Amid a frenzy of executions in the Arab Gulf states, at least 12 women have been put to death after Islamic trials, most of them publicly beheaded by the sword in Saudi Arabia. The majority of the executions were kept secret from all but spectators for fear of public reaction in the West, and followed unfair hearings which often denied the women a defence lawyer.
Among the more shocking cases over the past three years were a mother and her daughter who were decapitated together in front of an audience of men in a Dhahran market last August for allegedly killing the elder woman's husband.
In most cases, the condemned women - who include not only Saudis but Filipina, Sri Lankan, Nigerian, Indonesian and Pakistani nationals - were taken from their prisons to be beheaded, without warning that they were about to meet their death. In the Saudi coastal town of Dammam, a Christian Filipina accused of killing her employer and his family was dragged into a public square in 1993, and forced to kneel on the ground where her male executioner snatched her scarf from her head before decapitating her with a sword.
In the emirate of Ras al-Khaymah last April, a Sri Lankan girl stood weeping in the prison courtyard before a seven-man firing squad shot her dead for killing her employer's child - a crime she had told her fellow prisoners she did not commit. She was 19.
The nature of the Islamic trials and the cruel methods of execution call into question the morality of the West's military and political support for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states whose supposedly civilised values were defended by 500,000 US, British and other Western troops after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Not a single Western embassy, however, is known to have protested at the beheading of women - nor at the increasingly ferocious lashing of hundreds of foreign female workers in the Gulf for alleged misdemeanors.
The chilling list of executions, with most of the women under 30, will increase fears for Sarah Balabagan, the 16-year-old Muslim Filipina housemaid whose death sentence for the murder of her employer comes before an Abu Dhabi appeal court this morning. She was only 14 when she killed the elderly man, whom she said had tried to rape her. Amnesty and other human rights organisations have appealed for her to be spared.
The rapidly increasing number of women beheaded in Saudi Arabia - six this year alone - has shocked even normally conservative Saudis. "Most people accept traditional sharia Islamic law but the principles of execution are in doubt," a Saudi Islamist intellectual said yesterday. "Nobody can produce anything from the Koran which says the only way to execute people is by beheading - this is an old Nejdi tribal tradition and has nothing to do with Islam. Fear of a breakdown in security is pushing our rulers to put women as well as men under the sword." So far this year, there have been 182 public executions in Saudi Arabia.
Of the 12 women known to have been executed in the Gulf over the past 32 months, 10 were put to death for alleged murder, four for killing their husbands, one for killing her father, one for killing a stepdaughter, two for killing employers and three on drugs-related offences. One woman, a Saudi named Fatima bint Abdullah, was publicly beheaded last 27 March for allegedly running a brothel and "chewing qat", a leaf containing a mild drug from Yemen. According to a Saudi source, it was the qat rather than the brothel-keeping that prompted the Islamic court to sentence her to death.
Several of the executed women appear to have been deeply mentally disturbed when they committed their alleged crimes. Several were crimes of passion. The Filipina maid who was accused of murdering her employer and his children in Dammam, for example, apparently tried to preserve the bodies in salt before calling the police. Del Ferouza Delaur, a Pakistani girl executed two weeks ago, was reportedly unaware that heroin had been smuggled into her baggage when she was arrested by Saudi security police.
She was what the authorities call a "mule", an innocent person set up by drug smugglers to carry narcotics. But she was publicly beheaded in the Saudi port city of Jeddah on 25 September.
Occasionally, Saudi authorities have released brief announcements of the execution of women but have never revealed how their sharia courts reached their verdicts, nor why they could find no extenuating circumstances for the instances of husband-murder. Two of the women executed in the Gulf contended - as Sarah Balabagan has done in Abu Dhabi - that their victims had attempted to rape them.
Dozens of expatriate female workers from developing countries have been deported or have fled Gulf states after their employers had beaten or raped them.
The bodies of foreign women beheaded in Saudi Arabia, however, have never been repatriated to their home countries - Saudi authorities routinely refuse to reply to such requests.
Outside the Gulf, women have been largely spared capital punishment, although Jordan hanged a young housewife in November 1993 - the second woman to be executed in the country's history.
Identified as "Tamatheel S", she was taken to the gallows in Sawaka prison outside Amman for allegedly beating her elderly husband to death with a brick and burning his body in kerosene. She was just 26.
The first of the recent female deaths at the hands of the Saudi police was reported by Amnesty International, who say that Zahra Habib Mansur al-Nasser, a 40-year-old Shia Muslim housewife from Awjam in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, was arrested with her husband on the Saudi-Jordanian border in July 1989, with a photograph of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in her baggage.
Both were taken to the Hudaitha detention centre where the woman was reportedly tortured to death by Saudi security men three days later.
Leading article, page 18
16 January 1993: Rani bint Khamisallah Bishk. Pakistani. Beheaded in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for allegedly murdering her husband
29 January 1993. Salwa bint Mohamed bin Ali. Saudi of Egyptian origin. Beheaded in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, for allegedly murdering her husband
12 February 1993. Jumua bint Abdul Khaleq bin Mufrih Al-Ghamdi. Saudi. Beheaded in al-Baha, Saudi Arabia, for allegedly murdering her husband
7 May 1993. Leonarda Akula, Filipina. Beheaded in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, for allegedly murdering her employer and his family
7 October 1994. Konti Vidarati Tonotoni. Indonesian. Beheaded in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, along with her husband, for alleged murder
27 March 1995. Fatima bint Abdullah. Saudi. Beheaded in Jizan, Saudi Arabia, for allegedly running a brothel and chewing the mild drug "qat"
13 April 1995. Sithi Mohamed Farouq. Filipina. Executed by firing squad in Ras al-Khaimar, United Arab Emirates, for allegedly killing her employer's child
27 June 1995. Unknown Saudi woman. Beheaded in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for allegedly murdering her stepdaughter
11 August 1995. Laila bint Abd al-Majid bin Al-Hamid and her daughter, Khalud Khalid bin Husain bin Ahmed Al-Naf. Both Saudis. Beheaded in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, for allegedly killing their husband/father
25 August 1995. Rabi bint Mohamed bin Hamed. Nigerian. Beheaded at unknown location in Saudi Arabia for allegedly trafficking in cocaine
25 September 1995. Del Ferouza Delaur. Pakistani. Beheaded in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for allegedly smuggling heroin
The only non-Gulf Arab state to have executed a woman in the past 32 months is Jordan where a 26-year-old Jordanian woman identified only as "Tamatheel S" was hanged at Sawaka prison on 19 November 1993, for allegedly murdering her husband.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies