Saudi Arabia: Saudi Women Seek End to Home Abuse

Arab News
A number of Saudi women have called for urgent state policies to protect victims of domestic violence in the country.
"We want policy change so that courts and police can process cases of domestic violence and protect women," a woman said under condition of anonymity.
Statistics on the number of women who suffer domestic violence, either by their husbands or other male relatives, are unavailable in Saudi Arabia, but many Saudi women insisted that things must change. The UN's Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is observed around the world today.

"There is an abuse of women in our society just like any other society but it's not clear the size of this problem here," said Dr. Lubna Al-Ansari, associate professor of family and community medicine at King Saud University in Riyadh and a senior member of the National Society for Human Rights. "The society is collecting information on this issue and will discuss it from all perspectives and present its findings," she told Arab News.

"When a woman is beaten, she does not speak out because that brings shame to her family" even when she is admitted to hospital," the AFP news agency quoted psychiatrist Madeha Al-Ajroush as saying. She said she wants to see government policies introduced so that the court system and police can process cases of domestic violence and protect women.

Saudi women who are brave enough to file a complaint with police end up with no protection from their abusers unless their immediate families can step into the breach, she said. "We need at least an institution that would teach Saudi women how to utter the word: No," said one woman, who did not want to be named, with her own face bearing the physical scars of the abuse her husband meted out. "We are powerless. What are our rights? The man is always right," she added bitterly - anonymity her cloak of protection against the perceived shame to herself, her children and her extended family.

"Every time I was admitted to hospital, I refused to mention that I was beaten, because I do not want the police to know," not trusting them to keep her ordeal a secret.

Her ex-husband abused her frequently while drunk. In the end, her wealthy family helped her walk out of her 20-year marriage.

But the same private financial and emotional support is not open to all Saudi women. "I realized how much women suffer when I had to go to court (to settle divorce and custody matters)," she said. "I saw old fathers who have been dragged with their (married) daughters to courts, some for over 10 years, in order to obtain a pending divorce," while their husbands failed to show up and ignored the case completely, she added.

"Obtaining divorce (for a woman) is sadly very difficult," agreed Najwa Faraj, a social worker in a Riyadh hospital, who says courts order women to return to their husbands "in order to avoid divorce".

A major hurdle in combating domestic violence is a prevailing belief in Saudi Arabia that beating a woman is "not socially shameful", said Faraj. "As social workers, we face accusations of encouraging women to seek divorce."

But television presenter Rania Al-Baz, whose husband beat her face to a pulp in April, brought the issue to the forefront of national debate, at least temporarily.

"There was a chance then to capitalize on the outrage resulting from the incident, to call for establishing policies that would protect women. Nothing happened however," Faraj lamented. Rania's husband has refused to divorce her except through the court.

Sameera Al-Ghamdi, a psychologist and media coordinator at the Jeddah Psychiatric Hospital, agrees that domestic violence is a problem on the increase not only in Saudi Arabia but all over the world.

"There are different kinds of abuse - physical, verbal and psychological. What we have noticed in our clinics is that perhaps there is less physical abuse now. Although some of the cases we see are severe, there is more awareness and refusal by women to accept physical abuse unlike before," she said.

The problem is that most men still think that they have the right to treat women as they wish and because of that attitude they will verbally and psychologically abuse their wives, daughters and even mothers by controlling them, degrading them, pressurizing them. And Al-Ghamdi considers all that as a form of abuse including not giving women their equal chance as men to hold high positions at work as long as they are qualified.

"It is not only the husbands who abuse their wives but you will also find that the families by refusing to side with their daughters and defend them, contrite to the cycle of abuse. Unfortunately, we still live in a society where traditions and culture play a major role, and I'm not asking that we abandon our traditions and culture, but we should review them and hold on to only those that agree with religion because Islam place women at high esteem," she said.

All this abuse that women endure is reflected in the children and as they grow older they tend to adopt the same attitude. "The boys will grow up to be abusive and the girls will either be submissive and weak or rebellious and aggressive. We already see a high rate of children with psychological disorders because of this lack of knowledge on the long-term effects of abuse toward women and the children themselves," said Al-Ghamdi. "What we need is social support and political support through stricter laws and if there is no punishment for the abuser the violence will not stop," she added.

Haya Al-Manie, a columnist, urged the human rights society to intervene. "We want it to be more active and closer to ordinary people, especially women and children. I think that the society could increase its effectiveness if it had a phone number for women to call in cases of domestic violence," she said.

"It makes no sense that government hospitals treat women battered by their husbands and then send them home without investigating the causes. The least that should be done is to have the husband sign a document that he will not repeat his assault and if he does, he will be punished," she added.

- Additional input by P.K. Abdul Ghafour