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Sabria Jawhar Headshot

The Needless Death of a Saudi Woman

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In Saudi Arabia common sense often takes a holiday.

Last month an incident occurred at the Teachers' Education College in Qassim. As usual, press reports are sketchy, but the facts as we know them are all too familiar.

It seems a young female student reportedly fell ill at the college and faculty staff made the appropriate response by calling the Red Crescent Society emergency medical technicians. So far, so good. That is except when the EMTs arrived at the front gate they were allegedly refused entry because they were men.

An argument ensued between the college security team and the EMTs. During all the shouting and finger-pointing, the young woman died.

This kind of thing happens often enough. Since a vast majority of medical emergencies involve families and more than half involve women, we have seen urgent medical services fall the wayside because we believe that men attending to a woman is inappropriate.

In effect, we are all too happy to sacrifice a woman's health, even her life, to protect the reputation of our loved ones. What makes my blood boil is the entirely inappropriate reaction to such incidents. It makes me wonder if we have taken leave of our senses.

The fallout from the death of this young college student did not focus on the reason why she died. Instead, the reaction was that if the EMTs were women none of this would have happened. The answer, therefore, is that Saudi Arabia must recruit female emergency responders to provide adequate care for patients.

I'm all for women working as EMTs. Except for one thing: Saudi society frowns on women taking such jobs. It's not honorable, remember? Even Saudi men don't want the icky job of dressing injures, carrying people to the ambulance or seeing people in undignified circumstances. The Red Crescent Society in Qassim reported that only 100 men applied for 1,000 available jobs. One-thousand vacancies!

College staff had the presence of mind to call emergency responders when the woman became ill. But they lost their cool, and their courage, when the EMTs showed up. Two things happened as far as can be determined. The college staff allegedly refused the EMTs entry because they would be touching the woman. If it turns out the woman was not seriously ill or had recovered, college officials may be exposing themselves to questions from authorities as to why they allowed strange men to touch one of their female students. Self-preservation overrode common sense. Staff members wanted to protect the girl's reputation and their own by refusing treatment.

The other reason is the creeping erosion of the true meaning of guardianship. In Saudi Arabia every single male -- from the taxi driver I flag down on the street corner for a ride to the security guard at the airport who reads my father's written permission allowing me to travel -- is my mahram (guardian). I have millions of mahrams who have an opinion about the way I conduct my life and think they know better than my father and brothers.

I can imagine the conversation between the male security guards and EMTs at the college entrance: "There's a reputation at stake here and we can't allow you in." The victim died knowing her reputation remained intact because of a decision made by non-family members who have their own ideas about guardianship.

Recruiting female EMTs, and of course we are talking about hiring foreign workers, as our custom when we don't want to do the job ourselves, is not the answer. It will just bring up more questions. Will female EMTs be able to drive ambulances? Well, no. Will a female EMT be permitted to work with male colleagues and be alone with them in an ambulance? Probably not. Will a female EMT be permitted to treat a male patient alone in the rear of the ambulance while her male colleague drives the ambulance to the hospital? Not likely.

Saudi female emergency responders should be hired to possess the full authority to do whatever it takes to save lives and get the job done. But it doesn't solve our fears of having to answer to law authorities about our decision to allow a man to treat a woman. It's not khalwa (defined as being in a state of seclusion with a man or woman that could raise doubts about their morality), but in today's Saudi society just about anything passes for khalwa. Our inability to define what is true khalwa -- and worse, allowing the uneducated to define it -- has affected our rational thinking. In this case our inability to allow a life to be saved.

There are too many people out there who are making life and death decisions based on their own interpretations of the Holy Qur'an and their own idea of morality. And it's killing the women of Saudi Arabia.

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