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. Abuse is now against the law. Perhaps most important is that the issue is being brought out in the open.
Although still something of a taboo subject in the Kingdom, domestic abuse has become a growing topic of debate in Saudi Arabia, culminating in the new law in which all forms of exploitation as well as physical, psychological and sexual abuse or threat of abuse will be treated as an offense. Offenders may be imprisoned for a term ranging from one month to a year and have to pay fines of between SR5,000 and SR50,000. For repeat offenders, penalties may be doubled.
The new law also requires third parties knowledgeable about any violations to report them to the authorities. In addition to criminal sanctions, the law will also provide psychological, social and health care assistance to victims of abuse. The law also gives courts the power to take guardianship of children away from abusive parents in repeat offense cases.
Figures for abuse are not always easy to come by, but they are enough to show that there is a serious problem. 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.
However, help came in May this year which saw the launch of the country’s first ever publicity campaign raising awareness about violence against women. "What is hidden, is worse" and "Some things can’t be covered" were themes launched with a poster featuring a veiled woman with a bruised eye.
Initiated by the King Khalid Foundation, the ad was eye-catching, daring and thought-provoking, exactly what was needed to highlight the problem. The new domestic abuse law is a natural extension of what has been a watershed year for women's rights in the Kingdom. So far, women have been accepted into the government's advisory Shoura Council, have been given the right to vote, and have gained entry into a range of new professions, including engineering and law.
Now we have the exposure of domestic abuse, a problem that has traditionally been kept behind closed doors. In the past there was nowhere for a woman to go if she was abused because there was no system set up to handle the problem. Although the issue is still not completely out in the open, the last few years has seen a rise in shelters that cater to female victims of violence. This has been capped by a law.
Domestic violence is considered a private matter in Saudi Arabia rather than a legal issue so the new law represents a significant advancement in women’s rights in the Kingdom. What happens behind closed doors is usually a strictly family affair and an intrusion from the outside is often considered an invasion of privacy. But when it comes to domestic abuse, there is a difference between interference and intervention. If individuals are not being treated according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is imperative that they know their rights and the laws involved in order to be able to protect themselves from any harm. 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.