RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — On a recent Saturday morning about a hundred Saudis gathered in a hotel conference room, men on one side of a screen and women on the other. They had convened to measure progress over the past year in tackling a problem new to public discourse in this country: domestic violence against wives and children.
The group comprised judges, policemen, physicians, human rights workers and officials from government departments such as justice, health and social affairs. Among them was the woman who perhaps has done most to bring domestic violence out of the closet and into the Saudi sunshine: Princess Adela bint Abdullah, a daughter of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.
It is not unusual for Saudi royal princesses to lend their support and influence to worthy causes in a low profile manner. But Princess Adela seems intent on breaking the mold: She has not only involved herself in a highly controversial issue, she has taken an active public role in raising awareness about the problem.
“She’s different in her awareness of the role that royals could play in public life,” said Fawziah al-Bakr, a women’s activist and professor at King Saud University. “If you hear of any program to help women and children, you will find Princess Adela there.”
During the workshop, Princess Adela sat with the other women to discuss the progress made since March 2008, when the country’s first public debate on domestic abuse was held — with the princess as keynote speaker.
A few hours later, she joined two Saudi physicians active in the battle against domestic abuse to hold a press conference.
It is rare for a female member of the royal family, no less the king’s daughter, to take questions from the press.
“The biggest achievement” of the past year, the princess said, had been the increased coordination of all government ministries “to stop the phenomenon of family violence. Now we have partners in all sectors and that is an achievement.”
But this coordination needs improvement, she added, suggesting the establishment of a new government agency dedicated to family concerns.
In an interview with the Arab News, the princess was more specific. “In order to fight violence,” she said, “certain things should be taken into account like defining neglect and abuse. Reporting violence and abuse should be compulsory and there should be a witness protection program. All that of course has to be done with full regard and consideration for confidentiality.”
The seminal event for bringing spousal abuse into the open was last year’s forum. It was organized by the National Family Safety Program, an agency created by royal decree with the mandate to develop a national strategy for preventing family violence. Princess Adela serves as the program’s vice chair.
One of the program’s goals is to encourage Saudi women to speak out about abuse. This is increasingly occurring, according to Haifa A. al-Ashaikh, media coordinator of the program.
"Day after day we see lots of ladies here are getting more vocal," said Ashaikh, adding that this occurred as they realized that "they do have the ability to disagree with whatever they think is unfair to them."
There are no reliable national statistics on the incidence of domestic violence — either against children or women — in the kingdom, which was identified as a major problem during the recent workshop.
However, in just the area of Riyadh, the program has dealt with 150 family violence cases since 2006, Ashaikh said. They included physical abuse (40 percent), sexual abuse (17 percent) and neglect (40 percent).
Besides the need for better statistics, workshop attendees also cited other problems, including a lack of shelters for abuse victims, the need for clear definitions of abuse, and more education in schools and the media about the problem.
They also complained about “misunderstandings” about what Islamic law, or Shariah, says in regard to family violence.
Maha al-Muneef, a pediatrician who serves as executive director of the program, addressed this issue at the press conference.
“Unfortunately, there are some wrong understandings of the Shariah, whether it relates to disciplinary beatings ... or the relation between family members, that don't serve our objective of stopping the problem of family violence,” she said. It is crucial that these misunderstandings be corrected, she added.
Many Muslim men, backed by mostly male Islamic religious scholars, contend that Islamic scriptures permit light physical violence against wives and children as a disciplinary measure. These interpretations are increasingly challenged by other Muslims, especially women.
The 2008 conference on domestic abuse recommended that Saudi religious authorities issue an unequivocal religious opinion, or fatwa, on violence in the family as part of the national campaign to stop abuse. That has not been forthcoming.
The lack of such a fatwa is a major obstacle to changing social attitudes toward what is acceptable use of physical force within the family.
Those attitudes made headlines recently during a public seminar on the role of courts and police in preventing domestic violence that took place in the far southwest Saudi town of Abha.
In remarks to the forum, a Saudi judge declared that men could slap their wives for certain behavior, such as extravagant shopping. For example, if a man gives his wife $320 and she spends $240 on a dress “and if her husband slaps her on the face as a reaction to her action, she deserves that punishment,” said Judge Hamad al-Razine, according to the Arab News.
Razine added that women’s indecent behavior and use of offensive words against their husbands were a reason for rising domestic violence. And yet, he complained, “nobody puts even a fraction of blame on” women, the paper reported.
One of the women listening to the judge was Princess Adela.
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