Cristiano Ronaldo might not have been off to the best start in the Saudi Pro League, but he is blazing a trail off the pitch. While the record contract with Al Nassr was designed with the aim to bring more attention to the kingdom and its league, Ronaldo has already made a distinction completely irrelevant to football: he is the first resident of Saudi Arabia to openly defy its repressive sharia codes without getting penalized.
The Portuguese forward achieved this milestone merely by living with his partner Georgina Rodriguez, along with their family, in defiance of Saudi Arabian laws that require a marriage contract for cohabitation. As per the Islamic Hudud Laws, imposed in Saudi Arabia, zina (adultery) can even be punishable by death. While the Saudi authorities have eased some restrictions on tourists and foreigners, in line with Mohammed Bin Salman’s “Vision 2030,” the kingdom has continued to impose sharia across the country.
At least 147 people were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2022 for crimes including “disruption of social fabric,” which zina too has traditionally been interpreted. Iran, Saudi’s Shia counterpart, executed over 500 last year for similar violations.
A majority of the countries in the Muslim world incorporate Islamic sharia in varying degrees, with about a quarter of the Muslim-majority states imposing the Hudud codes, including violent penalties for “crimes” such as apostasy, homosexuality, and adultery. The hudud punishments stem from the Quran and Hadiths (sayings of Muhammad), which uphold death for “spreading mischief,” and lashes for sexual intercourse outside of marriage. And it is the Muslims who remain the primary victims of these barbaric laws.
While today Saudi Arabia claims to be modernizing, it was the Saudi-led Arab world that proliferated these Islamic codes over the past half a century. Even as states like the United Arab Emirates are relaxing many of these laws, the radical Islamization of Muslim-majority countries has meant that the Islamist inertia no longer necessitates external coercion for penal codes, and law enforcement authorities, to implement antediluvian policies in the vast majority of the Muslim world. In December, the officially secular Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country, banned cohabitation between unmarried couples.
Killings over zina continue to take place from Malaysia to Lebanon, with violent penalties issued for “unlawful sex” from Sudan to Morocco to Afghanistan. In many of these countries, gruesome sharia clauses overlap with localized tribal codes resulting in a spree of so-called honor killings. Murders in the name of honor, overwhelmingly targeting women exercising personal freedoms, are not only prevalent in Muslim-majority countries but also among Muslim minorities in the West, from Europe to North America.
Of course, Muslim communities do not have a monopoly over these crimes, with honor killings in Western states taking place under an array of families, quite often of South Asian and Middle Eastern heritage. Honor killings, overlapping with “crimes of passion,” take place around the world across continents, ethnicities, cultures, and traditions. However, the prevalent scriptural adherence in Muslim communities, and the correlated theological justification for violence against adulterers, means these crimes face lesser resistance in many Muslim-majority countries, especially where the gory penalties are codified. This is largely responsible for the states that incorporate Islamic sharia finding themselves towards the bottom of gender gap indices.
Whether it’s sharia-ordained penalties for adultery or repressive hijab mandates, the Islamic doctrines suppressing freedoms—especially for Muslim women—are designed to uphold totalitarian controls over minds and bodies. Sexual “deviance” has historically been the yardstick for autocratic rulers to gauge the political subservience of the masses, whose private lives otherwise had no bearing on state matters. And today, with the world freer and more interconnected than ever, no regime or religion can be allowed to determine what two consenting adults do in their private space.
For the sharia-shackled Muslim women, Islamic enforcement is much more than who they live or sleep with—it’s about their acceptance as individuals not forcibly affixed with a “mahram” (male custodians). While cohabiting with partners is criminalized, just finding accommodation or making a living for their own selves is often challenging for single women, even in officially secular Muslim states, while theocratic Islamic regimes officially mandate male custodianship. To undo this clampdown on individual freedoms, the penal codes need to be purged of outmoded sharia and the Islamic stranglehold over Muslim communities undone.
The Arab monarchies might be “liberalizing” to cater to their fiscal ambitions, but any modernization bid is likely to implode without ensuring freedoms for all citizens. Even if these unrepresentative tribal oligarchs are unlikely to pave the way for their own abdications, they should gradually begin preparing to answer the following question: if royal families and sporting superstars can be allowed to defy Islam, why not regular Muslims?