The Role of Religion in Sexual Assault Cases Against Women
Writer: Renata Daou
Editor: Adelyne Koe, Pat Sevikul
Graphic Designer & Illustrator: Janice Cheng
In February, many people around the world were shocked to hear the news about Paola Schietekat, a 28 year-old Mexican woman who was sentenced to 100 lashes and seven years in jail after reporting having been sexually assaulted to the police in Qatar.
Schietekat moved to Qatar to work for the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy in preparation for the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup located in Qatar this November. Since she loved soccer, getting a job with the World Cup felt like a dream come true. However, while in Qatar, she was assaulted by another Latino, according to NBC News. She claimed he entered her apartment, hit her, and assaulted her, according to Newsweek.
After the incident, she went with a representative of the Mexican Consulate to press charges, even bringing a medical certificate. However, the investigation was turned against her, since the assailant lied by saying that they were in a relationship. Even though she had the medical certificate and forensic evidence of the beatings, they still took his side and accused her of fornication in an extramarital relationship, and asked her to take a virginity test instead. Notably, this sentence could put her in jail for up to seven years, and because she is Muslim, she was also “eligible” to receive 100 lashes.
According to the Pulitzer Center, in Qatar, the Zina Laws criminalize sex outside of marriage based on the Islamic tradition in Qatar. This means that sex outside of marriage is considered an adultery crime where violators can be imprisioned up to one year. However, those who are Muslim get additional punishment of flogging, and those who are married can even be sentenced to death by stoning. The Human Rights Watch has written a report on Qatar and its laws related to women, marriage, children, and discrimination against women, stating that the reason Muslim offenders are punished more harshly than non-Muslims is based on the ideal of “morality” under the Qatari law. The report also mentions how in Qatar, the laws “require a wife to be obedient to her husband,” and women cannot refuse to have sexual relations without a legitimate reason.
In the case of Paola Schieteka, her lawyer told her the solution to avoid the imprisonment and flogging would be to marry her assaulter, which she did not have to do since she was able to leave Qatar with the aid of the World Cup organizing committee according to Newsweek. However, if it weren’t for their help, she might have faced the extreme sentences as any other woman would have.
Paola Schietekat is not alone. Cases of violence against women are extremely common around the world. According to UN Women and the World Health Organization, about 736 million women (one in every three women) have been victims of physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both, at least once. In most cases, the violence is perpetrated by someone the woman knows, the majority of cases being their current or former intimate partners. On top of that, almost 24% (one in four teenagers) between 15 and 19 have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner. In fact, violence against women affects mostly low- and lower-middle-income countries and regions. In addition, around 137 women are killed by a member of their family every day. Of the victims of sexual exploitation trafficking, 92% are women.
What’s worse is that less than 40% of the female victims of violence seek help of any sort, and less than 10% of them go to the police. Many of these women do not report domestic violence because they fear they will not be believed or that they will be victim-blamed. In many cases, they feel ashamed and even blame themselves for what happened. As a result, women will not leave abusive relationships due to danger, fear, isolation, shame, trauma, low confidence, and a lack of support. After seeing the case of Paola Schietekat, it’s important to recognize that these assumptions are not completely baseless, and that there is still a long way to go before women are actually safe enough to seek justice for the domestic violence cases they suffer. Laws against such cases prevent women from speaking up, and force them to suppress their trauma. Without professional help, not only will they be able to heal from these horrific experiences, but it also normalizes the reality of sexual abuse, and undermines the importance of seeking professional help.
Qatar is not the only country that has laws against external marital relationships. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Somalia also have laws against "fornication outside marriage." The consequences for those who commit these acts are usually fines, arbitrary detention, imprisonment, flogging, and in extreme cases, it can go up to death penalty. Some counties do not even have laws against domestic violence, such as Armenia, Haiti, Mali and Russia.
In conclusion, religion can be a big factor in enabling sexual assault cases, as evidenced in the Paola Schietekat case. It is important to recognize that while religion can be a source of strength and closure for many women, and that religious teachings can be a resource for victims of abuse to heal, religion also can be misused to excuse violent behavior. We must recognize that in the context of sexual assault and rape, the ideals of “morality” and religious duty, as well as the concept of purity as being an essential value for women are an uneligible reason to consider that these women “violated” their faith. The entire concept of sexual assault and rape is that the victim does not consent to these cases, and that it is never the victim’s fault for what happens to them.
Evidently, there is still much to be done to protect women’s rights–specifically when it comes to protecting women against sexual and domestic violence. The first step we can take is to make the effort to understand the concept of sexual assault and rape and raise your voice in support of the victims. Supporting your local domestic violence shelters as well as donating towards bigger organizations like the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence and RAINN are good starting steps for those looking to create change, and for those who seek to help the world become a safer place for women.
Human Rights Watch Submission to the CEDAW Committee of Qatar’s Periodic Report for the 73rd Session. July 2019