Last week King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia issued a pardon for a rape victim who had been sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison. The victim, who came to be known as the Qatif Girl, was gang raped but received a sentence for being out with an unrelated male, a situation which in the judges' estimation formed a temptation to the rapists. The case of course became the focus of many newspaper articles and TV programmes. It acquired wider dimensions as it moved beyond the Saudi borders to become of interest to foreign leaders and politicians who asked the government to reverse the ruling against the woman.
If that individual case seems to be closed now, it does not mean similar cases wont occur in the future. Although she was "pardoned", the view from the ministry of justice was that she had gone through enough punishment for the unforgivable deed of being out with an unrelated man, or what is called "khulwa" in the original sentence.
The concept of khulwa in Islam is simple: it describes a man and a woman being alone together in a enclosed space, which in the Islamic interpretation might lead to temptation. To avoid this temptation strict measures are taken.
In Saudi Arabia segregation of the sexes is imposed in almost all sectors of public life. In restaurants there are separate sections for women and for single men. in governmental offices the same segregation applies; schools and universities follow the same rule.
The segregation works at different levels and varies from one city to another but the main lines remain and have to be strictly adhered to. For example, private companies are allowed to have a mixed environment where men and women work together, but in government offices that is not allowed.
In this atmosphere men and women cannot meet alone, even for work or study. In the women's sections of the universities, male teachers are not allowed in the classrooms. Therefore lectures are conducted through a conference TV and phones, where the teacher sits in a room facing a video camera talking to the students on the other side of the wall.
In this environment, naturally, love stories are heavily restricted, young men and women have to use various tricks to hide from the public eye so that they can meet or talk. But even then some are bound to be found and punished for breaking the rule of "khulwa". It is not new to Saudis to hear that a couple were found by the religious police sitting in a car or at a restaurant and were punished for being out with unrelated person from the opposite sex. Religious police in some areas of the kingdom usually stop couples in public places and ask them for IDs and a proof of their marital status. If the couple fail to provide such proof then this means punishment for both. Not long ago the Saudi newspapers carried the story of a couple who were meeting at a restaurant in the northwestern city of Buraida, and for being out with a unrelated woman the man received 180 lashes. The girl in such cases has to face family anger and humiliation.
The concept of khulwa has been stretched from being about two people in an enclosed space to any interaction between men and women anywhere. The interesting thing is that the while the religious police detain a couple in a car for not being related they turn a blind eye to the situation where women have to go out all the time with male drivers as they are not allowed to drive.
This double standard suggests that offences are tailored according to government policies. It is a simple agreement: the religious police do not speak of women using the service of drivers in exchange for banning women from driving, which in their view constitutes more of a danger as it will give women more freedom.
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