The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Reasoning with “Barbarians”

November 29, 2007

Daniel Howden’s piece in The Independent yesterday describes the ongoing furor over the sentencing of a gang-rape victim in Saudi Arabia to 200 lashes for speaking out about the crime. The 19-year old victim was originally sentenced to 90 lashes for being with a non-related male; the sentence was increased because she spoke out to the Saudi media during her appeal.

The fact that the Saudi government is now reviewing the case is a testament to the “boomerang effect” described in Keck and Sikkink’s classic book Activists Beyond Borders.

However, Howden writes:

“The Western world has expressed outrage – which has, in turn, provoked anger among the Saudi establishment… Prince Saud al-Faisal was forced, much to his annoyance, to answer hostile questions about her case at the Middle East peace talks in Annapolis this week. ‘What is outraging about this case is that it is being used against the Saudi government and people,’ he told reporters.”

There is a slight but important mischaracterization here: there is no one monolithic “Saudi establishment.” In fact, while elements within the Justice Ministry are engaged in a defamation campaign against the victim, the Foreign Ministry has distanced itself from the ruling. Prince al-Faisal’s remarks in Annapolis were not meant to suggest that international outrage is misplaced per se (he is also outraged, it seems), but that the West is mistakenly targeting all of Saudi law and culture, rather than (appropriately) calling out a specific failure of justice.

(Responses to Howden’s article posted on the Agonist frankly bear out Faisal’s point. Says one blogger: “I say… invade Saudi Arabia!”; another: “mysogynistic and gynophobic barbarian scum.”)

The difference Faisal speaks of may make little sense in the big picture, but it matters enormously in this particular case: how one appeals for victims of abuse can be as important as whether one does.

If the point is not simply to be right, but to be effective, citizens who wish to protect this woman should call the Saudi embassy and speak respectfully to the government’s interests and values rather than denigrating Islamic law and Saudi tradition per se. For more on how to pitch such appeals effectively, see these suggestions by Diodotus on Elected Swineherd.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.