Saudi Arabia recently took historic steps to stop domestic violence. Fatimah Jackson-Best discusses how this ban can impact Muslims around the world.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s cabinet recently passed a ban on domestic violence which encompasses all forms of violence against women. Under this new law, physical violence against women is a punishable crime and penalties for those convicted include a maximum 12 month jail sentence and/or fines of up to USD13,000. The law also gives women who leave violent domestic situations the right to receive shelter and treatment. Police and law enforcement agencies are also implicated as they are given the responsibility for investigating and prosecuting claims of abuse.
This legislation is groundbreaking especially since Saudi Arabia has previously regarded domestic violence as a private matter: instances of violence against women were considered to be a family issue or one between husband and wife. This stance allowed the courts to distance itself from bringing abusers to justice.
In banning domestic violence, Saudi Arabia has set a precedent for the Muslim world and for Muslims living in other parts of the world
When I heard this news, I immediately thought about other Muslim countries and what this legislation would and could mean for them. Saudi Arabia has for generations held power over Islamic decision-making, affecting Muslims around the world. From fatwa (opinions on Islamic law) to when Ramadan begins, many of us are implicated in the decisions made by a country hundreds and thousands of miles away. So what does it mean when this hub of Islamic law and practice now recognises that when women are abused by men, it is a crime deserving of justice?
In banning domestic violence, Saudi Arabia has set a precedent for the Muslim world and for Muslims living in other parts of the world. In 2009, Afghanistan’s then President Hamid Karzai also approved a law that banned violence against women. But in May 2013, that law was struck down by the parliament whose conservative members asserted that it contradicted Islamic law.[i] Around the world, Muslims and non-Muslims questioned how such a damaging action could be taken by the Afghani courts and how religion could be used to turn a blind eye to domestic violence.
From a religious perspective, Saudi Arabia’s new stance against abuse can be seen as one that will show other Muslim countries that abusing women is not a man’s right bestowed by Allah, despite how some may manipulate the Qur’an to back up such claims. This is a significant responsibility, although it may not be one intentionally taken up by Saudi Arabia.
This new law also recognises the emotional and mental abuse that women experience in violent domestic situations. The inclusion of treatment and shelter for women who experience abuse indicates that many may need to leave their homes in order to be safe. Too often when a woman is in a violent domestic situation, people ask ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’
Unfortunately, women who have no money or resources may be unable to leave because they have no place to go. Such a situation may be even more complicated if she has children, because of the possibility of homelessness. When some women are faced with such hard decisions, many may choose to stay, thinking that their children’s wellbeing is most important. This unfortunately compromises both their safety by exposing them to further violence.
The ban also realises that emotional and mental abuse are part of the abuse cycle, and that to begin to undo damage, women need to receive counselling that repairs their self-esteem. Offering counselling to women is another key part of the ban and it highlights the need to address women’s mental health.
Most of all, this legislation helps women to continue to advocate for accountability for domestic violence from their government and law enforcement agencies. It remains to be seen whether Saudi courts will actually punish a man for abusing his wife, or if the police will record accusations of abuse made by women.
However, such laws allow women and women’s groups like the King Khalid Foundation – who was at the forefront of the Saudi anti-domestic violence movement – to continue to push forward so that progress is not simply symbolic. Few laws have been made without continuous movements behind them and the same can be said about enforcement of laws. The work does not stop with the signing of a bill or a ban – it is our everyday actions, words, and beliefs that create and maintain change.