Saudi Flogging of Spoiled Brat Only Part of the Story

03/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Things are getting a little out of hand in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. Apparently a public girls school is at the center of an international uproar over the lashing and prison sentence of a young woman found guilty of assaulting the school's headmistress.

Originally it was reported in the media that the young woman was a 13-year-old girl sentenced to 90 lashes for bringing a mobile phone to school. But, no, that wasn't true. Then it was reported the girl assaulted the headmistress for taking away the phone. Well, that's only part of the story. Now it turns out the girl is not a girl, but 20 years old and she cracked a drinking glass over the headmistress' head while the woman's mother stood by and watched.

Frankly, I'd like to turn this student over my knee and give her a good spanking for acting like the misbehaving toddler she is. But lashings are counterproductive, unnecessarily humiliating and have no place in modern society. This student understood the rules of her school, knew the consequences, and decided to ignore them anyway. She deserves to be punished, but lashings are way over the top.

Yet the young woman's temper tantrum and the authorities' overreaction point to larger issues: Saudi society's treatment of adult women, Saudi media's haphazard and lazy reporting, the lack of institutional transparency, the sense of entitlement among some Saudi families and lack of parental control.

We can't point to the 20-year-old student as the epitome of model behavior, but it's ridiculous that Saudi women are treated like little children. All women, including parents and guests, are not permitted to have mobile phones on school grounds. It's fine to ban mobile phones use by students, but it's simply an abuse of power when applied to anyone else. If my mother came to my high school campus with a mobile in her purse, it's nobody's business but her own. And if she sat in the administration building's lobby and chatted on the phone with my sister, then it's her business. Just who has the right to stop her? It's not the Ministry of Interior, but a school for girls.

Saudi girls' schools can be unreasonably strict in some regions. Most schools have strict dress codes that require heavy dark colored clothing without adornment that is impractical for hot weather. I remember that girls at my school were required to wear black shoes and white socks. Makeup and perfumes were banned. There were no mirrors in the restrooms and compacts from girls purses were often seized by school authorities. While proper decorum in an academic environment is conducive to good leaning, there's a fine line between oppression and discipline. Perhaps if Saudi institutions like this school in Jubail stopped treating women as kids they will stop acting like kids.

The Saudi media and authorities, in their own inept way, helped bring international condemnation from human rights groups on Saudi Arabia. The Arabic-language press not only got the woman's age wrong but also muddled the facts over whether the flogging sentence was for having a mobile phone on campus or for assaulting the headmistress. Amnesty International made matters worse by announcing the girl was 13 years old.

Inevitably, Saudis start complaining about sloppy reporting by the Arabic-language press. The complaints are justified, but a lion's share of the blame also goes to the school and the judicial system for not providing the necessary information to paint a complete picture.

Lack of transparency usually leads to erroneous reporting. The international community will only remember that a young girl was flogged for bringing a mobile phone to school. Nobody cares that it was an adult who attacked another woman with a deadly weapon.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this incident is that the attack appears not to have occurred in the heat of the moment, but rather after some time had passed and cooler heads should have prevailed. After the headmistress confiscated the phone, the student went home and returned to school with her mother. It was during the meeting between the three women that young woman picked up a drinking glass and struck the headmistress with it.

No doubt the mother was shocked at her daughter's behavior, but one has to wonder where the daughter learned that violence solves such small problems as the confiscation of a mobile phone. It's a dangerous thing to break a glass over someone's head. This student possesses an undeserved sense of entitlement that the rules don't apply to her and she is not subject to the same consequences as her colleagues if she breaks those rules.

The headmistress, though, could have stopped this runaway locomotive of a public relations disaster. She could have nipped the controversy in the bud by taking the high road and forgiving the student, which is a Saudi custom that would have spared the woman a lashing. But the headmistress had her own temper tantrum by refusing to take the high road only exacerbates the controversy.

There's plenty of blame to go around here. It certainly doesn't end with a spoiled brat's confrontation with school authority.