Students Against Gender Apartheid (SAGA)

Every year, the detractors of Israel mount a campaign on college campuses across the United States aimed at tarring Israel with an association with apartheid. Any honest evaluation of the Middle East, of course, recognizes that Israel is a model democracy with no relationship to the odious apartheid regime of South Africa. This does not mean that no apartheid regimes exist in the Middle East. In fact, one country stands out for its bigotry and would be the appropriate target of “apartheid weeks” on campus and world-wide castigation as a serial human rights abuser. That country is Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia practices what one former U.S. ambassador to the kingdom called, “sexual apartheid.” The list of discriminatory practices is long, including barring women from driving; segregation in restaurants (some refuse to serve women not accompanied by a close male relative) and most other public buildings; women must wear a black cloak (abaya) over their clothes; police abuse of women for allegedly violating dress and behavior standards; women are not allowed to participate in sports (for fear it will cost them their virginity) or ride bicycles; counting the testimony of one man as equal to that of two women; offering women 50% of the compensation given to men for accidental death or injury; divorce laws discriminate against women who must go through a laborious legal procedure in religious court while a man need only say “I divorce you” three times (a court recently ruled this could be done by text message); men may marry girls as young as 7-years-old and are allowed as many as four wives; women are considered household property and require the permission of the Saudi male head of their household to leave the country (American women and their children have had difficulty leaving and some children have essentially been held hostage by Saudi husbands); women are not permitted to vote or serve in the 150-member Consultative Council, in the cabinet, or on the Supreme Judicial Council and can only hold a limited range of government positions; two women are currently awaiting death sentences for witchcraft and violence against women is “widely tolerated.”

Columnist Colbert King has highlighted Saudi apartheid and American hypocrisy. He noted, for example, that to sell in Saudi Arabia, Starbucks does not use its logo because the mermaid is a female form the Islamists regard as pornographic. The company customized its logo out of respect for the “local religious customs, social norms and laws.” Starbucks and other U.S. franchises such as McDonald’s have separate entrances, service and seating for female customers.

What Can Be Done?

Students may want to create an organization, such as SAGA,  to highlight Saudi Arabia’s history of intolerance and campaign to end its apartheid policies. Some people argue that American companies have to accept “local religious customs, social norms and laws.” Whites in South Africa also believed any external criticism was a violation of its sovereignty and interference in its internal affairs. U.S. companies operating in apartheid times said they too had to conform to local customs. In 1977, however, the Sullivan Principles were introduced by a Philadelphia Baptist preacher named Leon Sullivan, which called on corporations not to comply with apartheid principles. Gradually, more and more companies refused to comply with apartheid rules and later Sullivan led a divestment campaign that helped bring about an end to the discriminatory practices in the country. Students should demand that U.S. companies adopt these same principles for doing business in Saudi Arabia and call on the U.S. government to protest the continuing gender apartheid and other human rights abuses of the Saudis and insist on changes before selling arms or providing other support to the kingdom.

Students concerned with human rights, in general, and women’s rights in particular may want to join this campaign. Religious groups, such as Christians and Shiite Muslims, whose believers are persecuted by the Saudis may also be interested in exposing Saudi abuses of religious freedom.