If I were a Saudi-based criminologist how would I deal with a request from the authorities to investigate why women wanted to commit the crime of driving or anyone the crime of alcohol production, distribution and sale? As a UK-based criminologist I can select from, or mix up, the whole smorgasbord of criminological history in attempting to explain crime or, in this Saudi example, criminalisation. But what of a Saudi criminologist?
Women driving or pretty much anything to do with alcohol are crimes in Saudi Arabia but not in many other places; and I use such facts in my criminology teaching. That is I attempt to show my students that law and morals have changed over time and between places and therefore that crime and deviance is relative.
I have often tossed such ‘facts’ into lectures without too much thought. Whilst areligious I teach at a Roman Catholic University College. I often spend time early in my introductory criminology module on the pre-history of criminology when crime and sin were undivided and indivisible and you only needed religious authority to know what was right and wrong and why.
The theological knowledge of my students (not all of whom may be Catholic) never stretched to answer my question to them about whether religious ideas of the devil and evil were more similar to classicist or positivist approaches to crime. Did we freely chose evil - calculating in the classicist way that the fun now might be worth any pain later - or were we - in a positivist medical model way - ‘infected’ by the devil. The punishment/treatment might be the same though.
Changes in the demographics of the college’s entrants and the obviousness of Islamic dress mean that I’m now having pause for thought. How are my religio-criminological musings and discussions of lap-dancing or rape, let-alone the significance of the Enlightenment project to sociology going down? My commitment to that and the need for an education that challenges, nay offends, comfortable and comforting complaisance ensures I will continue to teach such material. However, I also now drop in plenty of examples of the theocratic absurdities derived from Judaism and Christianity too and autocracies that wield similar ‘I-am-the-Law’ powers.
But this has got me thinking about my notional Saudi scholar and his problems (or her worse ones). Critical scholars in the West don’t necessarily get preferment and Government and Commerce insist on practical solutions. So it is no surprise to see Talal Al-Eidan, described as ‘a criminology and criminal justice expert’ advising, ‘the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency and banks should strengthen precautionary measures when it comes to stocking ATMs’.
Ali Wardak pointed out in 2005 how little research into crime and criminal justice there had been in Saudi Arabia. But Dr. Robert Winslow’s A Comparative Criminology Tour of the World offers some and notes that:
In November 1990, a group of forty-seven women staged a demonstration to press their claim for the right to drive. The mutawwiin demanded that the women be punished. The government confiscated the women's passports, and those employed as teachers were fired. The previously unofficial ban on women's driving quickly became official.
And Hamid R. Kusha specifically discusses the possibility that Sharia Law deters criminality by comparing that in Iran and Sudan (but in 1998, so the changes in both those countries render comparison difficult). Others suggest the influence of internalised specifically Islamic self-control. Crime statistics show low but existent levels of crime. These figures can, like all Government figures, be criticised and the low levels of crime against women subjected to particular scrutiny. Women in post-Enlightenment countries find it hard to report partner violence so Saudi women even more so. And violence at the hand of strangers is reduced by a segregation of the sexes that many women here would not welcome.
So we might conclude that crime is low in Saudi Arabia for a variety of reasons - religious, social, cultural, political and economy. None of which one would want to replicate nor could we. They have money and, until recently, isolation (Saudi Arabia builds giant Yemen border fence to keep out illegal immigrants and drug smugglers).
I’d not want to be a criminal in Saudi Arabia, nor a criminologist. If you are one or the other let me know. How’s it going? What does a theocratic criminologist do all day when all the answers are in one book or in the head of one ruler? And this was the case when Beccaria published his ‘On Crimes and Punishments’ and why initially published anonymously.