Thursday, January 7, 2016

New Yorker Magazine Article: "Sisters-in-Law "

The following is an article which appears in the latest issue (Jan. 11, 2016) of New Yorker Magazine, written by Katherine Zoepf. 

"Sisters in Law"

Saudi women are beginning to know their rights.

The guardianship system gives a woman a legal status resembling that of a minor. Credit Illustration by Eiko Ojala

In September, 2014, Mohra Ferak, twenty-two years old and in her final year at Dar Al-Hekma University, in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, was asked for advice by a woman who had heard that she was studying law. The woman was the principal of a primary school for girls, and she told Ferak that she had grown frustrated by her inability to help children in her charge who had been raped; over the years, there had been many such cases among her students. Regardless of whether the perpetrator was a relative or the family driver, the victim’s parents invariably declined to press charges. A Saudi family’s honor rests, to a considerable degree, on its ability to protect the virginity of its daughters. Parents, fearing ruined marriage prospects, chose silence, which meant that men who had raped girls as young as eight went unpunished, and might act again. And for some of the girls, the principal added, the secrecy only amplified the trauma. She asked Ferak if there was anything that she, as principal, could do to help them.

“I told her, ‘You can go to court and ask the judge to make the proceedings private and save the girl’s reputation,’ ” Ferak recalled one recent afternoon. We were sitting in a modish Lebanese restaurant near the Jeddah corniche, sharing plates of tricornered spinach pastries and stuffed grape leaves across a black butcher-block table. The call to afternoon prayer had sounded several minutes earlier, and the restaurant, in accordance with law, had locked its doors and dimmed the lights. The “family section”—the secluded area for women that restaurants serving both genders must provide, where female diners who cover their faces can eat comfortably—was quiet. Except for a waiter, we had the place to ourselves. Ferak is slight, with a lilting voice and a round, bespectacled face framed by a tightly wound black shayla. Head scarves, which Saudi women typically wear unfastened, have a way of slipping off, and Ferak fidgeted with hers as she described her conversation with the principal, repeatedly tugging it back down into its proper position.

The principal was amazed to learn that Saudi plaintiffs can request closed court proceedings. She began peppering Ferak with legal questions, many of them about how to advise teachers who were in abusive marriages, or whose ex-husbands wouldn’t allow their children to visit. The principal was in her early fifties, which meant that, as a school administrator, she was among the best-educated Saudi women of her generation. Well into the nineteen-eighties, according to UNESCO, fewer than half of Saudi girls between the ages of six and eleven had received any education outside the home. But, Ferak said, it quickly became clear that the woman knew little about the fundamental principles of Saudi law.

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