Human rights refer to the legal, social or ethical principles of entitlement or liberties to which all humans are entitled (James, 2009). Proponents of this concept assert that each person is endowed with certain entitlements by reason of being human. These entitlements can be justified as moral norms, natural rights or even as legal rights, either at a national level or within international law. However, this concept has been the subject of intense debate and criticism as there is no consensus as to what should or should not be regarded as a human right.
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The modern conception of human rights, universalism, developed in the aftermath of World War II and its globalization was awakened by the crimes committed by Hitler’s government (the Holocaust), which increased pressure on the need for a global system of accountability and stability. This resulted in the adoption of this concept by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a declaration adopted on 10 December 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. This forum aimed at paving the way for universalism by resolving the cultural differences between member nations, an approach which some argue, has led to the needs of certain cultures being compromised. The concept of universalism was further boosted by the adoption of the International Criminal Court in June 1998, with its core aim being the enforcement and promotion of the values agreed upon by the member states of the United Nations.
Over the course of the 20th century, many movements and groups have achieved intense social changes in the name of human rights. In North America and Western Europe, labor unions brought about laws which granted workers to strike and established minimum work conditions. The women’s rights movement succeeded in gaining voting rights for women while the National liberation movements succeeded in driving out colonial powers in many countries. The United Nations, together with its member states, have developed much of the discussion and bodies of law that currently make up international human rights law and international humanitarian law.
In reality, the concept of Universalism is basically based on Western philosophies and the values they place on the individual. This approach can be seen as a product of Christianity as well as the Greek philosophy and contends that one can use reason or nature to identify basic rights inherent to every human. This concept was challenged by a delegation led by China, Iran and Syria at the 1993 United Nations Conference on Human Rights which was held in Vienna. They argued that the current definition of human rights was not universal, but was based on Western morality and should therefore not be imposed as norms in non-western societies. They further argued that this concept disregarded the non-western societies’ historical and economic development and their cultural perceptions of what is wrong and right.
Cultural relativism, by contrast, is based on the thought that there are no objective standards by which others can be judged. It was introduced by the sophist Protagoras, among others who empirically established that there exist many different cultures in the world and each are equally worthy. For example, female genital mutilation is not mandated by any religion, but has become a tradition in many different cultures in Africa, South America and Asia. On the other hand, it is considered by the international community as a violation of girl’s and women’s rights, which has resulted in the outlaw of the culture in some countries. However, International Law has only recently begun to tackle the issue of cultural relativism by paying more attention to certain themes (Bozeman, 1971).
In Saudi Arabia, human rights are intended to be based on Sharia, a set of Islamic religious laws under the rule of the House of Saud, the royal family of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (US Department of State, 2004). The government of Saudi Arabia has often been criticized for its treatment of political and religious minorities, homosexuality and women. The Human rights of this country are specified in article 26 of the Basic System of Governance of Saudi Arabia, a constitution- like charter which is in accordance with Sharia. The National Society for Human Rights was the first independent human rights organization in Saudi Arabia, and was established in 2004. In 2008, the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia, also known as the Shura Council, ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights, a charter which affirms the principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter and the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. It provides for a number of traditional human rights, such as the right to liberty, protection of persons from torture, freedom to practice religious observance, among others.
Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world with judicial corporal punishment, the formal application of caning, whipping, birching and strapping as an official sentence by order of a court. In Saudi Arabia, judicial corporate punishment is carried out under Sharia, and includes whipping for lesser crimes such as drunkenness and “sexual deviance” and the amputations of hands and feet for more serious crimes such as robbery. This country also engages in capital punishment, which includes public executions by beheading. This is in accordance to strict interpretation of Islamic law as a punishment for rapists, murderers, and armed robbers. There were 191 executions in 2005, 38 in 2006, while in 2007; there were 153 executions (International, 2009).
The government of Saudi Arabia has been criticized for lack of protection and violation of several human rights such as the freedom of religion. In this country, the practice of non-Muslim religions is aggressively prohibited. With the government declaration of the Holy Quran and the Sunna (tradition) of the Prophet Muhammad as the country’s constitution, Saudi Arabian law does not recognize religious freedom. Saudi Arabia, being an Islamic State, offers preferential treatment for Muslims and prohibits the burial of Non-Muslims on Saudi soil. During Ramadan, the month of fasting, eating, drinking or smoking during daylight hours in public is not allowed, even for Non-Muslims (Abdul, 2008). Foreign schools operating in Saudi Arabia are required to teach a yearly introductory segment on Islam and missionary work by any religions other than Salafi/Wahabi Islam is forbidden.
Anti-Semitism, prejudice towards Jews as a result of hatred of their culture, religion and/or ethnic background, is very widespread in Saudi Arabia. In 2007, it was reported that a state website prohibited Jewish people and Israeli passport holders from entering the kingdom. The Saudi administration removed the offensive language, claiming that it was a mistake (CNN, 2004). A study of Saudi Arabia’s revised schoolbook curriculum in May 2006 discovered that the eighth grade book included text that discriminated against “Christian infidels of the communion of Jesus”.
In Saudi Arabia, LGBT rights, initials referring to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, are not recognized. In accordance with Islamic morality, cross-dressing and homosexuality are seen as decadent acts and are treated as solemn crimes. These acts, as well as the involvement with any activity that hints at the existence of an organized gay community, are punishable by imprisonment, lashing, deportation for foreigners and sometimes execution.
According to the law, all Saudi citizens infected with HIV or AIDS are entitled to protection of their privacy, free medical care and equal employment and educational opportunities. However, most Saudi hospitals will not treat infected patients and many hospitals and educational institutions are reluctant to share out government information about the disease. This is because of the stigma and strong taboos associated with how the virus can be spread (Yamani, 2005). However, the situation has started to change, with the government recognizing World AIDS Day, and permitting information about the disease to be published in local newspapers and journals. Any foreigner found to be HIV positive (or with any other serious medical condition), is deported back to their country.
Political freedoms in Saudi Arabia are also curtailed, with the Saudi government restricting the freedom of speech and the press to forbid criticism of the government. Political organizations and trade unions are banned, public demonstrations are outlawed and Internet reception within Saudi Arabia’s borders is actively censored by the government. The arrest of Fouad al-Farhan, a prominent Saudi blogger and reformist in December 2007, was seen as a crackdown by the Saudi government on online dissent. He was jailed in solitary confinement, without charges, after criticizing several prominent Saudi business, media and religious figures (Murphy, 2008). Fouad was released on 26 April, 2008.
In Saudi society, gender roles come from Sharia, Islamic law, as well as the tribal culture. All women, regardless of social status or age, are required to have a male guardian. Saudi women do not have voting rights, and cannot be elected to high political positions (Sasson, 2001). However, there is substantial evidence that Saudi women do not want radical change. Advocates of reform in this country reject the Western critics of Saudi Arabia for failing to understand the Islamic uniqueness of the Saudi society (Zoeph, 2010). Advocates argue that Saudi women do have rights, though these rights are dependent on their obligations in life.
Majority of the Saudis do not view Islam as the main obstruction to women’s rights and dismiss perceptions of Islam as being patriarchal as a Western typecast. To prove that Islam allows strong women, Saudis often invoke the life of Prophet Muhammad. Khadijah, the Prophet’s first wife, was a powerful businesswoman who employed him and is the one who initiated the marriage proposal. Aisha, another one of his wives, commanded an entire army at the Battle of Camel, a battle that took place in Iraq, at Basra in 656, and for this, she is the source of many hadiths (Betsy, 2010).
Saudi women face discrimination in many aspects of their lives, such as the civil, common and religious systems. Despite the fact that they make up over 70% of those enrolled in public universities, due to social reasons, Saudi women only make up 5% of the national workforce. The efforts by the government to support expanded employment opportunities for women in this country met fierce resistance from the religious police, the labor ministry as well as the male citizenry (Canlas, 2006). In most parts of this country, it is believed that the role of the woman is to care for her husband and family. There is widespread segregation in Saudi homes, with some rooms having separate entrances for the men and women.
Driving had been banned for women, until 1990, when it was introduced as official legislation after 47 women drove cars through Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Though illegal, women in areas outside the cities and in the rural areas of Saudi Arabia do drive cars (Y, 2009). Saudi women are permitted to fly aircraft, though they are required to be chauffeured to the airport (Bascio, 2007). Many Saudis believe that allowing Saudi women the right to drive could lead to an erosion of traditional values and Western-style openness. Before a Royal Decree in 2008, women were not permitted to enter furnished apartments or hotels without a mahram or chaperon. With the decree, the only requirements they needed were their national ID cards, and the hotel must inform the nearest police station of their length of stay as well as the room reservation (Canlas J. , 2008).
The current government, under King Abdullah, is considered reformist. This government has appointed the first female cabinet member, opened the nation’s first co-educational university and is also credited for passing legislations against domestic violence. However, critics say that the reform is very slow and is more symbolic than substantive. Conservatives see the Saudi society as the center of Islam and hence the deed for unique conservative values. They seek to preserve the culture’s traditional gender roles, while on the other hand; radical activists compare the condition of the Saudi Arabian Women to slavery (S, 2010). A government poll conducted in 2006 found out that over 80% of Saudi Arabian women do not think that women should work or drive with men. A subsequent poll found that most Saudi women are not of the opinion that women should be allowed to hold political office. Saudi women are in high support of their traditional gender roles and are of the opinion that reforms would be opposed to Islamic values. They argue that they already have a high level of independence and that reforms would bring about unwanted Western cultural influences (Saleh Ambah, 2010).
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In Saudi Arabia, all women are required to have a male guardian, who can be a father or husband. This guardian has rights and duties to his woman in various aspects of civic life. Saudi women must first seek their guardian’s permission for various matters such as marriage and divorce, education, travel (if below 45 years), employment as well as opening a bank account. Guardian’s requirements are not written law, but are applied according to the society’s customs, as well as the understanding of particular institutions such as hospitals and banks. Official transactions initiated by women are often abandoned and officers often demand the presence of a guardian in order to prove authorization. In a recent interview, Saudi women defended male guardians as providing love and protection (Zoeph, 2010).
In 2008, some Saudi women launched a petition defending guardians, which gathered over 500 signatures. The petition also requested the punishment for those activists equality and mingling between Saudi men and women. Liberal activists on the other hand reject guardianship and see it as demeaning to women. They object to the treatment of women as subordinates or children (Wagner, 2010). They cite cases of women whose careers were ended by their guardians, or who lost custody rights over their children. In a case in 2009, a father prohibited several of his daughter’s attempts to marry outside their clan, and sent her to a mental institution as a form of punishment (Jahwar, 2009). Activists agree that most Saudi men are caring, but see this kindness as a result of pity, from lack of respect for their women, and they compare male guardianship to slavery, with ownership of a woman being passed on from one man to another.
The ludicrousness of the guardianship system is shown by what would happen to a woman if she tried to remarry: she would have to seek the permission of her son (Betsy, 2010). The Saudi government has defended itself by saying that there is no law of male guardianship and maintains that agreements are applied in the courts and other legal channels.
The male guardianship system is very closely related to sharaf, a system which involves the protection of females in the family by a male individual. The male provides for them, and in sequence, the women’s honor is reflected on him. Since the honor of the male guardian is affected by that of the women in his family, he is expected to control their behavior. If a man loses his honor because of a woman under his care, he is permitted to cleanse his honor by punishing her, which can be death in extreme cases. In 2007, a young Saudi lady was killed by her father for chatting with a man on Facebook. Conservatives called for the government ban on Facebook, because it causes social causes social strife by encouraging inter-gender mingling and inciting lust (Frthjof, 2007).
In many Islamic states, women are required cover parts of that are arwah i.e. not meant to be exposed, which is mainly the face. However, in Saudi Arabia, the whole of the woman’s body is considered arwah, with exception of the hands and eyes. Women are therefore required to wear the niqab, or veil, a hijab; whish is s head covering, as well as an abaya, which is a full black cloak. In this country, women’s clothing must not reveal anything about her body and is therefore required to be loose, thick and opaque. It is generally required to be unadorned and of a dull color and should not raise interest to the male (Saleh, 2009). Saudi women are however not bothered by the dress code and place it low on the list of priorities for reform. Majority of the women wear the veil with pride, and say it reduces destructions from their male counterparts.
Sex aggregation is anticipated in public, especially between non-mahram women and men. Most official and educational institutions have separate entrances and exits for both men and women. According to law, there should be clear visual and physical separate sections for both sexes at all meetings and gatherings, including weddings and funerals. Public places such as amusement parks and beaches are also segregated, sometimes by time, so that men and women visit at different hours. Many Saudi homes have different entrances for men and women, with private space being associated with women and public space such as living rooms being reserved for men. Since eating requires the removal of the veil for women, most Saudi restaurants are segregated to different sections and they also bar entrance to women who come without their mahrams or husbands (Murphy, Saudi Arabia: Dining by Gender, 2010).
Even Western companies for instance Starbucks and McDonald’s enforce Saudi religious regulations and maintain sex-segregated zones in their restaurants. This has often led to these companies being criticized by Western activists as the facilities in the women’s zones are usually lower in quality. The segregation rules sometimes apply to banks and even hospitals. However, the number of mixed-gender workplaces has been on the rise since the crowning of King Abdullah, though they are still strange.
Some clerics issued fatwa, a religious opinion issued by an Islamic scholar concerning an Islamic law, which encouraged women to provide breast milk to any man with whom she comes into frequent contact with. The milk should not come directly from the woman’s breast, and reduces the difficulties of strict sex segregation by allowing him to become a relative of the family. In Islam, this breast milk kinship is considered to be as good as blood relationship and therefore allow the males to come onto contact with the without having to break Islam’s rules about mixing. Another scholar disagreed, saying that the milk should come straight from the womb’s breast, an issue which was ridiculed by reformists who argue that this could end up being more erotic, and definitely not maternal.
Women’s economic rights in Saudi Arabia are also severely infringed. In order for a woman to buy or sell a piece of property, she is obligated to bring two men as witnesses to identify her identity. In addition, she is required to bring four other male witnesses to testify that the first two are valid witnesses and that they actually know her. This makes it hard for women to attain their legal rights, and therefore, they often end up finding other solutions such as paying bribes.
Since childhood, Saudi girls are taught that their key role is to take good care of the household and raise the children, though Sharia allows women to work, as long as she does not neglect her essential homemaking duties. Government offices strictly advocate for the minimization of interaction between women and non-mahram men. They are allowed too work as long as their male guardians or husbands approve. A woman’s work must be deemed suitable for her physique and mentality and for this reason, they cannot be appointed as judges or to positions of high public office.
The Saudi labor ministry has been inconsistent in its support for reforms promoting women’s right to work. In 2006, the then minister of labor, Dr.Ghazi Al-Qusaibi was quoted as saying that the labor Ministry was not acting to promote women’s employment because the best place for a woman to serve is in her own home (Al-Awsat, 2006). In recent years, mixed gender workplaces have become more common, especially in industries that must serve women such as medicine and banking. In this country, 71% to 78% of females are literate, compared with males who have 85% literacy rates. The number of women who receive secondary and tertiary education is higher than that of men with over 50% of working women having a college education (Forum, 2009).
The freedom of movement for Saudi women is strongly limited as they are not supposed to leave their houses or neighborhoods without the consent of their male guardian or in the company of a mahram. Women are not allowed to drive and are forbidden from using public transport. When allowed, they are required to use a separate entrance and sit in sections reserved for women. However, the bus companies with the widest coverage of Saudi’s capital, Riyadh, do not allow women at all.
In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to run for public offices, but they are permitted to hold positions on boards of chambers of trade. There is one woman in a cabinet position, as assistant minister for women’s education. In court cases, the testimony of one man is considered to be equivalent to that of two women. In April 2010, women were issued with new ID cards with fingerprints and GPS tracking features. Women are registered in their father or husbands’ identification card and conservatives argue that cards which show the unveiled face of a woman violate Saudi’s customs. Though the government banned the practice of forced marriages, females are not allowed to make their own decisions on this issue.
Just like in any other domain, states should not be pushed into creating local or universal structures that bypass their levels of control. As in the case of Saudi Arabia, most of the groups in society whose rights are violated do not have equal access to the law. This demonstrates how both theories create a double standard, with men readily accepting western norms and women bearing the brunt of cultural authenticity. However, with realistic strategies, cultural sensitivities in countries like Saudi Arabia can be reconciled with universal goals.
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