Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2002 / 19 Tishrei, 5763

Tresa McBee

Tresa McBee
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America has no right to criticize any country | Here's the logic: America hasn't passed the Equal Rights Amendment, and McCarthyism occupied a good portion of the early 1950s, ergo, we're in no position to criticize other countries ' unjust treatment of its citizens.

So says William Graham. Not Billy, but William, the new dean of Harvard's Divinity School.

Graham was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal's Brendan Miniter, who asked the dean how Americans should view Saudi Arabia and its "its rigid patriarchal society that forces women to wear abayas and accept arranged marriages, that keeps them from owning property and requires them not to walk on the street without a male escort." "I don't think half of society would say they were oppressed there," Graham said of Saudi women. Why, it's all relative. We see with American eyes, Graham notes, not veiled Saudi ones.

Besides, America ain't so great, he reminds. The ERA is still not an amendment to the Constitution. And there was that anti-communist hysteria about five decades back. Who are we to judge?

Graham's comments relative to Saudi women were in one paragraph of the article, which was written because Graham is a Christian who specializes in ancient Islam and is the first Divinity School dean without a divinity degree.

Most of what Graham said didn't rankle. He points out that extremists take religion hostage outside Islam too. And he mentions that oppressive, totalitarian regimes aside, groups within Islam could be a force for modern change, if not quick change.

But I kept returning to Graham's assertion regarding Saudi women's probable thoughts about their third-class citizenship, wondering how such women would have any context to assess options beyond their male-controlled paradigm.

And then I wondered why we have to be perfect before speaking against unacceptable, inhumane and unjust treatment. As Amnesty International explains, "discrimination against (Saudi) women includes limitations on freedom of movement, allowing for effective imprisonment within the home" and preventing protection from human-rights abuse. Equal education opportunities are denied, and women are subjected to arbitrary arrest and harassment by religious police. While in the criminal justice system, women are interrogated by unrelated men, contrary to their cloistered experience, and susceptible to confessing under intimidation.

I could go on. About the death by stoning an adulterous woman faces. About how women are wards of first their fathers, then their husbands, and finally, if widowed, their sons. About the 15 girls who died in a school fire in March, because they weren't properly veiled and would be seen by unrelated male emergency workers. About how even foreign women living in the kingdom risk severe punishment for not donning the abaya or for walking unaccompanied.

Dean Graham's assertion that Saudi women would not find themselves oppressed is probably correct in that most of those women - particularly the poor and uneducated - have never lived any other way. From the beginning, most Saudi women are infantalized, decisions made for them.

But what would they think if given choice, if allowed to decide for themselves? The comparison often made when discussing Saudi women's plight is that of blacks in South Africa during apartheid or in pre-civil rights America. When allowed, the oppressed grabbed at opportunity previously denied.

Graham is correct that America doesn't get everything right.

Failure to educate our future has risen to the criminal. Parenting is something we do when convenient. We disenfranchise our fathers and refuse to acknowledge the perils of their absence. We've sued personal responsibility out the window, because someone else made us do it. We lose - literally lose - foster children into the abyss of who knows what with who knows who. Our corporations steal, our children cheat, our politicians prevaricate. Yes, America gets a lot wrong. But not everything. My gender has never been relevant to what I might become. And from my post- ' 60s vantage, that's progress.

So I have no problem viewing Saudi women through unveiled American eyes and concluding their situation isn't right. Just as stoning women who have illegitimate children in Nigeria is barbaric. Just as gang-raping a woman in Pakistan for her brother's alleged indiscretion is savage. Just as honor killings of women by fathers and brothers anywhere is abhorent.

We - the country that offers women unprecedented freedom - should say so. Loudly.

And once Saudi women can choose for themselves how to live, they themselves can tell us what they think. The veil would be optional.

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JWR contributor Tresa McBee is a columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Times. Comment by clicking here.

09/18/02: Hey, Bill: Time to enter the No Ego Zone
09/11/02: Reliving 9/11 again and again and ...
09/04/02: The price of success: When being a responsible father is not enough
08/28/02: When separate can be equal --- and better
08/22/02: Egypt and Saudi Arabia: Curious inconsistencies
08/15/02: Hey, fellas: Beware the fairer sex ain't always fair
08/08/02: Why women will remain the at-risk gender
08/01/02: Girl: The new four-letter word?

© 2002, Northwest Arkansas Times