New Law Protects Women in Saudi Arabia From Abuse
McKayla Reilly | On 30, Aug 2013
Saudi Arabia has made a huge step in women’s rights, passing legislation that protects women, children and “domestic staff” (maids/nannies) from abuse both in the home and the workplace. Saudi Arabia officially adopted the law, which was introduced to the Arabian Gulf in 2012, as punishable with a jail sentence of up to one year and up to 50,000 riyals ($13,300 USD) in fines.
The move has been celebrated by women’s rights activists in the country. According to activist Waleed Abu al-Khair, the law grants women the freedom to report incidences independently. ”Women were required to bring in a male relative if they showed up at a police station to file a complaint,” Abu al-Khair said. “This will not now be necessary.”
Earlier this year, the King Khalid Foundation started a campaign denouncing violence against women. It was the first of its kind and the images went viral, circulating in Arabic and eventually in the English version shown above. The Arabic version, confirmed to have been posted around Riyadh, loosely means “What goes unspoken/unseen is worse,” followed by the text, “Together to fight violence against women.” According to the campaign page,
“The phenomenon of battered women in Saudi Arabia is much greater than is apparent on the surface. It is a phenomenon found in the dark; it’s possible that law enforcement know some of it, those who work in social institutions and charitable organizations see parts of it, but no one knows the true extent of the actual causes and effects on a macro scale.”
Despite this step forward, the country still has a long way to go. In last year’s Global Gender Gap Report, which ranks countries as according to their percentage of inequality between women and men, Saudi Arabia ranked 131 out of 135 countries. However, Saudi women’s rights activists have been making positive steps toward closing the gender gap, showing that they are a powerful opposition to patriarchy whose voices will not be easily silenced:
- Saudi women have been in an ongoing campaign since 1990 demanding the right to drive. Women are permitted to drive in rural areas when accompanied by a male relative but not among the population. Women frequently protest by driving and taking videos of themselves, sometimes getting jail sentences for their acts of defiance.
- In 2002 women were given their own ID cards. Up until this point, women had “family cards” where they were listed as dependents of their male relatives. Having their own ID card allows them to open a bank account, travel within the Arabian Gulf, obtain government service jobs and passports, and generally be regarded as independent human beings outside of their relation to men.
- A law banning women from participating in physical education and sports was overturned in 2004, a bitter-sweet victory, as the Ministry of Education announced shortly after that it had no intention of honouring the legislation. Such incidences are an example of how while legally a right may exist, strict interpretations of Wahhabi Islam prevent them from being implemented into the daily lives of women in the country. Also in 2004, women were permitted to conduct business without a male agent.
- In 2005 two women were elected to a chamber of commerce in Jeddah, the first women to win any such post in Saudi Arabia.
- In 2009 Noura al Fayez was appointed Deputy Minister of Women’s Education. She became the first female to hold a ministerial post.
- A survey in 2010 by the Researchers Center for Women’s Studies in Riyadh (Markaz Bahithat li Dirasat al-Mar’a) examining Saudi newspapers and websites showed that from mid January to mid February 2010 some 40 percent of articles in print media and 58 percent of articles on websites treated women’s issues.
- The $50 thousand International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2011 was split between Mohammed Achaari of Morocco, author of “The Arch and the Butterfly,” and Raja Alem of Saudi Arabia, author of “The Dove’s Necklace.” Alem was the first women winner. Saudi women were also permitted to join the consultative Shura council, and granted the right to vote.
- A royal order stipulated that women who drive should not be prosecuted by the courts in 2012. Saudi also sent its first women to the Olympics, showing a shift in attitudes toward female athletes. Additionally, the first Saudi Arabian feature film to be shot by a woman – Wadjda, done by writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour, premieres.
- In January of this year, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah issued two royal decrees granting women 30 seats on the Shura Council, which has 150 members plus a president. The council reviews laws and questions ministers, but doesn’t have legislative powers.
Some transitions seemingly take a step forward before falling down a flight of 20 stairs backwards. A Saudi newspaper claimed earlier this year the kingdom’s religious police are now allowing women to ride bicycles, but only in restricted, recreational areas. The catch is they have to be accompanied by a male relative … and dressed in an abaya. Anyone who has ever tried to ride a bike in a long skirt can sympathize.
While the battle for equality is far from over, Saudi women have proven to be a dynamic force within the Kingdom in their struggles against patriarchy. The most recent law criminalizing domestic violence has yet to be set up for implementation, but thanks to the driving force of the many activists who have called for reforms in the country it’s surely on the right path.