SAUDI Arabia has passed landmark legislation aimed at protecting women, children and servants against abuse in the home, in a move aimed at reducing domestic violence, a hidden problem in the kingdom.
The Protection from Abuse law is the first of its kind in the ultra-conservative Arab state, which has often faced international criticism for lacking laws that protect women and domestic staff from abusers.
The law, approved during a cabinet meeting on Monday, came months after a Saudi charity launched a campaign to combat violence against women.
Under the 17-article bill, those found guilty of committing psychological or physical abuse could face prison sentences of up to one year and up to 50,000 riyals (£8,600) in fines.
“This is a good law that serves major segments of the society in the kingdom, including women, children, domestic workers and non-domestic workers,” said Khaled al-Fakher, secretary general of the National Society for Human Rights, a government-licensed body.
Previously, domestic violence against women, children or domestic workers was treated under a general penal code based on Islamic sharia law.
Judges were left to decide according to their understanding of sharia codes, which seemed to allow mild violence against “disobedient” wives and treated domestic violence as a private matter. “We are always in favour of an explicit law that does not need interpretations or personal judgment,” said Mr Fakher, whose group helped draft the law.
The United Nations urged the kingdom, which follows the strict Wahhabi form of Islam, to create laws to protect women as early as 2008. The Supreme Judicial Council in 2007 condemned a 19-year-old woman to 200 lashes and six months in jail for having been with a man she was not related to after she was attacked and gang-raped. She was pardoned by King Abdullah.
The King Khalid Foundation in April launched an unprecedented campaign to raise awareness about violence against women. Its main poster, which featured a woman wearing a veil with one of her eyes blackened, was widely circulated online.
Underneath the picture, a caption read: “Some things can’t be covered – fighting women’s abuse together.”
Mr Fakher said tribal traditions in Saudi often prevented women from reporting abuse for fear of social stigma.
“Women think what the community would say about her if she filed a complaint,” he said.
There has also been an increase in reports of cases of domestic abuse in which families mistreat their maids, sometimes resulting in them attacking the children of their employers. Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan maid, was beheaded in Dawadmy, near the capital Riyadh, in January after she was sentenced to death in 2007. She was accused by her employer of killing his infant daughter while she was bottle-feeding.
The law gives those who report abuse the right to remain anonymous, as well as immunity from litigation should abuse fail to be proven. It also urges witnesses to report abuse without having to disclose their identity, which Mr Fakher said is a significant part of the law.
Rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair said: “Women were required to bring in a male relative if they showed up at a police station to file a complaint. This will not now be necessary.”
The law could be a step towards changing current regulations which require women to get approval of male guardians – fathers, husbands or sons – to carry out business, apply for jobs or travel outside the country, Mr al-Khair said.