Saving the Girl of Qatif

President Bush seemed at a loss for words this week when he was asked during a press conference if he would use his influence to help a Saudi rape victim who has drawn international attention. The young woman was raped 14 times by seven men and now faces her own imprisonment and 200 lashes in a sentence imposed by a Saudi court.

So what was the victim’s "crime"? She happened to be in the company of a man who was not a close relative when she was attacked.  

The president hemmed and hawed: "My first thoughts were these: What happens if this happened to my daughter? How would I react? And I would have been — I would have been — I’d have been very emotional, of course. I’d have been angry at those who committed the crime, and I’d be angry at a state that didn’t support the victim."

When the reporter pressed him on whether he had raised the issue with Saudi King Abdullah in the last few weeks, the president demurred. "We’ll have plenty of time. [King Abdullah] knows our position loud and clear."

No, Mr. President, he doesn’t. The Saudi Royals don’t know what we think because we spend so much effort pretending that their country is a member of the family of nations like all others and that they are our allies in the fight against terrorism. No wonder they think they can violate the most basic human rights of their population with impunity, especially their women, so long as they are willing to sell us their bloody oil at whatever price they can extort.

You cannot respect a man you must lie to. The president would do the Saudi king, not to mention the Saudi people, a favor if he spoke honestly.

He should say to King Abdullah, "You cannot behave like barbarians and be treated like civilized people. A woman who has been viciously raped by common criminals should not be violated again by your courts. You appoint the Supreme Judicial Council. Now the Council is punishing the victim’s attorney for making her case public, threatening to disbar him. You know this is wrong. If you want my respect, then you must earn it."

Until the Saudis come face to face with the opprobrium they richly deserve, they will continue to flout common decency. The Saudis spend millions each year paying for slick ads in U.S. newspapers to convince Americans that the Kingdom is a modern wonderland: beautiful, culturally rich and varied, a welcoming paradise to all who live and work there.

In reality, Saudi Arabia is a prison for its female population. Women may not travel outside their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. They may not drive; they are subject to beatings by official religious police if they don’t wear the abaya and veil; and they may not receive medical treatment without the permission of a male relative.

Their testimony in court is given only half the weight of a man’s. Although women may study law and have recently been given licenses to practice law, they may not represent clients in court. Women may be divorced by their husbands without cause but must prove legally specified grounds if they wish to initiate a divorce. And, divorced women lose custody of their children when their sons turn 7 and their daughters turn 9.

Nor is life in Saudi Arabia much better for many of its male foreign workers. Saudis import much of their labor from poor countries in South Asia, and many workers endure slave-like conditions, forced to work long hours with little pay while their employers hold their passports so they cannot leave the country.

The abuse of the rape victim, known only as the "Girl of Qatif," should shame the Saudi government. But it will only do so if the Saudi Royal Family is forced by the civilized world to account for the brutal society the House of Saud has created and rules. President Bush missed his opportunity to do so publicly this week. But it is not too late to do so quietly but directly. The fate of the Girl of Qatif could well turn on the president’s intervention.