Photo: A new social media campaign called ‘Multiply’ is trying to stop violence against women in Saudi Arabia with an unusual tagline: “Hit her, I dare you.” ‘Multiply’ encourages young people of both sexes to express their anger at men who hit women.
Are Saudi Arabia’s domestic violence laws a first move towards changing attitudes? Frances Reynolds took a look for Focus93.
Legislation criminalising domestic violence in Saudi Arabia , having faced numerous religious barriers, had been preceded in recent years by smaller steps to force the acknowledgement of abuse.
These included the publication of reports on child abuse cases by Saudi physicians during the 1990’s. These reports, combined with national coverage of landmark domestic abuse cases helped to lay the groundwork for the National Family Safety Program (NFSP) founded by Royal decree in 2005 and the King Khalid Foundation, established in 2001, which launched the kingdom’s first public ad campaign against domestic violence. On the 29th of August 2013, after many years of negotiation in the country’s Shura, legislation criminalising domestic violence was passed by the Saudi Council of Ministers.
The new legislation makes sexual, physical and psychological abuse in the home or workplace a punishable crime with the onus falling on law enforcement agencies to follow up on all reports of abuse. Under the 17-article bill those found guilty of committing such abuse face prison sentences of up to one year and up to $13,300 in fines.
The passing of the new legislation has been welcomed by human rights activists in Saudi Arabia with Khaled al-Fakher, Secretary General of the National Society for Human Rights, telling news agencies that the law “is a good law that serves the major segments of the society in the kingdom including women.” However, for many the real challenge in the implementation of such a bill lies in reconciling it with both Sharia law and the cultural traditions of the region. The new legislation neither attempts to address the underlying institutional systems of male guardianship over female relatives and domestic workers, nor is it explicit on cases involving marital rape, leaving open the door for differing interpretations of criminality.
Amira (not real name), an Algerian national, discussed the implications of such a law and the possible implementation of similar laws across other regions adherent to Sharia law in the Middle East and the Maghreb. A law like the one passed in Saudi Arabia she says “could only be implemented with the support of the community and male relatives in the family. The role of the male in our countries is something that is not fully appreciated in the west.” In the Algerian constitution women are subject to the family.
It is important to note that Sharia law is not only subject to interpretation by religious scholars, it is also molded to fit the cultural views of different tribes and groups in society. The difficulty then “lies in these interpretations of Islamic law and specifically the interpretation by members of a particular group or tribe.” It is also important to understand the political landscape of Algeria and countries like it across the Maghreb and Middle East most of which have been ruled by military regimes with little or no change to their central power structures for decades. “Male domination is prominent in every social aspect of our lives; it is inbuilt in our constitutions. You cannot ignore that and that is why the attitudes of male members of the society and their understanding of Sharia are key to the implementation of any law targeting violence against women or children.”
Over the years there have been some harrowing examples of abuse cases in Saudi Arabia with only a handful exposed by the media on international level. One recent example is the death of Lama Al-Ghamdi who was five years old when she was raped and tortured by her father, the self-styled Islamic preacher Fayhan al-Ghamdi in December 2011. The public were repulsed to discover that the five year old had slipped into a coma after being subjected to torture when her father ‘doubted her virginity.’ She died as a result of her injuries in October 2012.
Perhaps one of the most devastating aspects of the case lies in the sentence handed down to al-Ghamdi on October 8 of this year for the brutal killing of his daughter. Al-Ghamdi was sentenced to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes with a fine to pay one million riyals ($270,000) to the mother of Lama.
Saudi Arabia has long been frowned upon the world over for its treatment of women and at times its seemingly non-existent approach to human rights, yet surprisingly the passing of this legislation received limited coverage in western media outlets following its announcement in late August.Could it be that the world is waiting to see just how this law can fare against the many pitfalls and cultural interpretations that face such a bill in a country which has failed to recognise its duty toward the protection of women and children in the state? In a recent interview with Arab news, Dr. Maha Al-Muneef, founder and executive director of the National Family Safety Program (NFSP) commented on the changing attitudes of women in the kingdom; “According to statistics the NFSP collected, the rates of child abuse and domestic violence within the Kingdom have multiplied between 2005 and 2012. This does not necessarily indicate an increase in abuse or maltreatment attempts. It is probably an indication of increased awareness to report these injustices or abuse cases. Women are more aware of their rights and they are breaking the silence.”
For countries such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria the devil is in the detail when dealing with the complex issues of interpretations of Sharia and the male guardianship system. Ultimately sentencing will be the deterrent and unless the sentences imposed reflect society’s value for women the law will be subject to exploitation and abuse.