Q&A: Hamida Ghafour on Lama Al Ghamdi
A self-styled cleric who preached about the dangers of immoral behaviour is waiting to be sentenced for the rape and murder of his daughter, Lama Al Ghamdi. The Star's Hamida Ghafour covered the story.
A: Lama’s murderer may get a light jail sentence or avoid jail altogether by paying off Lama’s mother. I am not in any way condoning the death penalty, which is the usual punishment for murder. But it is system where a male life is worth more than that of a female. And justice is artibrary, too. A few weeks ago a Sri Lankan maid was beheaded for killing an infant boy in her care. In this case, race and class were also factors because the maid was not only a female, but at the bottom of the social ladder. A justice system like this is a symptom of a wider malaise in society where females are treated in every way as inferior to males.
Many Saudis, men and women are angry about this lack of accountability or transparency and are venting that anger on social media. I was interested in exploring this too.
Q: How would you describe women's rights in Saudi Arabia?
A: It’s a long, uphill battle. We all know Saudi women are not allowed to drive. Male relatives have the power to stop female relatives of any age from working, travelling, even having medical procedures.
Lama’s death is an extreme case and no one disagrees that the little girl deserves justice.
What’s more difficult is the shifting lines between what freedoms may be acceptable for women. Liberals and conservatives are using technology to try and shape Saudi society and the world is hearing about it. There are outspoken, media savvy women like Azizah al Yousef, a computer sciences lecturer at King Saud University, who sent out a notice on Twitter about Lama’s tragic story that was picked up by everyone. But technology isn’t always a tool of liberation.
Recently the government introduced a program where husbands get text messages to notify them if their wives leave the country.
Q: How can these women get away with criticism considering Saudi Arabia does not allow free speech or protests?
A: “Speaking out will not get you into trouble, acting out will.” That nuance was nicely explained by Karen Elliott House, author of On Saudi Arabia.
Manal al Sharif, one of Lama’s defenders, for example was arrested in
2011 for driving. But she has been very outspoken about Lama’s death and the text message notification controversy and nothing has yet happened to her. She hasn’t protested on the streets, which is the difference. People can speak out against poverty or child abuse if they are willing to put their heads above the parapet.
But one subject that is off limits is the royal family, as Elliott explained. After the Arab spring the king actually issued a royal decree that made it a crime to criticize the royal family or the religious establishment. So Saudi activists have to navigate these important nuances if they are to force a debate in society without getting into trouble themselves.
Q: What do you see happening in the future with this case?
A: I think it depends on the justice system and that is the inherent problem. When I spoke to Azizah al Yousef she said she thought the sentencing hearing was on March 3 but couldn’t be sure. Lama’s mother is not sure either. There was a report that the royal family stepped in to stop Lama’s father from being released from prison but al Yousef said she had not heard about it, and neither had Lama’s mother. There is no transparency. It took a long time for Lama’s mother to get a lawyer.
There will probably also be growing calls to actually codify the penal system and spell out specific punishments for crimes. Right now any judge can decide on the punishment according to how he interprets Sharia law. A codified system would be a major step toward reform – King Abdullah has tried to do this for a few years but it has not come to fruition, Elliott told me.
Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at The Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour