Scarred by the savage lash of Islamic justice

Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, concludes his series on the cruel and brutal treatment of women in the Arab Gulf states

In Saudi Arabia, the girls are held down by a policewoman while they are whipped by a man. In the United Arab Emirates, they are ordered to lie on a bench to be lashed, though sometimes their hands are shackled above their heads.

As an Asian diplomat put it apologetically: "They must be restrained in case they run amok during the beatings." For supposed immoral behaviour or for theft, a Filipina, Sri Lankan or Indian maid in the Arab Gulf can expect up to 200 lashes with a bamboo cane no thicker than a man's small finger - administered by a man, of course.

Islamic "justice" had condemned hundreds of young women to be flogged in the Gulf in the past three years - well over 2,000, according to two Asian embassies that have vainly tried to protect their female nationals - before deporting them home, penniless and in disgrace. A chance meeting with a boyfriend, an innocent friendship or a serious love affair all have provoked the wrath of five-man sharia courts.

The cruelty of the whipping of women is carefully documented throughout the Gulf where, at least in the smaller emirates, newspapers carry daily reports of the flogging of young women who often are the victims of rape at the hands of their employers.

Many of the Islamic court judges who order the whippings are Saudis who have been given sharia court posts outside the kingdom. One Western medical worker who was herself imprisoned on fraudulent charges of "attempted seduction" has reported that several women in Saudi prisons "allege that on being arrested by police or muttawa [religious police], they are sexually molested".

The savage prison flogging of young women is routine in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. Take the case of the small Arab emirate of Sharjah. On 23 March this year, an Islamic court there ordered two women to receive 180 lashes for alleged adultery. On 2 April, an Asian housemaid was condemned by the Sharjah court to 140 lashes and a year in prison for an alleged extra-marital relationship. Two days later, the same court ordered two married Asian women to receive 180 lashes for alleged adultery.

Last month alone saw another spate of lashings. On 6 September, a 24- year-old woman was sentenced to 90 lashes of the cane for alleged adultery; four days later an Asian maid was ordered to be whipped 180 times for "indulging in sex outside marriage". Another maid was ordered to be flogged 140 times for "adultery" on 18 September.

Six days later, the Sharjah court ordered a 24-year old Filipina maid to receive 180 strokes of the cane for adultery with a male Indian friend. The Philippines embassy tried to save Josephine Vergara from her punishment, but was ignored. "We went to see her and she was, well, not happy about it," an official from the embassy said. "We tried to see what we could do, but the wheels of justice had turned."

"Justice" in the United Arab Emirates is always administered by a man who leans over the girl to cane her in the presence of both male and female prison officers and - sometimes, though not always - a doctor. "The man who lashes the girl has to hold a Koran under his right arm as he beats her. This is to reduce the pain he can inflict, because he cannot move his upper arm for fear he will drop the Koran in the dust," said an Asian who has been present at the lashing of a girl. "But of course, it can still be very, very painful. If the girl screams too much and seems in too much pain, they will administer the punishment in instalments - 40 lashes now, 40 in a week's time and so on."

Arab courts insist that the lashings are the only way of ensuring that local "morality" is upheld - though the number of court-ordered floggings suggests the opposite. Islamic judges also contend that the women are not permanently scarred, even though this is clearly untrue. In the words of a Canadian nurse who worked in the largest hospital in the Saudi capital, Riyadh: "The lashings are brutal and excruciatingly painful; they [the women] will bear the scars physically and psychologically for a long time."

Asian girls who become pregnant are almost inevitably doomed to be flogged. "If they think they are pregnant, they go to a local hospital - and if they are pregnant, the hospital will always ask them for their marriage certificate," another Asian diplomat said. "If the girls are not married, the hospital is bound by law to tell the police, and the girls are arrested. From there, they go straight to the courts and are lashed. And then they are deported."

Among women subjected to the lash in the Saudi prison of Malaz in 1993 was an Indonesian maid who, according to a fellow prisoner, "had been starved and tortured for two years. Her mistress had placed hot irons on her arms and had beaten her on the head with high-heeled shoes, penetrating her scalp."

The same witness, whose testimony has been made available to the Independent, recorded that "many of the prisoners were domestic helpers who had been raped or otherwise abused by their employers. If they attempted to run away or became pregnant, they were jailed and sometimes lashed".

An Asian diplomat at first refused to discuss the condition of maids who came to his embassy after being whipped. "It is very difficult for me," he said. "The Saudis don't want us to talk about this. But I must tell you that there is blood and there are scars. The way these girls are treated is simple cruelty; you could perhaps call it sadism."

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