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.”
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