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Let's Protest the Real Apartheid State

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With the Middle East in turmoil, as Arabs from North Africa to the Persian Gulf seek to escape decades of authoritarian rule and the denial of their civil and political rights, students around the world will spend a week in March denouncing the one democracy in the region that offers equal rights to all -- Israel. Through films, lectures and demonstrations students will attempt to smear Israel with comparisons to the discriminatory policies of South Africa in what has become an annual campus hate fest directed at Jews and Israel. Israeli policy has nothing to do with South Africa's; however, if the demonstrators were really interested in human rights, they'd be campaigning against every Arab regime and, especially, apartheid Saudi Arabia.

Women's rights are virtually non-existent throughout the Arab world, but the situation in Saudi Arabia may be the worst. For example, Saudi women may not marry non-Saudis without government permission (which is rarely given); are forbidden to drive motor vehicles or bicycles; may not use public facilities when men are present; and are forced to sit in the backs of public buses, segregated from men. Women must cover their entire body and face in public, and those who do not are subject to physical harassment from the Saudi religious police.

Columnist Colbert King is one of the few journalists to highlight 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. Ambassador Hume Horan recalled protesting when the Saudis excluded the Riyadh Embassy's Economic Counselor, Anne Paterson, from the group who accompanied him to present his credentials to the king. "They did not want the king to be seen on TV with a woman," he said.

Women working in the U.S. embassy or serving in the military in Saudi Arabia were required to wear black head-to-toe gowns if they went out in public and, like Saudi women, were not allowed to drive. Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally, America's highest-ranking fighter pilot, sued the U.S. government for requiring her to wear clothes mandated by another faith. In 2002, the Pentagon relaxed the requirement that female service members wear the Muslim abaya when off-base in civilian clothes, but strongly advised them to wear it. In 2002, Congress voted to prohibit the Defense Department from continuing this policy. Other restrictions, prohibiting women from driving off base, for example, remained in place.

The most extreme case of the U.S. kowtowing to Saudi sexism occurred in the United States in 2002 when Crown Prince Abdullah visited President George W. Bush in Texas. The Saudis reportedly requested that no female airport employees be allowed on the ramp when they boarded and that their jet not be controlled by any female traffic controllers while in American air space.

Perhaps the most horrifying example of Saudi abuses of women occurred on March 14, 2000, when a fire broke out in a girls' school. The children tried to flee the burning building, but many were prevented from escaping by the religious police because they were not wearing the proper clothing to cover their heads and bodies. A total of 15 girls died and 50 more were injured.

One of the most bizarre policies of the Saudis is their pursuit of witches. Sounding much like Salem, Massachusetts, in the 17th century, Saudi Arabia actually has an elite police force, the Anti-Witchcraft Unit, trained to find anyone suspected of using magic. Like Salem, charges of witchcraft or sorcery can be used for a variety of offenses. Rather than hang or burn their witches, Saudi Arabia decapitates them. In December 2011, for example, Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser was executed. The search for witches actually includes men as well and one accused of sorcery was beheaded as recently as June 2012.

Discrimination against women is just the tip of the human rights abuse iceberg in Saudi Arabia. This is a country known for its bigotry toward Jews and Christians (actually all non-Muslims), as well as Shia Muslims, blacks, and gays.

If students were really serious about human rights violators in the Middle East, they'd be holding Saudi Apartheid weeks or Abuse of Arab Women Awareness weeks rather than bashing Israel, a country that Palestinians say is the country they most admire, and where Israeli Arabs say they prefer to live over any future Palestinian state.