Saudi Arabia has introduced a campaign aimed at tackling domestic violence against women in the kingdom. The King Khalid Foundation funds the campaign, which is a royal, family-run organization with clear ties to the Saudi government.
The campaign ad portrays a face-covered woman with only her eyes showing, one of which is bruised. The translation of the Arabic message of the ad reads: “What is hidden underneath is much bigger.” However, the sentence should refer to what is hidden deep inside the laws of the kingdom and not under the facial covers.
The campaign is disconnected from the main reason behind domestic violence. Domestic violence in Saudi Arabia, unlike in other parts of the world, goes far deeper than just a social issue, it is the problem with the law itself. In Saudi Arabia, men grow up knowing that abusing your wife, sister or mother is protected by law. In terms of religion, men in Saudi Arabia, and some other parts of the Muslim world, are being taught in school that hitting your wife is one solution to her disobedience. Clerics are also outspoken about such rulings on TV.
The famous Saudi preacher Mohamad Alarefe, said on LBC channel:
“Allah created women with these soft and fragile bodies because they use their emotions more than their bodies and that’s why you find men discipline their wives with beating while women discipline their husbands with crying.”
He continued, “the point of the husband hitting his wife is not to cause pain but to get obedience.”
Clerics emphasize the fact the women have to obey their fathers, brothers and husbands as part of their religious duty.
On another occasion, when asked about women leaving the house, Mohamad Alarefe said:
“There are two cases for women leaving the house, the first case is if the husband told his wife not to go somewhere, like the market because he ‘hates’ her doing that and she leaves to that place then leaving is forbidden and not allowed. The second case is if she leaves to a place that her husband does not hate and approves of and that it was difficult for her to take his permission because he is in prison, or a captive, etc. then leaving is permitted.”
In terms of law, there is not one law in Saudi Arabia that regards violence toward women as an illegal activity. As a matter of fact, women in Saudi Arabia are minors under law until their death, making it impossible for a woman to make any decision on her own without the permission of her guardian.
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This means that even if a woman is “radical” enough to disobey her guardian or reject his abuse or decisions, she has got nowhere to go. She cannot file a complaint or leave the country or do practically anything without her guardian’s permission, which in most cases, ironically, is the abuser himself.
Therefore there is no reason for a man to restrain himself from abusing women in his family. He knows that he has the power to abuse her, hit her, stop her from working and stop her from getting educated while having the law and religion right there behind him.
The ad in the new campaign is meant to define domestic violence in Saudi Arabia as being a social issue and divert attention from the government’s lack of laws that protect women. This campaign takes the responsibility away from the government and puts it in the hands of individuals themselves; women have to step up and talk about abuse and go to shelters, and men have to restrain themselves from abusing women.
This campaign tries to limit the cause to only being the women’s lack of knowledge of laws and regulations. It advocates the notion that the solution can only come by the participation of the women themselves. A comment by princess Ameerah al-Taweel’s, the vice chairwoman of the Board of the Alwaleed Bin Talal foundation, follows on a similar path:
"The main issue when it comes to abused women in Saudi is lack of knowledge. Some women who accept being abused don't know their rights in Islam, and a lot of women who are suffering from abuse, don't know their rights in our legal system. That they can report their case and they will be protected by the government.”
This notion presents the government as the “good guy” because supposedly they are promoting such campaigns and willing to help the women who suffer from abuse: a government that has “a legal system” that protects women from abuse and domestic violence. The fact is under the legal system in Saudi, men can get away with their abuse, as the punishment for domestic violence is very minimal. Human Rights Watch World Report 2013 reported:
“In May, Jeddah’s Summary Court convicted a man for physically abusing his wife to the point of hospitalization, but sentenced him to learning by heart five parts of the Quran and 100 sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.”
The legal system in Saudi Arabia does not have the sufficient tools and laws that would deter men from domestic violence. In case of drugs and murder, the punishment is death penalty, which makes people think twice before committing such crimes because of the consequences. Yet, when it comes to domestic violence the punishment is learning parts of the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Such campaigns are ahead of their time because first concrete laws must be put in place. Then and only then can we start equating domestic violence to other social issues, such as drug use or child abuse or animal rights, that take place in the society despite the presence of related laws and regulations. How can we educate people about the harms of a social issue when the government itself is not considering these harms?
Women should refuse to be victimized into believing that such actions are part of their religion and instead ask for real changes in the law itself as opposed to superficially trying to solve such essential issues. They should hold their government accountable for this abuse. The solution to such problems can only be achieved with the kind of spirit and power that the Arab Spring had; by demanding change, protesting oppression and getting hurt for the sake of the cause.