Patriarchy and Domestic Violence in Saudi Arabia

Domestic violence is not an uncommon phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. For a long time, it remained a private matter not usually discussed in public. The year 2013 was a turning point in recognizing the problem when King Khalid Foundation launched the first campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence in the country. A few months later, a law was finally implemented that criminalizes domestic violence and enact penalties against offenders. However, such efforts did not help in preventing more cases as numbers kept steadily increasing even after the law was introduced. 

The ad of the first anti-domestic violence campaign titled "Some Things Can't be Covered". (CNN)
The ad of the first anti-domestic violence campaign titled “Some Things Can’t be Covered”. (CNN)

Why domestic violence laws failed to address the situation?

The deeply patriarchal society in Saudi Arabia often stands in the way of improving the situation of women in the country. Five years have passed since the launch of the campaign and the criminalization of domestic violence, yet, women remain skeptical of the mechanisms established by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development to deal with abuse.

One reason to explain the hesitation of women to reach out for help is due to the use of female detention centers, often called “hospitality homes”, to host female victims. A woman cannot leave these centers without the consent of her male guardian who, in often cases, is the abuser. An abused woman has to choose between staying in these centers or leaving with her abusive male guardian which often times lead to more abuse. Women are usually wary of being send to “hospitality homes” as former detainees have exposed the bad living conditions in some of these centers. Earlier this year, a woman who stayed for years in one of the “hospitality homes” agreed to marry a man who facilitated her release by signing as her official male guardian.

Twitter as a platform to report abuse

It is no wonder, then, that Twitter has become the preferred outlet for reporting domestic violence cases, especially among victims who do not want to be detained in “hospitality centers” while their abusers remain free. Women subject to violence know that Twitter is the only way they can generate public support and force government officials to do their job. Two cases of domestic violence trended almost simultaneously on Twitter on April 1. They have generated widespread public condemnation and showed the multi-layered complexity of addressing issues related to women in the private sphere.

A cartoon by Saudi cartoonist (ِ@jabertoon) depicting an public official sleeping on his desk and asking not to be disturbed unless if an issue becomes a Twitter trend.
Saudi cartoonist (jabertoon) depicting a public official sleeping under his desk and asking not to be disturbed unless a case becomes trending on Twitter.

Amal Al-Shammari from Hafar Al-Batin

Amal Al-Shammari posted a number of videos on Twitter in an attempt to reach out to the public about her situation. In these videos, she explains how her father abused her physically and verbally and would not allow her leave the house. Amal first sought help from the Ministry of Labor and Social Development’s office in Hafar Al-Batin by explaining her case to them. She was shocked to know that the office contacted her father and informed him that she reported him. This, according to Amal, led to more physical abuse as her father threatened to kill her. Amal used social media to criticize the Ministry for failing to perform its duty and to generate public support. Within hours, Amal’s case was trending on Twitter.

Patriarchy becomes an issue in Amal’s story when the ministry’s office contacted the father instead of helping her. It also shows that institutions working on domestic violence cases acknowledge the patriarchal system and do not work against it. As a result of contacting her father, Amal Al-Shammari became concerned over her life and had to escape with her mother. The trending hashtag caused Khalid Abalkhail, the ministry’s spokesman, to respond by saying that social protection and security agencies are working on protecting Amal Al-Shammari. Amal’s last tweet stated that her case has been referred to the public prosecution office. No more is known of Amal’s fate until today.

The case of the woman from Abha

The second case took place in the city of Abha in Asir province. Unlike Amal Al-Shammari, the victim in Abha did not reach out to the public. Her neighbor, however, recorded a video in which a woman’s screams can be heard. The video went viral on social media as the repeated screaming caused many Saudis to demand the prosecution of the abuser.

Ma’ali Almowaten, a television program that deals with timely social issues, interviewed Saad Al-Thabit, the spokesman of the Assir province, who said that there was no official complaint by the wife and no prove of abuse committed. He also stated that they took all the necessary steps, including a medical test, which proved that the woman was not a victim of domestic violence. Al-Thabit said that the recording of the incident should be considered a breach of family privacy. Ali Al-Alyani, the program’s host, refuted Al-Thabit’s claims, arguing that family connections in that region are known for “cover-ups” and that the victim remains powerless in the greater scheme of things.

Users of social media soon began circulating the name and the photo of a man alleged to be the husband of the abused woman. A few hours later, another television program interviewed both the man and the victim’s father. The father, Khalid Al-Harthi, confirmed that his daughter was not abused and her medical reports support that. The husband, Majid bin Maanea Omair, said that he was shocked to have security agencies reach his home. He also said that he welcomed them and offered his support. Khalid bin Maanea said that he will prosecute all of those who accused him on social media and that he was “hurt” to hear the screams of the woman. Ironically, however, many were interviewed on television to talk about the case except the abused woman herself.

Patriarchy and reforms

Patriarchy remains an issue in Saudi Arabia where male dominance is a cultural value dating back to pre-Islamic Arabia. Reforms targeting women will always have to trespass on the private sphere, a problem that the government wants to tackle it in a way “that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.”

The need for a guardian’s approval on major issues effecting women’s lives has been contested and rejected by a number of Saudi religious scholars as well as government official themselves. However, implementation remain an issue due to the deep-rooted believe in patriarchy and its centralization in family. Abolishing the guardianship system may be the most difficult reform step facing the government today. However, domestic violence cases will always show the complexity of the matter as patriarchy remains a central component that allows violence regardless of the government’s effort to tackle and criminalize it.


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