Okay, so this is a more serious post than my usual offering. Many around the world are focused on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Foreigners tend to concentrate on the outward signs, veiling, the ban on women driving and restrictions on male contact outside the home.
But the issues that Saudi women really care about are more basic and crucial to the advancement of the State – Saudi women under 45 years old cannot travel, open a bank account or conduct business, unless they have permission from a male guardian.
Changes that are considered small steps to the outside world are actually a big deal here, and have taken years to reach fruition. Recent reports in the Saudi Gazette, Washington Post and Daily Telegraph among others, that Saudi Arabia publicly acknowledges domestic violence is a problem, may seem trivial. However, it is actually a huge step forward. Domestic violence had previously been swept under the carpet here – the government had actively denied its existence.
This public advertising campaign by the prestigious King Khalid Foundation could only have been launched with government approval. The poster at the top of my post comes with slogans such as “What is hidden is worse” and “Some things can’t be covered.” The Foundation is proposing a system to tackle abuse. This has been approved by the Shura Council and has now been sent to the Council of Ministers where it seems likely to gain assent.
The initial aim is to provide protection from abuse to women and children through implementing a system of measures that include: Shelters and aid for the abused, a safe complaints process, work permits for expats with experience in the field of protection from abuse, research and a code of ethics for clinical practitioners in the field of abused women and children.
Of course in a country where men have so much power over women, a problem like domestic violence was always likely to go unreported. Whether or not this announcement will lead to more women seeking help to escape from domestic violence is still conjecture, but it seems to be a step in the right direction. Currently, Saudi Law does not recognize domestic violence or spousal rape as crimes. Hopefully in the future it will.
The recent appointment of 30 women to the Shura Council in February and the right for women to vote in local elections in 2015 may seem like sops but are, in fact, big steps forward to finding an Islamic solution to promotion of Saudi women’s rights (that those from other countries take for granted). This new campaign is a further step in that direction. In a country steeped in Islamic heritage it is important to find a way to the future while still respecting the past.
I am reminded of how difficult it was to make a film in the Vatican and how a friend there told me that in the Vatican “a short time” was at least 50 years – that change happens slowly. The same may be true of Saudi Arabia. Ironically, in the Vatican, women have no power at all. So perhaps, after all, there are similarities between these two religious states however superficially different they may seem.