Against the expectation of many observers, social change continues in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Recent reforms have particularly affected the status of women. At the end of August, the Saudis took a remarkable and surprising step by criminalizing domestic violence. As reported in the London Independent, the Saudi cabinet “passed a ban on domestic violence and other forms of abuse against women for the first time in the Kingdom’s history.”
The prohibition defines domestic violence as a punishable offense and is applicable in home and employment relationships. It outlaws exploitation on the basis of gender, and psychological mistreatment or the threat of it. The new Saudi law establishes programs for treatment and shelter of abuse victims. It holds official law enforcement responsible for the investigation and prosecution of such complaints. Guilty verdicts may produce a penalty of up to a year in prison and fines as large as $13,000.
Saudi media said the royal cabinet mandated that “all civilian and military employees and all workers in the private sector who learn of a case of abuse—by virtue of their work—shall report the case to their employers. … The employers shall report the case to the Ministry of Social Affairs or police.”
According to CNN, the law is meant to shield the most vulnerable residents of the country, including women, domestic workers, and children. The cable network added that sentences may be doubled against repeat offenders.
Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi who blogs under the name “SaudiWoman,” pointed out to CNN that the new law has been introduced in a country that still permits underage child marriage. CNN cited further warnings by Saudi critics that the law did not specify spousal rape as a form of domestic violence or alter the absurd regulations under which Saudi women are required to gain permission from a male family member or “guardian” in carrying out such personal tasks as traveling or applying for a visa, opening a bank account, attending college, getting a job, or checking into a hospital. Still, an editorial early in September by the Saudi Gazette, a daily published in Jedda, the country’s commercial capital, emphasized that under the new law parents who persist in wrongdoing against their offspring may suffer revocation of guardianship.
Earlier this year, the King Khalid Foundation, a leading Saudi charitable institution, launched an advertising campaign against domestic violence, with a poster showing a woman in the Saudi-style face veil or niqab, with only her eyes visible and one black eye. The placard declared, in Arabic and English, "Some things can't be covered." Another version said, “What is hidden, is worse.”
The Saudi Gazette declared, “The new law recently passed by the Kingdom that will criminalize different forms of abuse at home and in the workplace is a landmark ruling because for the first time in the country’s history, the subject is being seriously tackled. … Perhaps most important is that the issue is being brought out in the open. … Domestic abuse has become a growing topic of debate in Saudi Arabia. … The National Society for Human Rights has reported 1,998 cases of abuse against women out of a total of 2,293 domestic abuse cases between 2004, when the organization was established, and 2011, not including the abuse not reported which might easily surpass the official numbers. … Instead of doing nothing about the violations, there is now recourse through the courts. The airing of dirty linen is sometimes needed to right a wrong.”
The daily Arab News, considered closer to the royal powers that be, published a headline announcing that the monarchy “Declares war on domestic abuse.” The Arab News quoted Mohammed Al-Harbi, general manager of Social Protection at the Ministry of Social Affairs, stipulating that “urgent domestic violence cases now can be handled quickly. ‘Urgent investigations will be launched and action will be taken in the cases where the abusers are under the influence of drugs or alcohol and those who suffer from psychological conditions,’ Al-Harbi said.”
The Arab News disclosed, “In a 2009 study of women seeking services at primary health centers in Medina, 25.7 percent of the 689 women surveyed said they were victims of physical abuse. Only 36.7 percent of the abused women in the study notified their doctors.”
In other developments, by royal order in February 2013, 30 women were admitted to Saudi Arabia’s supreme consultative body, the unelected, 150-member, previously male-only Shura Council. Television news coverage of the Shura Council session by the liberal channel Al-Arabiya, which is Saudi-owned but based in Dubai, showed that most of the women members did not appear in face veils. In 2011, women were granted restricted electoral rights, including running for local councils, naming candidates, and voting, beginning in 2015.
While laudable, the new domestic violence legislation leaves numerous gaps in the status of Saudi women. Female Saudi citizens may still be limited in their rights before a court. They may face prosecution if raped, on the pretext that the female victim was in the company of someone to whom she was not related or married, or lacked the presence of a “guardian”/chaperone. Saudi women and girls must contend with so-called “honor” murders, forced marriage, forced divorce involving “forbidden” relations between certain families, clans, and tribes, and the repellent practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Even in the last context, however, Saudi Arabia has shown some progress. A paper by Sharifa A. Alsibiani and Abdulrahim Rouzi, two researchers in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the King Abdulaziz University in Jedda, has been published in English. Based on a study of 130 sexually-active Saudi women who underwent FGM and 130 who were sexually active but free of genital cutting, the paper concluded, “Sexual function in women with FGM is adversely altered.” It stated forthrightly that while FGM is considered a traditional obligation by some Muslims, “all scholars and Islamic authorities agree that all types of body mutilation including FGM are condemned by Islam.”
The desert monarchy has been notorious throughout the world for its restrictions on females, including requirements for full-body covering when outside a domestic environment, and a ban on women driving cars and trucks. At least 80,000 Saudi women own private vehicles, and it is well known that Saudi women operate them in rural areas, although on highways and in cities they must employ drivers.
Until last year, the so-called “religious police,” better titled “morals patrols,” and officially named the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), was charged with “monitoring” mixed-gender couples to make sure they were married or otherwise family-related. But Saudi King Abdullah then replaced the head of the commission, naming Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, who is active in reform efforts, to direct it. The new chief decreed that the patrols could no longer include volunteer zealots, and were barred from harassing people.
Most recently, the Saudis have entered a film feature as their first-ever competitor for the Oscars: Wadjda,from the country’s first female cinema director, the unveiled Haifaa Al-Mansour, depicts a 10-year old Saudi girl surrounded by retrograde attitudes and customs. While Egypt slides further into chaos, blood continues flowing in Syria, and Iran appears intransigent in its radicalism, the gradual but undeniable steps being taken towards normalization of Saudi society should not be ignored.