A 37-year-old US businesswoman and married mother of three is seeking justice after she was thrown in jail by Saudi Arabia's religious police for sitting with a male colleague at a Starbucks coffee shop in Riyadh. Yara, who does not want her last name published, was bruised and crying when she was released from a day in prison after she was strip-searched, threatened and forced to sign confessions by the kingdom's "Mutaween," or Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
She went to the Starbucks to use the wireless connection there with a colleague from her office after wireless access at her workplace went out. She was arrested despite the fact that she was sitting in a curtained booth in the café's "family" area, where men and women are allowed to mix (if they are related). The agents took her mobile phone, pushed her into a cab and drove her to Riyadh's Malaz prison. She was interrogated, strip-searched and forced to sign and fingerprint a series of confessions pleading guilty to her "crime."
"They took me into a filthy bathroom, full of water and dirt. They made me take off my clothes and squat and they threw my clothes in this slush and made me put them back on," she said. Eventually she was taken before a judge. "He said 'You are sinful and you are going to burn in hell'. I told him I was sorry. I was very submissive. I had given up. I felt hopeless."
Yara's husband, Hatim, used his political contacts in Jeddah to secure her release, but she says she will stay in Saudi Arabia to fight for reform of the kingdom's harsh religious laws. (London Times, Feb. 7)
We've noted before how the supposedly inexorably liberalizing corporate globalism and the most reactionary orthodoxy somehow manage to co-exist quite amicably in the Saudi kingdom.
Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams drew fire by saying the UK should "constructively accommodate" certain aspects of sharia law. Williams told the BBC Feb. 6 that the application of sharia in Britain in matters such as financial transactions and marital mediation "seems unavoidable" to achieve social cohesion. "A certain provision of sharia is already recognized in our society and under our law; so it's not as if we're bringing in an alien and rival system," he said. He emphasized that he was not advocating the harsh measures imposed in Saudi Arabia and other conservative Muslim countries.
Predictably, the vocal outrage at his comments came from British conservatives—such as Tory spokesperson Baroness Warsi, who called the Archbishop's suggestions "unhelpful" and warned they would only "add to the confusion that already exists in our communities".
Currently Islamic and Jewish arbitration courts are confined under UK law to civil matters, and with the conditions that the outcome is regarded as reasonable and both parties agree to the process. But some British Islamic scholars argue that the UK should have a dual system, with the sharia legal code in areas such as family and inheritance applied through the secular courts. (FT, Feb. 7)
British Orthodox Jews often turn to their own religious courts, the Beth Din, to resolve civil disputes. "There's no compulsion," said registrar of the London Beth Din, David Frei. "We can't drag people in off the streets." (BBC, Feb. 7)
The most depressing thing about this is that it is another example of how—as we have noted before—the whole global dialectic is increasingly reduced to a clash of conservatisms—Western versus Islamic. We have already noted the similar controversy around the establishment of sharia courts in Canada. In that case, some of the opposition has actually come from (imagine!) progressives and feminists. Perhaps their voices will be heard on this question in the UK now as well.