By the end of this month, women in Saudi Arabia will be able to work, travel and obtain passports without the permission of a male relative, thanks to new government regulations. Saudi citizens and women’s advocates around the world are celebrating the change.
But women in the conservative Gulf state will not be set free until they can speak up without fear.
This week we learned that a female activist imprisoned in the Saudi kingdom was offered a government deal to get out of prison in exchange for her denial that she’d been tortured —subjected to electric shocks, whipping, beating, and sexual assault. She turned it down.
Saudi citizen Loujain al-Hathloul, 30, was arrested in May 2018. Her alleged crime: “destabilizing the kingdom” by advocating for the right to drive and an end to the oppressive guardianship rules.
Hathloul is one of about a dozen Saudi activists who’ve been brutally imprisoned, held in secret prisons for more than a year, subjected to court proceedings completely lacking in due process — all because they campaigned for women’s rights.
These events are not so far removed from the time when women who opened their mouths and voiced unpopular sentiments were tormented and tortured with what was called “the branks.”
Branking was used in Scotland and England from the 16th to the early 19th centuries. Victims were typically women whose used their voices in unwanted ways: too talkative, too gossiping, too scolding. In essence, speaking the wrong way and saying the wrong thing.
The branks consisted of an iron frame that fit around the head of the woman and locked into place. In front of the mouth was a metal gag, point or spike that extended into her mouth, like a horse’s bit. On some models the spikes pierced the woman’s tongue.
Village leaders would force the woman to walk through the town with the metal cage on her head, or they’d chain her to a pillar or market cross. The point was to make her an object of public scorn and ridicule.
One 17th century example of a branks — also called the “scold’s bridle” or “gossip’s bridle” — from the market town Walton-on-Thames, in Surrey, England, was inscribed with this couplet: Chester presents Walton with a Bridle/ To curb women’s tongues that talk too idle.
Women were not the only victims of such cruel and barbarous treatment. Male “offenders” were rolled through the streets in beer barrels or otherwise hideously tortured, but not usually for the sin of speech.
Branking may sound medieval, but it’s got a modern counterpart. Marching a women through the streets with an iron muzzle around her head is just one way of reminding the populace of the consequences of the wrong kind of speech. What the rulers of Saudi Arabia are doing is another.
If the Saudi government were forcing these human rights activists to wear an iron helmet with a metal bit in their tongues, there would be immense international outrage, including from our leaders and those of other countries around the world.
Instead, the Saudis prefer to torture women behind closed doors, and we look the other way.
Let’s create that outrage. Let’s use our voices, because we can — and these women can’t.
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