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The Bodies that Matter

Saudi Arabia, Western journalism, and Human Rights

Do you know who Israa al-Ghomgham is? What about Jamal Khashoggi? If last week you didn’t, you probably do now. In the past few days Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi national who wrote for the Washington Post since he fled his home country in 2017, has become a household name because he was allegedly assassinated by the Saudi government while inside that country’s embassy in Ankara. And Israa al-Ghomgham, while still alive, awaits execution by beheading in Riyadh on October 28 for the simple crime of speaking out on behalf of women’s rights — just as Khashoggi did in some of his columns.

In the past week, the news has been inundated with the increasingly grisly details of, first, the disappearance and, soon thereafter, the alleged murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi. The Tayyip Erdogan government, which has jailed, disappeared, and murdered so many journalists, academics, and human rights activists, all of a sudden became the great and reliable friend of defenders of democracy. So long as all the probing and questioning is addressed towards Saudi Arabia and not Turkey, it seems, all is well.

In this performance, orchestrated by the clever Turkish Prime Minister turned President (and probably soon Dictator for life), Erdogan plays the insightful sleuth; the hard-nosed seeker of truth. He’s been remarkably successful at presenting himself as a generous adjudicator of human rights as well, timing perfectly the release of a Christian pastor. In this performance he is the magnanimous, all-powerful, ruler: he commands; it happens. Something for Donald Trump to admire and want to emulate.

The world of journalism is in a bind. Many journalists want to criticize both Erdogan and Trump. Many are also concerned about Khashoggi — he is, after all, a journalist. But thus far all the journalistic action seems to show Erdogan as a force for good, one who seeks to shed light on this horrendous crime. CNN has even cited Erdogan as confirming that he “had known Khashoggi for some time and considered him a friend.”

In the meantime, on October 12th the United Nations reminded everyone, including all the journalists lambasting Saudi Arabia and Trump for not doing enough to retaliate on behalf of Khashoggi, that there are other bodies that matter. A group of experts released a statement that condemned the arbitrary incarceration of Israa Al-Ghomghan and five other women’s activists who are currently being held without any channels for communication and called for their “immediate and unconditional” release. These activists are currently being incarcerated by the Saudi government for exercising basic forms of citizenship, like the right to assembly. Some are in grave danger of gender violence for simply speaking their minds. They have not been dismembered yet, but the Saudi government has turned them into examples of what will befall other women who might dare to do the same.

What is the press doing in response to the U.N.’s public condemnation? The Intercept has published the only in-depth piece that unveils these problems. The Guardian has published an op-ed that criticizes how the U.S. administration is “ignoring the jailing of Saudi women’s rights campaigners,” and calls that position “morally insupportable.” The New York Times is flush with anger and criticism leveled at both the U.S. and Saudi administrations regarding Khashoggi, but makes no mention in the same articles of this on-going violation of human rights or of al-Ghomgham’s situation. Overall, the impending execution of Israa al-Ghomgham has not been a focus of journalistic interest in the past week, at a point when it is in fact crucial that the Saudi government be called out as a possible means to save her life.

Why? Is it because state-sponsored misogyny is not news, but rather the daily reality of life in Saudi Arabia? Is it that al-Ghomgham’s execution, to take place according to the decision of that government and in the open, as opposed to inside their embassy in another country, is somehow a matter of “internal affairs”? Sometimes silences speak as loudly as words. If the point of the current outrage is to hold the Saudi government to a certain standard of treating all humans with dignity and to defend the freedom of each individual to speak their voice, why is it that the incarceration and violation of this woman’s human rights is not worthy of the same level of international outrage as the gruesome dismemberment of a Washington Post journalist?

Israa al-Ghomgham is still alive. She, and other women activists incarcerated in Saudi Arabia, still needs our support. We can’t bring Khashoggi back from the grave, but we can use the public outrage currently on display to prevent the killing of other innocent people. Their bodies also matter.

Maria Bucur is an American-Romanian historian of modern Eastern Europe and gender in the twentieth century. She has written on the history of eugenics in Eastern Europe, memory and war in twentieth-century Romania, gender and modernism, and gender and citizenship. Her book, The Century of Women. How Women Have Transformed the World since 1990, is forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield in May 2018. She teaches history and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she holds the John W. Hill Professorship.

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