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Violence against women in Saudi Arabia: an ailment without cure in public and private life

لقرائته بالعربية اضغط هنا

International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is a reminder of the abuses and violence that women suffer in Saudi Arabia, both publicly and privately. The ongoing persecution of women in Saudi prisons is led by official agencies, such as the Presidency of State Security, the Public Prosecution, and the judiciary.

Despite the lack of transparency regarding the number of battered women, the data indicate that violence is rampant and is one aspects of the suffering of large segments of women in Saudi Arabia. According to the declaration issued by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993 to eliminate violence against women, violence against women is defined as “any act of gender- based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”

On International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Saudi Arabia officially practices various types of violence against women in public life, despite promises made, particularly by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, regarding women’s rights and empowerment. The Saudi government is still failing to protect them in private life, despite the laws that the government has said will do so.

The lack of transparency in the Saudi government’s handling of human rights issues, the absence of any role for civil society and human rights organizations, and the detention and threats against men and women human rights advocates make it difficult to obtain official numbers for women who have been subjected to violence. However, ESOHR has monitored social media, correspondence, and the testimonies of female detainees’ relatives showing the depth of the issue of violence against women and its victims.


Official violence:

In recent years, the Saudi government has launched a series of arrests of women, including human rights advocates and activists. After more than a year of detention, and with trials starting for some of them, the female detainees spoke of their subjection to violence and torture in detention. The detainees confirmed that the investigators gave them electric shocks, flogged them, harassed them, and touched them while they were in detention.

After more than two years since the arrest of several women activists and human rights advocates, the Saudi government is still delaying their cases, and the violations they have suffered have not been investigated. Rather, the Saudi government has denied the practice of violence against female detainees, brought charges against the detainees, and attacked the countries that criticized or demanded investigations into the allegations.

On 26 October 2020, human rights advocate Loujain Al-Hathloul declared a hunger strike to protest against the coercive conditions of her detention. Loujain, like many other detainees, is not allowed to communicate with her family.

Its handling of women human rights advocates and activists in particular, and detained women in general, shows that the Saudi government is determined to engage in violence, thus belying any promises and statements claiming to fight violence.


Social violence:

Many obstacles prevent women in Saudi Arabia from speaking about the domestic violence they suffer. Besides the lack of confidence in the official bodies charged with protecting them and the failure of laws to achieve this, customs, traditions, and societal concerns often prevent women from filing reports of their abuse. This makes it impossible to attain the real numbers for violence against women, but according to official figures announced by the spokesperson of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development in 2019, 13,000 women filed complaints of violence.

In addition to its psychological and physical effects on women and on society, violence has major direct effects. In some cases that ESOHR was able to track, violence led to the death of the victim. There is no compensation available when this occurs.

Furthermore, the lack of confidence in the laws, along with local customs and traditions that increase fear and prevent some victims from moving, has compelled many young women to flee the country permanently. This is yet another impact of violence against women.


Legal limitations:

On 26 August 2013, the Saudi government assigned the issue of domestic violence to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, especially with regards to women and children up to the age of 18. The ministry set up a hotline to receive complaints, but without the publication of cases of violence and bullying after they became a matter of public opinion rather than a family’s affairs, it became clear that the work of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development was ineffective.

According to the tracking of published cases, the hotline does not work effectively except in cases that become a public opinion issue after pressure from social media.

Despite the creation of laws, battered young women believe that the laws that Saudi Arabia trumpets, including the law on protection from violence, are useless and cannot protect women. Some young women describe on Twitter official collusion between men and the abused, along with fear of blaming the victim for the situation.


Women’s shelter violations:

In November 2019, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Saudi Human Rights Commission spoke of changes in handling the issue of violence against women, especially with regard to women’s shelters. Women in Saudi Arabia consider these shelters a prison they are forced to stay in if a case is reported. Young women are prevented from leaving the shelter without the consent of their male guardian, who is most often the perpetrator of the violence she reported. The Saudi government promised that women would not be forced to remain in the shelter.

These promises have not been reflected in reality, as women are still afraid to report for fear of being detained in shelters, without any actual accountability for the perpetrators. In addition to fears of detention in shelters, several young women documented violations that take place there, including ill treatment, torture, and the like.

ESOHR believes that the tracking of cases of violence confirms that the Saudi government is not serious about resolving this issue, especially with the continued reliance on disobedience notices and absenteeism reports the guardian makes if his daughter flees or attempts to live independently without his permission. In addition, refraining from arresting those responsible for the violence, especially in cases of murder, based on extremist rulings in accordance with the understanding of Islamic law in force in Saudi Arabia, puts the lives of many women and children at risk.

In addition, ESOHR confirms that the laws that Saudi Arabia extols for protecting women and children from violence are ineffective. While failing to implement their provisions in a way that deters the criminal, they contain broad definitions that are subject to interpretation regarding abuse and the limits of the individual’s guardianship. In the law on protection from abuse passed in August 2013, abuse was recognized as “a form of exploitation, physical, psychological, or sexual abuse, or the threat thereof, committed by a person towards another person, bypassing the limits of his guardianship, authority, or responsibility, or because of the relationship of family, dependency, guardianship, or livelihood that binds them.” This wording does not specify the limits of this guardianship or authority.

ESOHR stresses that it is difficult to provide effective protection for women in Saudi Arabia, due to the involvement of official entities in violence against women, the lack of an independent judiciary to deter the official parties involved, continued detention in shelters, reports of absenteeism, disobedience, and maliciousness, and defects in texts and laws.

Regrettably, Saudi Arabia, at different periods of time, has targeted activists who have worked to establish associations for the protection of women. The government thus contributes to the exacerbation of the problem of violence against women in the country.

Several videos have been posted on Twitter, lamenting the abuse of women and children:

Women’s shelter:


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