Saudi Arabia’s archaic gender inequalities are set for a shake-up following cabinet’s approval of legislation designed to curb domestic violence in the Kingdom. The law, which is expected to be put into effect within 90 days, will make instances of physical or sexual violence punishable by up to one year in jail and by fines of up to $13,300. Victims of abuse will also receive necessary health care and counseling.
The legislation follows a successful “No More Abuse” campaign orchestrated by the King Khalid Foundation in April. The Saudi charity’s posters showing a woman in a dark niqab with one blackened eye did much to raise awareness of a widespread, though under-reported problem.
Human rights advocates have praised the new law which ostensibly alleviates some of the difficulties in reporting and prosecuting violence against women, children and domestic workers. Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch calls it “a step in the right direction,” but in reality, it is a very small step on a very long road.
In 2012, the World Economic Forum’s report on gender inequality ranked Saudi Arabia 131st of 135 nations. In terms of economic participation and political empowerment, it ranked 133rd. Saudi women are prohibited from travelling, conducting official business, or undergoing medical procedures without explicit permission from a male guardian – a husband, brother or father. The Kingdom is also the only country in the world which bans women from driving.
To date, the rights of male guardianship have superseded any legal protection against domestic violence. There have been no written laws to guide judges who typically interpret sharia codes according to their own whims, making allowances for a degree of violence against “disobedient” wives. For instance, in May last year, a Jeddah court convicted a man who beat his wife so severely that she needed hospitalization. His penalty: “learning by heart five parts of the Quran and 100 sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.”
Domestic violence has long been seen as a private matter, rather than a legal one. Women are loath to report instances of abuse because of what the community might think of them, and also, perhaps, because it would be unlikely to achieve any positive outcome. The age-old tradition of “namus” (honor) means that women’s obedience is expected, as is punishment for disobedience, and meddling in such matters can bring stiff penalties. In June, 2013, two well-known female activists were sentenced to 10 months imprisonment for “takhbib”, or inciting a woman to defy her husband’s authority.
Saudi Arabia’s rigid Wahhabi faith has compounded difficulties in dealing with domestic violence, but the problem of namus, which underlies male guardianship, is essentially tribal rather than religious. The responsibility for a woman’s protection has always belonged to her male guardians, as has their right to punish her for bringing “dishonor” – or the perception of it – to the family.
Most human rights organizations – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – have long condemned Saudi Arabia for its frequent abuses. This is a country where executions and legal amputations are commonplace and often carried out in public. It is one of the few countries in the world – the United States is another – which puts minors to death. It openly discriminates against other religions and Muslim minorities. In July, Raif Badawi, an online writer and activist, received a seven year jail term and 600 lashes for criticizing religious and political authorities. And so on.
Despite these appalling violations of human decency, Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves and strategic importance in the Middle East ensure that it is largely immune from diplomatic censure. The United States and European Union routinely avoid public criticism of Saudi human rights abuses. Although antithetical to Western thinking, the sorry plight of women in the Kingdom is largely ignored – there are more important things at stake.
Will things change now? Although this new legislation may make it easier for judges to convict and punish men found guilty of domestic violence, there are still serious doubts that it will be a practical deterrent. “I’d urge caution until we see how exactly this law will be implemented and whether domestic abuse cases will now actually be punished in courts,” Adam Coogle told CNN. According to Coogle, the entrenched patriarchal guardianship is likely to be a major obstacle: “How can a woman escape an abusive husband if she’s not allowed to drive and can’t even travel without the permission of her male guardian?” Coogle also has concerns that the issue of marital rape is not addressed by the new law.
Nevertheless, the Saudi cabinet’s initiative – five years after the United Nations urged the country to do more to protect women – will further the debate about the rights of women in a profoundly patriarchal society and will theoretically make the reporting and prosecution of domestic abuse a lot easier. But old traditions, and some of the women who live under them, do tend to die hard.