There is something about the lack of compassion and the rush to judge a Saudi woman’s behavior that’s very troubling in Saudi society.
Recently a 15-year-old girl was found by the Hai’a in Riyadh with her much older Yemeni lover. The girl was from the Eastern Province and had an affair with the man who was a taxi driver. He moved to Riyadh and asked her to join him. She took the bus and lived with the man in the city for two weeks. Their behavior, however, made the Hai’a suspicious and they questioned her. It didn’t take long for the girl to confess her affair and she was jailed.
The report of the girl’s arrest in one Saudi newspaper prompted nearly 400 comments from Saudis who nearly universally condemned the girl’s actions and pinned the blame on her family for their failure to control her. The number of comments to the newspaper is telling in that this case has touched a raw nerve among Saudis. As far as I’m concerned it’s a bonafide sampling of Saudi attitudes about runaway girls. And it doesn’t give Saudi women much hope for the future.
Not a single comment to newspaper editors addressed the central question about this teenager’s behavior. Why did she runaway and take up residence with a much older man? The reaction was to punish the girl and hold the parents responsible for their lack of vigilance. It’s as if their sole role in raising their child is to act like prison guards with a lock and key instead of emotional support.
One person went so far as to acknowledge that the girl may have been abused at home, but it’s preferable to being abused by mom and dad instead of “wolves” in the big, bad city. What malarkey. If this person represents true Saudi attitudes, then he’s suggesting that our society wants the girl to exchange one hell for a lesser hell and take comfort that she knows her tormentors.
Girls run away for a reason. They are abused emotionally or physically. They are forced into marriage. They have their wages seized by their male guardians. Their brothers exert complete control over their lives. Parents often marry their daughters off to a “sugar daddy.” The girls live in a velvet prison of luxury and watch their parents reap the benefits of the marriage. Yes, some girls are idiots, but the vast majority of young females are victims of domestic abuse.
As a last resort they escape from the very people who should take care of them.
The few shelters available to victims of domestic abuse are virtual prisons and only here abusive fathers, mothers and brothers are given a free pass to inflict emotional and physical pain on their own girls.
Some members of the Saudi society are great enablers of runaways. In fact, we encourage girls to run away from home because we – neighbors, families and friends – don’t hold the people responsible for their abuse.
Saudis have yet to tackle the causes and effects of the girls running away from home. In the black and white world of Saudi society it’s a moral issue that needs to be dealt with harshly.
There are some Saudis who don’t take this simplistic view of the plight of young women. Saad Al-Mushawh, an associate professor of psychology at Imam University in Riyadh, had challenged our perception in dealing with runaway girls. He said recently that religious, social and cultural issues get in the way of combating this problem. He said that government statistics on the number of runaway girls are not accurate.
Nora Al-Swayan, who is with the National Program for Family Protection, presented a paper recently at the Sixth Scientific Meeting for the Saudi Association of Social Studies at King Khaled Hospital.
She said that girls run away because they are starved of emotional support and are victims of emotionally abusive brothers.
In Al-Swayan’s study, she found that 50 percent of the girls run away because of their stepmothers. In addition, Al-Swayan cites the absence of emotional security in the household. “Eighty percent of the Saudi houses remain in a state of silence in which all love disappears,” she said.
An estimated 39.3 percent of female runaways are young or classified as children; 27.7 percent flee poverty; 20.6 percent lack an education; 20 percent are unemployed; and 9 percent are the victims of violence, according to Al-Swayan.
In one runaway case that typifies a young woman’s Catch-22 situation, a 15-year-old girl was forced into marriage by her father who sold her to an elderly man for SR 100,000. The father refused to allow her to finish her education and she was abused by her elderly husband. She ran away. When she was caught, she simply said that she missed being loved.
The 15-year-old’s plight is a common problem, but wrapped in a conspiracy of silence. The cultural and traditional customs of dowries for a young bride have been so thoroughly abused in Saudi Arabia that many young women are regarded as nothing more than a bartering tool to elicit financial rewards from prospective, and often older, grooms.
These old, wealthy men are so eager for a young teenage bride that it’s perfectly acceptable to offer the parents large sums of money and shower the girl with expensive jewelry in exchange for matrimonial privileges. One must wonder how this is any different from slavery.
Runaways, more likely than not, are victimized by their families. Yet we betray these girls by further punishing them. We perpetuate the abuse because we refuse to look beyond our noses at the cause. Suggesting simplistic solutions like arresting runaways, sending them to six months or locking bedroom doors are symptoms of a collective sickness. We have a cure for this. It’s called responsibility. Hold parents and siblings accountable for domestic abuse. Give domestic abuse victims shelter and counseling.
Listen to their stories and take action. Quit worrying about family privacy. Families that abuse their daughters and sisters give up their rights to privacy and deserve the scrutiny of the Ministry of Social Services. – SG
The writer can reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and her blog is: www.saudiwriter.blogspot.com