Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Saudis in denial over violence against women and children

It came as something of a shock when I learned the other day that the number of domestic violence cases in Saudi Arabia does not exceed 650.

What a relief to live in a country where violence against women and children is virtually non-existent. This good news comes from none other than the man who should know: Ali Al-Hinaki, the general manager of Social Affairs Department in the Makkah province.

Al-Hinaki told a Jeddah reporter that there are no statistics on the number of abuse cases, but he estimated that there were no more than 650. Yet the Social Affairs Department does not explain that if there are so few domestic violence cases in Saudi Arabia, why is there the need to sponsor this week a three-day awareness forum in Jeddah? Or why establish 17 committees to deal with family protection? By Social Affairs Department’s logic that amounts to 38 abuse victims per committee. Now that is what I call great response to such a minor issue.

But all kidding aside, this ridiculously low statistic is an insult to every Saudi woman and child whether or not they have been the victim of abuse. There are more than 27 million people – 22 million of which are Saudis – living in Saudi Arabia. Just how did the law of averages
elude the Social Affairs Department?

Earlier this year Abdul Aziz Al-Dakhil, an attorney and a leading expert on domestic violence, said, “If we are informed that there are 10 cases of abuse, there are for sure 1,000 more suffering in silence and not spoken about.” Al-Dakhil has a better grasp of reality, but the numbers don’t adequately convey the urgency of establishing codified laws protecting abuse victims.

Al-Dakhil points out that there is no established definition in Saudi Arabia of what constitutes domestic violence. Family members who perpetrate violence against their victims confuse guardianship and Islam with discipline. Even victims are often confused about whether
their misery is a product of abuse or a form of discipline under Islam.

There are grassroots efforts to provide services to prevent domestic abuse. Saudi writer Rima Ibrahim is campaigning to establish a facility that can provide care and protection for women abused or abandoned by their husbands. We’ve also seen the growth of women’s shelters throughout the Kingdom.

Saudis, however, have a tendency to minimize their faults. We claim the moral high ground by asserting we are good Muslims not capable of committing unspeakable violence towards our loved ones.

Government officials undermine their own awareness projects by dismissing the seriousness of domestic violence with unsubstantiated low statistics. People in a position of authority charged with making life-altering decisions affecting a girl’s future have no business holding the job. I recall visiting a shelter a couple years ago in which the director told me that many runaway girls seeking protection from abuse were simply disobedient brats who should mind their parents.

It’s incredulous that Saudis still dance around the issue of domestic abuse. It’s not a question of whether Saudi Arabia has a domestic violence problem, but how do we as a nation solve it. Our failing is that we think our moral authority makes us separate, if not above, the rest of the world in terms of crimes against our own family members. We are no different than the rest of the international community. I imagine that the number of abuse cases in Saudi Arabia is proportionate to the rest of the world.

It’s fine that judicial reform is underway to codify laws. It’s good that Saudi authorities are moving towards legal transparency. And it’s satisfying to see progress made – although at a snail’s pace – in the establishment of shelters and women’s rights services.

But none of it means much if we continue to bury our heads in the sand and claim the violence in the home is limited to just a few hundred cases. These kinds of pronouncements instill little confidence that we will ever effectively combat domestic abuse.


Saad Al Dosari said...

The lack of serious numbers must be a way we Saudi use to hide the truth or to hide our failure to address the issue in hands. Sometimes, feeling good about ourselves and our miserable work (and not to mention showing that we are doing great to our superiors) is far more important than the work itself.

The matter becomes even worse when we deal with something that falls, at least for some people, in this vague intersection of religion and common practices, such as domestic violence.

At the end, realizing the problem, the roots of the problem to be exact, is always the first step to solve it.


Chiara said...

Sabria-a great post that covers significant aspects of a complex problem, ie domestic violence. As you point out, alas domestic violence occurs in all cultures and societies, the more important issue is how to deal with it in terms of prevention and then help for the women and children, and occasionally men who are the targets. Unfortunately Muslim countries have been slow to acknowledge certain problems because they are taboo, eg alcoholism, drug addiction and abuse, which at least one expert and influential psychiatrist, Driss Moussaoui (Moroccan and an executive member of the World Psychiatric Association), has made a point of calling to public and professional attention.

Saad Al Dosari--an excellent comment. "Common practices" is perhaps a more even apt term than "culture" since surely these practices, though common, are not necessarily supported by the cultural ideals.

Anonymous said...

I was reading Saudi Gazette and landed here. It was a nice post. Although people count me on the conservative side of the party, I agree with the author about allowing at least these women to drive for whom driving is not a luxury but a necessity.

Tanzim Akhtar (Indian living in Riyadh).

Anonymous said...

well-written.a good job.
keep it up.


MishmishKSA said...

First I would like to say that this is my 1st time at your website and reading your articles. Congrats...to all your hard work bringing issues to the viewers. Keep up the good work. So here are some of my thoughts:
Sadly, I think that one of the main problems is that too many men here believe that grabbing their wives be the neck choking them, hitting them with pillows over the head, grabbing them at the jaw, pulling the hair, kicking them, etc ...are just methods of discipline for wives and children alike. So this is not abuse in their minds! Also I see not only the physical but the mental abuse as being critical in the situation...wives told they cannot leave the house, cannot visit with friends, everything she says is ignored or things she needs considered unnecessary...this is extremely depressing and demeaning. I do not mean to generalize but another large issue is RESPECT & HONESTY. There really seems to be little of either. It seems husbands and wives live in this world of half answers, no questions ask of each others where-abouts and if you do ask, you are made to feel like you are in the wrong, and in front of others everything is made to look perfect and of course you should never speak of your problems to anyone. This is one reason for the misconception in numbers of abuse cases. This is living a lie...which is not Honest and in my opinion does not follow the most basic concepts of marriage, love or Islam.