Joan Bakewell: We cannot stay silent in the face of this outrage

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The Independent Online

There is a dilemma for women in the West regarding Islam: how to show tolerance and understanding of a different culture, how to respect a world religion that commands the devotion of millions; how not to rush in with Western judgements about a way of life we do not share ... all familiar liberal-minded points of view.

But over some things there is no dilemma at all. And many of them concern the lives of women. Two such events are currently in the news. Both deserve our hearty, unqualified and strongly-voiced condemnation.

The first is happening in Saudi Arabia, where a 19-year-old woman was last week sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail. And what is the crime for which such brutal punishment is to be meted out? She was raped by a gang of seven men. Just that. She is actually a rape victim. She was travelling in a car with a male friend when the gang stopped their car, attacking and raping them both. Four of the gang were convicted of kidnapping, but the court ruled that the punishment for the woman – and her male friend also – is justified because they were breaking the law of the land, by travelling in the car together.

This is so totally at odds with the way we think and behave towards women that it's hard to know how to get any purchase on the mind-set behind it. Saudi Arabia is a country where their particular interpretation of sharia law governs how women dress, behave, whom they may talk to, be alone with. They may not drive cars, their legal rights are less than a man's. All this and more is implicit in the form of Islam that prevails in that country.

In the world of realpolitik, we are meant to respect the sovereignty of such a country and its right to impose laws of its own choosing on its citizens. Its absolute monarch was, after all, given a lavish state welcome to London recently. But at least half its citizens are women, and surely many of them want things to change.

Given the chance, many might be activists. And even the women who buy into the form of Islam that imposes such barbarities must sometimes wonder what life is like for women who live free lives. In the West, you would expect a groundswell of feeling among women against such a ruling. But Saudi women don't vote. They have no political or judicial power through which to be effective. To make their opinions known would itself offend the authorities.

And even in countries where women vote, those who campaign for change have a rough time. Maryam Hosseinkhah is a journalist and women's rights defender. She is a Muslim and she is Iranian. Last week she was arrested in Tehran, and, according to reports, accused of "disturbing public opinion" and "propaganda against the system". She is an active member of Iran's Campaign for Equality, which seeks to collect a million signatures calling for an end to discrimination against women. She is part of Iran's Women's Cultural Centre, founded as long ago as 2001 to promote women's rights.

Clearly, women in Iran are further along with their liberation than in Saudi, but nonetheless Maryam is currently in Tehran's Evin prison. What's more, other women are being caught up in the trawl for activist suspects which is intensifying in Iran. There is no liberal dilemma about deploring such arrests. These actions are as wrong in their treatment of women as genital mutilation. They, too, call for our unequivocal condemnation.

What can be done to support such women? Now that the Iraq war has discredited the case for humanitarian intervention, we are back with the theory of respecting the sovereignty of another state and its laws. Not that I would want us to launch an attack or send a gunboat. But we have to find other ways to influence these events. Pressure must be brought to bear. Those countries which treat their citizens equally – or aspire to – should now speak out loudly, and condemn these actions. The case for these women should not be constrained by the wish not to offend Islam.

Instead the Bush administration has refused to condemn the Saudi sentence and said it will not protest at an internal Saudi decision. Perhaps it takes a woman to lead what should be a global protest. Hillary Clinton is doing just that, calling the Saudi punishment an "outrage" and calling on King Abdullah to cancel the ruling – the first high-profile woman to do so. But where are the rest: Condoleezza Rice? Oprah Winfrey? Our own Harriet Harman, Ruth Kelly, Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith. What about the Queen? She's been hob-nobbing with the Saudis, after all.

It may be that the status of women is the one issue that, more than any other, comes between Islam and its acceptability by the West. And it is a two-way street. They are as appalled by our licentious binge-drinking culture as we are by their restraints on their women. Who controls the hearts and bodies of women is an issue for both cultures.

The truth is that women should no more be at the mercy of the trashy values of celeb culture than controlled by the ruling of male mullahs. But in the West they have a choice. It is not being Islamophobic to wish for our Muslim sisters the freedom from such brutal constraints as are now happening in the name of their religion.