Recently Human Rights Watch got criticism for raising money in Saudi Arabia for, of all things (it shouldn’t be a surprise actually, but anyway) human rights. In their defense to their board, Ken Roth, speaking for the organization in the royal “we”, made the following point. We were talking not to the Saudi government (although they did admit there was at least one government official present at one of their meetings), but to individuals, in particular, “people who were interested in Human Rights Watch.” (Note, not interested in human rights, but in “us”.) After insisting on how scrupulous they were about not accepting money from any government, they then made the following remark:
We reject the idea that an individual’s nationality, ethnicity or religion can be taken as a proxy for their political or ideological beliefs or that the backgrounds of our supporters influence our coverage. By the same token, no assumption should ever be made that a Saudi citizen’s support for human rights reflects or is captive of Saudi government policy. Human Rights Watch is eager and delighted to find supporters of the human rights ideal – financial or otherwise – in any and all countries of the world. To draw such communities into an active, international network is an important part of our mission and does not impair our political neutrality. It threatens no-one but the human rights violators we seek to expose.
Now here’s where we get to the hub of the problem, one which, I think, sheds much light on the operating assumptions of Western human rights organizations, and that produces at least some of the unconscious patterns that result in the formuation of Charles Jacobs’ Human Rights Complex.
Before fisking this remarkable paragraph in detail, let’s take a short detour via an article by a real Saudi reformer, a woman who, I suspect was not a participant in the fundraising tour of HRW. (She does not appear, either in a search of the HRW website, or a search of the HRW report on this very issue — women’s legal tutelage to men — Perpetual Minors (about which, more, anon).
Saudi Arabia – The World’s Largest Women’s Prison
In an article on the liberal website Minbar Al-Hiwar Wal-‘Ibra, reformist Saudi journalist and human rights activist Wajeha Al-Huweidar described Saudi Arabia as “the world’s largest women’s prison.” She added that unlike real prisoners, Saudi women have no prospect of ever being released, since throughout their life, they are under the control of a male guardian – their husband, father, grandfather, brother or son.
Huweidar and other women activists recently launched a campaign against the Saudi Mahram Law, which forbids women to leave their home without a male guardian. She told the Kuwaiti daily Awan that the campaign, whose slogan is “treat us like adult citizens or we leave the country,” was officially launched at the King Fahd Bridge, connecting Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the women demanded to cross the border without a guardian. 
The following are excerpts from Al-Huweidar’s article
Prisoners Can Be Released From Prison – But Saudi Women Can’t
“The laws of imprisonment are known all over the world. People who commit a crime or an offense are placed in a prison cell… where they serve their sentence. [When they complete it], or get time off for good behavior, they are released…. In Saudi Arabia, there are two additional ways to get out of prison early: by learning the Koran or parts of it by heart… or by getting a pardon from the king on the occasion of a holiday or a coronation – after which the prisoner finds himself free and can enjoy life among his family and loved ones.
“However, none of these options exist for Saudi women – neither for those who live behind bars [i.e. who are actually in prison] nor for those who live outside the prison walls. None are ever released, except with the permission of their male guardian. A Saudi woman who committed a crime may not leave her cell when she has finished serving her sentence unless her guardian arrives to collect her. As a consequence, many Saudi women remain in prison just because their guardians refuse to come and get them. The state pardons them, but their guardians insist on prolonging their punishment.
“At the same time, even ‘free’ women need the permission of their guardian to leave their home, their city or their country. So in either case, the woman’s freedom is [in the hands of] her guardian.”
Prison Inmates Are Stripped Of All Authority Over Their Lives – And So Are Saudi Women
“As is customary in prisons throughout the world, inmates are stripped of all authority and sponsorship over their own [lives]. All their movements are monitored and controlled by the jailor. The prison authorities decide their fate and see to their needs, until the day of their release. This is also the usual situation of the Saudi woman. She has no right to make decisions, and may not take a single step without the permission of her jailor, namely her guardian. But in her case the term [of imprisonment] is unlimited.
“The Saudi Mahram Law turns the women into prisoners from the day they are born until the day they die. They cannot leave their cells, namely their homes, or the larger prison, namely the state, without signed permission… Although Saudi women are deprived of freedom and dignity more than any other women [in the world], they suffer all these forms of oppression and injustice in bitter silence, suppressed anger and death-like dejection. Saudi women are peaceful in the full sense of the word, but so far the Saudi state has not appreciated their [noble] souls, their patience, and their quiet resistance…”
“The Clerics, Whom the State Has Authorized to Oppress the Women, Regard Their Silence And Patience As [a Sign of] Mental Backwardness”
“The clerics, whom the state has authorized to oppress the women, regard their silence and patience as [a sign of] mental backwardness and emotional weakness… Thus they have [allowed themselves] to increase the ‘slumber’ of oppression over the decades… They suffocate [the women] in all areas of life by means of oppressive laws [enforced by] the religious police, who follow them everywhere as if they were fugitives from justice. The laws pertaining to women have turned them into objects on which sick men can release their violent and sexual [urges].
“These Saudi clerics deny the Saudi women every opportunity to find a job, get an education, travel, receive medical treatment, or [realize] any [other] right, no matter how trivial, without the permission of their jailor, that is, their guardian – [all] based on oppressive fatwas sanctioned by the male [leaders] of the state.”
Our “Mothers and Grandmothers…Enjoyed Much Greater Freedom… Saudi Arabia Has Turned Itself Into the World’s Largest Saudi Prison”
“[It is interesting to note that] the mothers and grandmothers [of today’s Saudi women] had all these rights, and enjoyed much greater freedom [than today’s women] – as did all Muslim women in past eras, such as the wives of the Prophet. [None of these women] were subjected to this oppressive Mahram Law, which is not based on the tenets of Islam and in fact has nothing to do with Islam.
This comment underlines the role of recent developments in worsening the situation for women. Wahabbi Islam began as a weaponized and merciless movement to all it defined as enemies, and now, in the face of the pervasive threat of modernity, it has become even more virulently “fundamentalist.” Throughout the Muslim world, especially since the recent turn of the millennium, more Muslim women wear the veil as a sign of their “loyalty” to their community and their rejection of modern laxity.
How blessed is Saudi Arabia, the humane kingdom, which has turned itself into the world’s largest women’s prison. [This is a land] which permits any man, without preconditions, to take the role of jailor, and which has turned its women into prisoners for life, when they have done nothing to deserve it.
The last point is particularly significant. As studies of the veil point out, Muslim men make Muslim women pay the price of their lack of self-control (i.e., their lack of development of the “Great Jihad“). Since the men are so animalistic that the mere sight of a woman’s hair, or face, or skin, might drive them to sexual activity, despite the objections of the woman, then the burden of preventing that from happening falls on the woman who must spend her life behind the prison walls of her “modest” covering.
This brings up a key lesson that we can derive from this article. It’s not the government alone here that makes women’s lives a nightmare of captivity, it’s the culture — the religious leaders, the “guardians” (who in principle are relatives and would, we might expect, want the well-being of their female relations). Thus the state releases a woman from prison, but her guardian (father, brother, son), leaves her there rather than come get her.
I don’t know the specific cases, but I’m willing to bet that in a significant number of them, the motivation of the “guardian” is that the woman has shamed the family by getting arrested (whether or not she’s guilty) and that bringing her home would increase the shame. Consider these cases as a form of honor-killing by neglect.
Which brings us back to Human Rights Watch. They are aware of the problem. They wrote a 53 page report on it: Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming from Male Guardianship and Sex Segregation in Saudi Arabia. The very language of the report makes it clear that this goes far beyond “the government.” Anf yet, one gets a sense that HRW finds at least some government officials sympathetic (charming?). They quote Saudi foreign minister, Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal:
Any decision that does not break the social fabric we will take. We are very much sensitive to the social cohesion of the country. We are a new country where social cohesion is very important.
In other words, the prince takes the position that even if the government wanted to do something, they are prevented by the culture and its (typically prime divider) concerns for the social order. HRW comments:
The HRW report considered this a “balancing act” on the part of the “absolute rulers of the kingdom” (i.e., the monarchy) not to upset the conservative religious scholars in the country.
In other words, the HRW report “understands” the difficulty the government faces in implementing their recommendations. But to blame it entirely on “conservative religious scholars,” and not on the larger culture in which the “guardians” regularly act with tyrannical vindictiveness is to miss the larger point. Again, HRW seems aware of this:
While the government has taken some steps in recent years to limit the absolute power of guardians, there is little evidence that these measures are actually being implemented in practice. In most manifestations of these practices, there appear to be no written legal provisions or official decrees explicitly mandating male guardianship and sex segregation, yet both practices are essentially universal inside Saudi Arabia.
In other words, this kind of behavior has a life of its own, independent of the monarchy which is helpless to change things by fiat. This is classic patriarchal behavior: the authoritarianism at the top (absolute monarchy and religious leaders) runs all the way through the society of male domination. As the Persian emperor Achashverosh (Ataxerxes) noted when he punished his wife for refusing his (shameless) request:
16 “When Queen Vashti was disobedient, she hurt not only the king but also all the ministers of all the nations in all of the provinces of King Achashvairosh’s empire.
17 “When word of the Queen’s behavior gets out to all the women, they will treat their husbands with less respect, pointing out that even King Achashvairosh ordered Queen Vashti to come to him and she did not come.
18 “This very day, the wives of the ministers of Persia and Media who have heard what Queen Vashti did, will bring up this incident to the ministers of the king, and that will cause a great deal of scandal and quarreling.
19 “If it pleases the king, let him issue a royal edict that a new immutable law be written into the laws of Persia and Media to the effect that Queen Vashti may never again come to King Achashvairosh, and that her royal position will be given to someone else more suitable.
Patriarchal thinking and it permeates the society. Again, the HRW report notes this, but seems to consider it an governmental excuse for inaction:
Senior government officials consistently told Human Rights Watch that the kingdom needed to wait for society to accept the notion of women’s rights before the government could reform laws and policies in this area. Yet the Saudi government’s policies toward women, including its complicity in allowing guardianship and sex segregation to persist and to permeate every aspect of women’s lives, call into question its commitment to the advancement of women’s rights. It is clear that Saudi Arabia’s segregation and guardianship policies and practices are fundamentally affecting the ability of half its population to enjoy even their most basic rights, and are severely restricting their ability to participate meaningfully in society.
HRW, on the other hand, thinks that “the way to go” is top-down, as if you could legislate human rights — whether a free press or free women — in a culture where shedding someone else’s blood is a legitimate, even required way to maintain honor.
King Abdullah bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa’ud should promulgate by royal decree the dismantling of the legal guardianship system for adult women. The King should establish an oversight mechanism to ensure that government agencies no longer request permission from a guardian to allow adult women to work, travel, study, marry, receive health care, or access any public service. The Ministries of Health, Higher Education, Interior, and Labor should issue clear and explicit directives to their staff prohibiting them from requesting a guardian’s presence or permission to allow a woman access to any service, and they should ensure that women’s full realization of their rights is not compromised or jeopardized by segregation policies and practices.
In other words, HRW approach is a product of a paradigm in which human rights violations are government generated, and to be fixed by government action. “Individual” Saudis are innocent of any participation in these human rights violations until proven guilty. The whole issue of an honor-shame society and the enormous pressures of community conformity simply do not register on their screens.
Thus we come back to HRW’s “fundraising trip” and their defense:
We reject the idea that an individual’s nationality, ethnicity or religion can be taken as a proxy for their political or ideological beliefs or that the backgrounds of our supporters influence our coverage.
Pure liberal cognitive egocentrism. An individual’s ethnicity or religion is no indicator of their political or ideological beliefs. Nice in principle for a civil society. But this is a prime divider society, and one of the more toxic, filled with pressures from alpha males at every turn. Even those who don’t like it, don’t abuse their power of guardianship to victimize their women, still have to tread very carefully in showing any opposition. Any honest Western feminist, dealing with a male individual who was so cowardly as to remain silent while others bullied women, would not hesitate to let him know. But Saudis, as long as they are “interested in Human Rights Watch,” will be considered as good as the next human rights activist.
By the same token, no assumption should ever be made that a Saudi citizen’s [sic!] support for human rights reflects or is captive of Saudi government policy.
Precisely. HRW’s own report makes it clear that the Saudi government is captive to the collective consensus of Saudi men, asserting their honor in tyrannical ways no matter what the government does. The very fact that Roth can refer to Saudi citizens illustrates how little he understands the difference between civil polities and prime divider ones.
But I’ll bet there’s another dimension here. HRW personnel may be committed on some level to treating all individuals equally, and ignoring issues like “honor-shame cultures,” but on a practical level they almost surely show high sensitivity to such concerns. The presence of “the deputy head of the Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia and a member of the Shura Council, a government-appointed consultative body” surely had a “chilling effect” on the people they spoke with, as well as on them. In such situations, you risk serious harm if you act in ways that your hosts view as hostile to their religion.
In this case, the emphasis on Israeli human rights violations in their presentation is overdetermined. Shaming the Saudis with a harsh look at their own civil rights violations is counter-indicated, and shaming the Israelis is a guaranteed way to get widespread support. So, even as they ignore the issue of honor-shame in principle, they appease the demands of honor in practice. And if anyone doubts the massive over-emphasis on Israeli “violations of human rights” and the virtual after-thought mentioning Palestinian violations, here’s Whitsen speaking to what pretends to be a “balanced” forum. I’d say the likelihood that the Saudi presentation was even more unbalanced against Israel is pretty high. As Steinberg says, “prove us wrong, show us the power-point.”
Human Rights Watch is eager and delighted to find supporters of the human rights ideal – financial or otherwise – in any and all countries of the world. To draw such communities into an active, international network is an important part of our mission and does not impair our political neutrality. It threatens no-one but the human rights violators we seek to expose.
And what if, in your eagerness to raise money, you actually empowered demopaths. You appealed to members of a society in which honor-killings still occur regularly, and for whom the destruction of a nation with an extraordinary commitment to human rights, to women’s rights, is actually also an imperative of honor, a national “honor-killing” if you will?
Is there room in your dogmatic and self-righteous universe for just enough modesty to allow that you may have miscalculated? That you owe an apology to everyone who has donated money to you in the belief you’re fighting for human rights? Or would that cost you too much?