How Exactly Should Women Defend Themselves From Domestic Abuse?

07/05/2013 04:12 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2013

"Saudi Arabia," to adapt a quote about Texas, "is paradise for men and dogs, but hell for women and camels." Two weeks ago, there was a meeting on "women in society" in Saudi Arabia that involved, not surprising but still shocking, no women. As one Twitter wag noted, at least some men wore pink. Women in that country cannot go to school, cannot vote, go shopping or otherwise engage in the public sphere without the permission of a man. Simple tasks like buying a cell phone, registering children for school, applying for a job, getting a bank account, are all hugely complicated and require asking men for permission, time, money and help. Forget any sports in public. This year, in a move with interesting echoes of our own history, Saudi Arabia has allowed women to ride bicycles, fully covered and in the presence of a male relative, in some public spaces. However, female citizens, a term I use only in the loosest sense, are electronically tagged for travel outside of the country. Male guardianship, not mandated by law, is pervasively institutionalized and defines women's isolation, dependence and constrained and stressful everyday existences.

Since the 1990s, a recurring flashpoint in women's fight for freedom in this society has been challenges to the ban on women driving. As recently as 2011, a woman was sentenced to public lashings for driving. Interestingly, the only man a woman is allowed to be with in Saudi Arabia, other than one that she is related to, is her driver. In 2009, a 75-year old woman was sentenced to 40 lashes for having two unrelated men in her house, one whom she considered a son. Of course, not all women can afford drivers or even want drivers. Having a driver, instead of being a sign of privilege, can be a threat and is a daily reminder of the belief that women can't be trusted.

So, it also comes as no surprise that in Saudi Arabia, neither domestic violence nor spousal rape are prohibited by law.

Two weeks ago, Wajeha Al-Huweidar and Fawzia Al-Oyouni, two Saudi activists, were sentenced to 10 months in prison and a two-year travel restriction for "corrupting" Nathalie Morin, a Canadian national who has been trying to leave Saudi Arabia, for the past several years. Al-Huweidar and al-Oyouni gained, along with others, international visibility when they openly violated their country's ban against women driving in 2011. Huweidar's personal experience attests to the driving ban's real and daily impact. When her mother developed a heart condition, Huweidar had to wait during critically important hours until a man could drive her to the city where her mother lived. A prominent and tireless activist, she is the co-founder of the Society for Defending Women's Rights.

The two women were arrested outside of Morin's house, carrying food supplies, after they received a panicked text from her saying that her husband had locked her and their three children in their house with not enough food and water. He'd left for a week. The trial took a year and Morin, who has never met either woman, was not allowed to testify. While these women have been prosecuted, Saudi Arabia has not investigated Morin's claims of abuse. Though absolved of the charge of trying to help the woman and her children escape, Al-Huweidar and Al-Oyouni were found guilty two weeks ago of takhbib -- inciting a wife to defy the authority of her husband. They have two more weeks to appeal this judgment. In a recently broadcast Women's Media Center radio interview with Robin Morgan, Al-Huweidar reminded listeners that the King is "the only one who can get us away... or get us off this horrible situation."

EqualityNow.Org, a global organization dedicated to ending violence against women, is working to free Al-Huweidar and al-Oyouni. In addition to a #SaudiJustice/#JusticeArabie social media program, Equality Now is asking supporters to write letters (preformatted, urging King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and the Saudi Minister of Justice) to protect and not prosecute these women and others like them. The letters also identify the need for clear action to provide legal protections for women from domestic violence.

Helping a woman to defy her husband's uncontested authority is a serious charge in Saudi Arabia. But, everywhere, women who fight back against abusive men who physically and sexually assault them, especially husbands, disturb conservatives and threaten gender caste systems on many levels. Women who defend themselves, or coalesce to help other women, provoke anxiety and backlash responses that fly in the face of reason. In Afghanistan, the response to women who flee abusive husbands and rapists is to jail them. Up to 600 women are currently imprisoned for these "moral crimes." Any woman who flees is essentially charged with adultery.

In the United States, we no longer have blatantly chauvanistic laws like this. Unless you count the fact that rapists can sue for custody of children born of rape in more than 30 states. This is something I just can't get over, personally. And, while we ignore domestic violence and shame rape victims we usually, but not always, try not to imprison them.

The first law passed in the United States outlawing domestic violence was in Maryland in 1882 and, until relatively recently, law enforcement resist interfering in "family spats." It wasn't until women came together in the 1960s and '70s, to coin the term "domestic violence" and build shelters, that resources began to be available and norms began shifting. We do have an interesting holdover reality, however: In the United States, women who kill abusive husbands serve disproportionately long sentences if found guilty of a crime in court. According to the Michigan Women's Justice and Clemency Project, "The average prison sentence for men who kill their intimate partners is 2 to 6 years. Women who kill their partners are sentenced, on average, to 15 years." In one example cited by the organization, a Maryland judge sentenced a man to 18 months for killing his unfaithful wife and then, on the following day, another judge in the same country sentenced a woman to three years for killing her abusive husband.

In Saudi Arabia, women are fighting for laws. Here we are challenging norms, of which there are several gendered aspects that affect judgements. U.S. judicial biases in sentencing women who kill abusive spouses are substantively based on the belief that women can simply walk away. Our self-defense statutes are based on "social leaving norms" ideally designed for strangers, men, meeting in dark alleys. This denial of complicated relationships, combined with a routine lack of understanding about the reality of abuse and its effects substantively affects the lives of the one in four women who are violently assaulted by spouses. In addition, in the United States, racism compounds problems.

Take Marissa Alexander. Alexander, who is African American, was sentenced in Florida last year, to 20 years in prison after she fired a warning shot into the air to deter a spouse with a history of abusive. She was found guilty of assault in the land of Stand Your Ground and George Zimmerman. Twenty years is the mandatory sentence. Alexander, who gave birth nine days prior to the shooting, had no criminal record. She had a legal concealed weapons permit. She was in her home. She fired into a wall. No one was hurt. She rejected a plea bargain that would have resulted in a 3-year sentence, believing reasonably that her case was a textbook Stand Your Ground scenario. She made the mistake of assuming it applied to her. People, especially women, who might have to defend themselves against violent spouses in Florida, and believe the law will be equally applied to them, have undoubtedly taken heed. There are no shortages of examples. But, we do have laws. Imagine what it's like to have none.

Alexander and Morin are two of millions. Last month, the World Health Organization released an international study (confirming decade's worth of others) documenting epidemic rates of gendered violence that revealed no less than35 percent of all women on the planet have experienced abuse. Another international survey showed that huge percentages of people, globally, believe women who are battered deserve this treatment and that it is the right of men to violently assault them. While men also suffer domestic violence, the frequency and nature of it is markedly different.

Having said all of this, it is important to note that change is happening. This year, for the first time ever, Saudi Arabia launched a landmark campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence (which used the off-putting hashtag #hither); and two women competed as part of the Saudi Team in the 2011 Olympics. Changes like these require relentless pressure, domestic and international, in every arena.

The most important thing that can happen is for women like Al-Huweidar and al-Oyouni to keep doing what they are doing. Every iota of support makes a tremendous difference. While writing letters to a King may seem fruitless, it is not. The King has, in the past, overruled judgments. Neither is taking two minutes to tell the American and Canadian governments to apply pressure. Saudi Arabia and Canada are both ratified signatories to CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women), which calls for the equal protection of women's fundamental rights and freedoms, including speech, expression, movement and association. (The United States has not ratified CEDAW.) I realize, despite myself, that shaming governments publicly to defend women's rights is diplomatically difficult, but private pressure is an entirely different matter. It is hard not to look around and see that beyond a certain point it seems as that our human rights rhetoric comes down to not disturbing the "culturally sensitive" rights of men in other nation states to decide what women in those nation states can and cannot do.

What has to happen in order for us to be culturally sensitive to women's universal human rights to live without legally and normatively sanctioned violence against us?