Saudis in Denial Over Scope of Violence Against Women And Children

It came as something of a shock when I learned the other day that the number of domestic violence cases in Saudi Arabia does not exceed 650.

What a relief to live in a country where violence against women and children is virtually non-existent. This good news comes from none other than the man who should know: Ali Al-Hinaki, the general manager of Social Affairs Department in the Makkah province.

Al-Hinaki told a Jeddah reporter that there are no statistics on the number of abuse cases, but he estimated that there were no more than 650. Yet the Social Affairs Department does not explain that if there are so few domestic violence cases in Saudi Arabia, why is there the need to sponsor this week a three-day awareness forum in Jeddah? Or why establish 17 committees to deal with family protection? By Social Affairs Department's logic that amounts to 38 abuse victims per committee. Now that is what I call great response to such a minor issue.

But all kidding aside, this ridiculously low statistic is an insult to every Saudi woman and child whether or not they have been the victim of abuse. There are more than 27 million people -- 22 million of which are Saudis -- living in Saudi Arabia. Just how did the law of averages elude the Social Affairs Department?

Earlier this year Abdul Aziz Al-Dakhil, an attorney and a leading expert on domestic violence, said, "If we are informed that there are 10 cases of abuse, there are for sure 1,000 more suffering in silence and not spoken about." Al-Dakhil has a better grasp of reality, but the numbers don't adequately convey the urgency of establishing codified laws protecting abuse victims.

Al-Dakhil points out that there is no established definition in Saudi Arabia of what constitutes domestic violence. Family members who perpetrate violence against their victims confuse guardianship and Islam with discipline. Even victims are often confused about whether
their misery is a product of abuse or a form of discipline under Islam.

There are grassroots efforts to provide services to prevent domestic abuse. Saudi writer Rima Ibrahim is campaigning to establish a facility that can provide care and protection for women abused or abandoned by their husbands. We've also seen the growth of women's shelters throughout the Kingdom.

Saudis, however, have a tendency to minimize their faults. We claim the moral high ground by asserting we are good Muslims not capable of committing unspeakable violence towards our loved ones.

Government officials undermine their own awareness projects by dismissing the seriousness of domestic violence with unsubstantiated low statistics. People in a position of authority charged with making life-altering decisions affecting a girl's future have no business holding the job. I recall visiting a shelter a couple years ago in which the director told me that many runaway girls seeking protection from abuse were simply disobedient brats who should mind their parents.

It's incredulous that Saudis still dance around the issue of domestic abuse. It's not a question of whether Saudi Arabia has a domestic violence problem, but how do we as a nation solve it. Our failure is that we think our moral authority makes us separate, if not above, the rest of the world in terms of crimes against our own family members. We are no different than the rest of the international community. I imagine that the number of abuse cases in Saudi Arabia is proportionate to the rest of the world.

It's fine that judicial reform is underway to codify laws. It's good that Saudi authorities are moving towards legal transparency. And it's satisfying to see progress made -- although at a snail's pace -- in the establishment of shelters and women's rights services.

But none of it means much if we continue to bury our heads in the sand and claim the violence in the home is limited to just a few hundred cases. These kinds of pronouncements instill little confidence that we will ever effectively combat domestic abuse.