflection of the regime and not the country’s religion.Commentators point to a long list of restrictions women face in a country that is a crucial American ally in the war on terror. Saudi women are subject to a strict dress code, are banned from driving and need a man’s permission to travel or have surgery. Their political participation is curbed, as they cannot vote and can only testify in court if about a private matter that was not witnessed by a man. These restrictions are eerily close to those under Afghanistan’s Taliban regime – laws that were condemned at length by U.S. officials and the Bush administration.This case is just one example of the level of sexual violence occurring internationally. It is especially alarming not only because of the horror of the crime itself, but also because of its handling by the Qatif Court and its place inside a country full of structural violence against women. It is alarming because this country is one continually cooperating with and supported by our own. It seems that in fighting the war against terror, the U.S. has failed to work against the very real presence of terror in the lives of female residents under the rule of an American ally.As we continue our discussion on gender issues and sexual violence at Notre Dame, we should extend our questions, asking how to improve the global status of women and how to hold our government accountable for the company it keeps.

Andrea Laidman is a senior political science and peace studies major. Her column’s title recalls advice given to John Adams by his wife, Abigail: “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” She can be contacted at alaidman@nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.