Violence against women has no country

UK, Saudi Arabia

Can Stifled Women Talk?
Dr. Basma Al-Mutlaq, Arab News

Violence against women has no country; it is a plague that is known to breed in the stench of poverty as well as behind the closed doors of the most affluent homes.

Domestic violence or violence against women is a global issue that is not limited to a particular ethnic or religious group.

Raising the public’s awareness of this urgent issue is fundamental. A few years back there was an ad in the UK that opened with the sound of a jingling key, a door screeching and the steps of someone entering a home, the voice-over then cut in: “Are you afraid of this sound, please call...”. This ad was chilling enough to make me reflect on the universality of domestic violence and its continued existence in a country renowned for its strong public stance on bolstering women’s and human rights.

Unfortunately, in openly “patriarchal” societies the issue of violence against women is still considered a taboo — a private matter that should be confined to the inner rooms of the house, and dealt with by family elders who, if not themselves the perpetrators of violence, may well be its silent agents. Over half a decade of campaigning on issues of domestic violence in the UK has led to the conclusion by civil society groups that if women and family members are left to negotiate on their own with the aggressors, they only become further victims of emotional manipulation, bullying and verbal threats.

The ghostly house of violence in which more violence is bred as the children learn from an early age first to cower and then that the only viable response to their own frustration is to strike out at anyone with even less power than themselves is regrettably a microcosm of our society in Saudi Arabia.

The victims, who are mainly women and children, are affected not only on a physical level, but even more so on the psychological level; when women victims learn to bear their scars in silence they turn into silent beings and silent witnesses of violence against others.

It is perhaps difficult to acknowledge that in the land of the Prophet, the land of the faithful, a large number of women are resorting to all types of medications to calm their fears and insecurities — insecurities that are born out of the chronically unbalanced power relations between the sexes in this part of the world. Regardless of what the defenders of the status quo might say in support of their position, we must not waver in our urgent responsibility to identify and stop abuses.

Following in the steps of other Arab countries such as Jordan, Tunisia and Yemen, Saudi Arabia organized — by royal decree — a forum in Riyadh that debated the issue of domestic violence on many levels. The forum was inaugurated by Princess Adella, daughter of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.

This is a noteworthy and promising event. The importance of this step lies in the fact that the government took the initiative on an issue that directly relates to women — a bold shift in its relatively prolonged and oft-aborted journey toward the reform of women’s rights. This strategy of introducing new policies and legislation would be the ideal way of enabling women in Saudi Arabia to overcome historical impediments to their self-empowerment, particularly since the 1980s. Previous strategies of testing the water and the inevitable subsequent appeasements of so-called “religious sensibilities” have resulted in nothing but the failure to launch any progressive programs. Nor has waiting for the peoples’ consensus on laws relating to women’s rights proved feasible. The hosting of an important forum is a vital step in the thousand-mile road Princess Adella (who is active in philanthropic and social work) and others like her must travel to build up the support and arsenal needed to demolish the high wall of taboos that has for so long surrounded and hidden from view generations of familial abuse. This is because the issue touches upon “shame” and “tradition”, ideologies that have a grip on the Arab mentality. For many years, countless women in the Kingdom have had to mutely endure all sorts of physical and verbal abuse, powerless themselves to protect their children from further abuse.

There is a direct correlation between notions of shame and the prevalence of violence. When a beast is born in the home of a family, rather than proudly fighting or fleeing it, “shame” locks the woman and her children into a silent and futile tussle with the beast, and prevents her from seeking outside help. In Saudi Arabia there have been a few domestic violence victims who have come out of their seclusion and made the headlines in the past few years. Rania, Rahaf, Samirah, Rana and of course Ghosoon are only some examples that are still alive in the collective memory of Saudis.

These women’s dilemmas mirror the near-impossible situation of women in the Kingdom. The story of Ghosoon was just the tip of the iceberg, and if one looked closely at her life, one would see that it followed a familiar pattern with all the attendant pathologies. After her mother was divorced from the father Ghosoon lived with her mother for nine years, after which following the Shariah law, the father won custody over Ghosoon.

The young girl was physically abused during the course of one year living with her father and eventually murdered at his hands. Although the father and the stepmother were sentenced to death in 2006, one still questions how a father can get away with violently abusing a young girl in his care for so long without any of the authorities intervening. He surely realized that he could act with total impunity, and only when it was too late, and the girl lay dead did the law of the land pass sentence on his crimes. What use to the victim is punishment without prevention?

No one would have known about the abuse endured by Ghosoon if it weren’t for the fact that she was eventually taken to hospital suffering from severe injuries inflicted by her own father in the presence of his second wife. This was in spite of the fact that the young girl’s uncle had time after time reported the incidences of brutal abuse to the police, who refused to take action. This should make the police themselves culpable of and accomplices to this abuse, in the eyes of the law.

Such incidents bring us face to face with issues we might rather ignore: They are discrimination against women in this male-dominated society, and the erroneous interpretation and teaching of some of the Qur’anic texts.

While I find a father’s physical abuse of his daughter abhorrent, I am just as sickened by the hypocrisy discernible in our system based on tradition and honor. The lie must be given to the idea that there is any “honor” in abusing members of one’s own family.

I would suggest then that while the forum is a welcome initiative, addressing domestic violence issues in isolation from other forms of officially sanctioned and systematic abuse of women’s rights will prove futile, because women are trapped in a system that is prejudiced against their needs and rights, and it is only once they can claim these basic rights, without fear of intimidation, condemnation and prosecution, that they will be able to stand their ground and face not only their male abusers but the whole world.

— Basma Al-Mutlaq has a Ph.D. in comparative and feminist literature in the Middle East from SOAS, London University.

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