Do These Two Chimps Have More Rights Than a Woman in Saudi Arabia?

Two chimpanzees in New York were granted a right to habeas corpus. But in Saudi Arabia, women still need to be accompanied to a court by a male family member.

Jane Goodall, the world's foremost autho
MAGDEBURG, Germany: Jane Goodall, the world's foremost authority on chimpanzees, communicates with chimpanzee Nana, 06 June 2004 at the zoo of Magdeburg (eastern Germany). The British primatologist began her pioneering study of chimpanzees more than 40 years ago in Tanzania. AFP PHOTO DDP/JENS SCHLUETER GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read JENS SCHLUETER/AFP/Getty Images)

A New York Judge on Monday granted two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, a habeas corpus petition to allow them to defend their rights — with the help of their human lawyers, anyway — to not be unlawfully detained at Stony Brook University for medical experiments.

The chimpanzees’ lawyers are hailing the decision as a major step forward in the fight for animal rights, but several hurdles remain before Hercules and Leo win their freedom. Similar cases brought by their attorneys on behalf of other primates have failed, and legal experts regard claims that animals should be granted the same rights as human beings with skepticism.

Regardless, the courtroom debate over whether Hercules and Leo have a right to withdraw from these medical experiments serves as a stark example of the different standards that mark the world’s legal systems, particularly for women. While in New York a court is deliberating over whether to grant habeas corpus rights to chimpanzees, in many parts of the world, women are systematically excluded from the legal system and denied their most basic rights.

In Afghanistan, a recent report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and their assistance mission in the country found that a large number of women prefer to redirect their cases to local mediation in order to avoid a legal system that marginalizes them. In cases of violence against women, U.N. researchers found that courts often placed blame on female victims, discouraging other women from coming forward. In some cases, judges even encouraged the victim to marry her attacker.

In Saudi Arabia, where male guardianship laws mean women are treated as children, women cannot go to court without a male relative — be it husband, father, or brother — there to support them.

Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy that other cases of legal discrimination against women involve a woman’s ability to afford legal representation.

In Lebanon, she said, a civil code allows the legal system to be religiously regulated. If a woman identifies as Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, she might be subject to a religiously influenced court, rather than a secular one.

“Women are treated in a discriminate manner but often in different ways,” she said. “Some prevent women from going to court at all, some prevent from divorce; there is a  range of inequalities.”

But in New York, a court is now considering treating two chimpanzees as “persons” before the law.


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