May, 1980

 

THE WAY I SEE IT

 

Unanswered Questions on the Death of a Princess

 

By Myriam Miedzian Malinovich

 

Suppose a film about the public execution without trial of two young black South African rebels was shown on public television and followed, by a panel discussion by South Africa experts. Is it conceivable that such a discussion could go on for 45 minutes without the question of the oppression of South African blacks being discussed?

I think not. Yet this is exactly analogous to what happened during the talk following "The Death of a Princess," the controversial British-made film about a Saudi-Arabian princess who-with her lover-was publicly executed in 1977, without trial, for the crime of adultery. The topic of women's oppression in Saudi Arabia was finally broached near. the end of the discussion, only to be dismissed as "part of their culture."

None of the, panel of experts-a Harvard law professor, a New York University Middle East studies professor and several Arab representatives-questioned facts on women's subjugation presented in the film:

While Saudi men are allowed up to four wives, "honor murders" of women for adultery are condoned; because of the tradition of purdah-the seclusion of women-Saudi women spend most of their lives inside their homes and are denied any activity or work that might put them in contact with men; When they do go outside, they are hidden behind black veils and are prohibited from driving cars.
S
audi men are permitted to divorce their wives by uttering: "I divorce you" three times. Women can divorce their husbands only after full court proceedings and under the most limited conditions such as the husbl1nd's insanity or impotence. Since a woman's testimony is worth only one half of a man's, the proceedings are rendered even more difficult for her. After divorce, the husband and his family are automatically awarded custody of the children after they emerge from early childhood-usually, for boys, by the age of 2.

Toward the end of the princess discussion, the moderator tactfully raised the question "Aren't the rules under which Arab women live if not repressive, very constraining?"

The response included a statement that it was hardly appropriate for us to express shock at Saudi standards when we have so many social problems of our own. The Harvard professor told an anecdote about an Arab woman who had lived in the West and felt liberated when she returned home and put her veil on again.

One Arab speaker, sympathizing with the feelings of the princess' grandfather who was responsible for her execution, explained that "Arab women are seen as vessels of men's' honor" and Arab men have "a very special sensitivity to their women's behavior." I should say so!

The lone and' carefully chosen woman on the panel suggested that the 'condition of Arab women was none of our business. ","When Saudi women want to change, they will," she said. Judging by what happened to the princess, it won't be easy.
Why is it that the oppression of women even when it is supported by laws and governments is so easily dismissed as "cultural" while the oppression of men is seen as political? This double standard is not limited to Arab women, and so cannot be attributed solely to our interest in oil.

If we used the same standards for women's oppression as for men's, the May 12 panel discussion would not have been possible.

 

Myriam Miedzian Malinovich, who has taught philosophy at several universities, is vice president of Programs in Public Philosophy, a nonprofit educational institute.