After a long and painful fight, legislation outlawing domestic abuse was finally approved by the Saudi Council of Ministers last week. The step came after many years of negotiation in the country’s Shura, or advisory council, where it had faced several religious and logistical barriers.
The law was preceded by several smaller steps in recent years. Some Saudi physicians started publishing reports on child abuse cases seen at local hospitals during the 1990s, and the national media began reporting on several landmark cases of domestic abuse.
The National Family Safety Programme (NFSP) was established in 2005 by royal decree, and helped teams of health professionals to specialise in investigating, documenting, and reporting cases of abuse to social services or the police. Though the NFSP initially targeted cases of child abuse, women were treated and directed by the same teams. It also launched an abuse hotline – a significant step, although the line was poorly manned and intervention was not always successful.
It soon became evident, however, that the system still needed to be improved. Social services handled cases of abuse poorly, and returned most victims to their families after asking abusers to sign pledges not to repeat their acts. The only alternative for women and children was an endless residence in poorly equipped shelters.
The structure of Saudi Arabia’s police and legal system was another serious barrier. Except in extreme cases, lawyers faced severe challenges in convincing a court to strip an abuser of his guardianship over a minor or a woman. At times, murder charges could be expunged by blood money and a pardon, and eccentric views that absolve a father (but not a mother) from punishment for murdering a child have been aired in religious courts.
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Meanwhile, male guardians learned to use the excuse of “disobedience” as a way of evading punishment for abuse of women or minors. Courts often handled two cases in tandem: that of a domestic abuse victim requesting the removal of their guardian, and a counter-suit by a guardian alleging disobedience on the part of the victim. Because of Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system and women’s inability to live autonomously, the NFSP shifted its focus towards counselling abusive families and preventing violence through education. This did not create safe havens for abused women and children, but may have deterred abusers at times and taught victims to seek help when needed.
This historical background is needed to understand the structure of the recently approved law. Though the final text of the legislation has not yet been publicly released, an earlier version published by the Shura council will be used here for analysis. It defined the word “abuse” to include all forms of harm “committed by one individual against another in a relationship of power: as in guardianship, authority, responsibility, familial relationship, sponsorship, or living dependency”, and included “refraining from or dereliction in fulfilling basic needs for a family member or anyone a person is responsible for by law or Sharia”.
Such a definition acknowledges the guardianship system instead of admitting its harmful effects on women. However, it does attempt to limit the guardian’s power. The definition also laudably attempts to cover all forms of abuse in order to solve the need for a sexual harassment code, which has been enforced as a precondition to allow women’s employment in gender-mixed workplaces.
While fulfilling “basic needs” may sound like a highly subjective clause, the judges in Saudi courts usually interpret this as meaning the minimum living standard for dependants. The “concerned authority” referred to in the law is defined as the governmental entity responsible for dealing with cases of abuse. However, there is no mention of who or what this authority is.
Does a woman’s right to work, travel, marry, divorce, and participate in public society fall within the law’s definition of ‘basic needs’?
A focus on counselling and maintaining family ties when dealing with cases of abuse, in articles seven and ten, brings to mind the issues faced by the NFSP in referrals and resources. Wishful thinking would encourage us to imagine that better solutions, such as repeated family visits by qualified counselors, rehabilitation centres, and well-equipped family shelters could have been provided by the law, rather than continuing to ask abusers to sign pledges and teach victims how to call for help.
However, on a more positive note, the law mentions relocating victims to a safe shelter if the “concerned authority” believes the case is severe. The law also significantly improves how cases are reported. While abused women in the past were often asked to personally file complaints at the police stations in order to get help, the new system gives all people the right to inform authorities of any cases of abuse. Acknowledging the need for evidence-based decision-making, the new law requires “the concerned authority” to keep a registry, coordinate with concerned entities, conduct research, and educate the public on abuse and its effects.
The new law seems to enforce un-codified mechanisms established by several sectors over the past decade. It also provides abuse victims with a written guide of what is expected by law, and not by internal memos or programmes.
Yet much more remains to be defined in the next few years. Does a woman’s right to work, travel, marry, divorce, and participate in public society fall within the law’s definition of “basic needs”? Will Saudi courts interpret corporal punishment of a wife or child as abuse, or as a legitimate use of authority? Drawing the line would be the best test of the new law’s efficiency to deal with violence in all its forms in Saudi Arabia.
Hala Al-Dosari is a Saudi writer and activist.