A woman stares out through the slit in her niqab. Her right eye is badly bruised, a devilish deep crimson. Written below the commanding poster image are the words: “Some things can’t be covered.”
What may surprise many is that this campaign against domestic abuse hails from the GCC’s most conservative country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Perhaps even more unexpected, this powerful message comes not from the growing women’s rights movement or from the Government, but from the King Khalid Foundation, a charity run by the royal family itself, as part of its ‘No More Abuse’ campaign.
“Domestic abuse is a phenomenon found in the dark,” Her Royal Highness Banderi A.R. Al Faisal, the foundation’s director, tells VIVA. “It has been hidden behind the walls and in homes where no one shines a light on it. Until recent years, this issue was not discussed at all in public.”
For this reason, getting a true grip on the extent of abuse in the region is a struggle – as Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch testifies: “There is no way to get reliable numbers and statistics on violence against women in [the GCC region] because the vast majority of cases go unreported; any numbers that are floating around are probably unreliable.”
Dubai-based psychologist Dr Lavina Ahuja of LifeWorks agrees, but believes poor stats are a bleak side effect of abuse the world over. “Domestic violence is a cross-cultural, socio-economic boundaries issue,” she says. “Statistics are considered to be under-estimated and under-reported in a vast number of countries globally, and the GCC nations are no different. The statistics here may also be skewed due to the lack of awareness and lack of support systems to help women who are stuck in those situations.”
It’s a statement likely agreed to by *Laila, a young Arab woman who regularly experiences abuse at the hands of a male relative. Writing on The Uprising of Women in the Arab World (www.theuprisingofwomeninthearabworld.org) – a free space for women in the region to share their stories – she writes: “[My] father has beaten me up very badly in Ramadan because one day I went to the pharmacy next door without asking permission… He once hit me so hard with an empty water gallon that I almost lost my eye. He then accused me of being mentally ill and took me to psychiatrists. He claimed that I wasn’t normal because I talk back.”
Lack of support for people like Laila is something that the Saudi campaign – which achieved viral notoriety and is currently being widely publicised in the country’s national press – aims to combat, by listing details of shelters around the KSA where women affected can report abuse. Yet one question still lingers: can such campaigns really make a difference?
Failure to report abuse by victims is a global issue, as the WHO Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence Against Women, deemed by experts as “the most authoritative study on domestic violence globally,” demonstrates. “Over half of physically abused women (between 55 and 95 per cent) reported that they had never sought help from formal services”, it reads, with shelters being mentioned by “less than one per cent of women who left” their abuser. Summarised as “low use of formal services”, the problem exists even in countries which are well supplied with resources to help guard against abuse, where, as the report states, obstacles still exist in the form of “fear, stigma and the threat of losing their children…”
Shame is one factor that HRH Banderi A.R. Al Faisal acknowledges as a reason women may not report abuse in Saudi Arabia. “[The campaign] is an effort to help Saudi society (men and women) move beyond our strong tendencies not to talk about family problems with anyone, let alone go public with them,” she tells VIVA. “Changing cultural norms takes much more than raising awareness, however, these efforts are a start.”
For women elsewhere in the GCC, and beyond, the campaign image should also serve as a stinging reminder that abuse is unacceptable in every walk of life. But psychologist Ahuja says the reasons that women stay in violent relationships are far from clear-cut. “There is usually long-sustained psychological abuse, enforcing a sense of worthlessness and isolation, long prior to the first instance of physical abuse,” she says.
It’s a tactic that Laila knows all too well, thanks to her father. “He always told [me and my sisters], ever since we were little, that we were useless, that we can never be good at anything and won’t understand anything.”
“Women also tend to stay due to the cycle of abuse, where the abuser is often apologetic, repents for his violence and promises to change,” Ahuja explains. “Collectively, it can lead to women feeling like they deserve the abuse, that it is her fault or that she is worthless and will not find a better relationship, which keeps her stuck in that situation.”
For those who may be losing sight of whether their relationship is a healthy one, Ahuja says there is one key sign to beware in a partner: control. “This control may be outright, with your partner controlling what you wear or who you meet, or subtle, with him trying to influence your choices, steadily isolating you from friends and family by putting down your choices and your sense of self.” And, as the WHO study spells out, the consequences can be dire, not just on victims physical well-being (interviewees had “problems walking and carrying out daily activities, pain, memory loss, dizziness…”) but mentally. “In all settings,” it reads, “women who have ever experienced physical or sexual violence, or both, by an intimate partner, reported significantly higher levels of emotional distress and were more likely to have thoughts of suicide, and to have attempted suicide, than women who had never experienced partner violence.”
Back in Saudi Arabia though, as the national campaign reaches saturation point, change could be afoot: in 2011, the King Khalid Foundation proposed a law to combat violence against women and children, with that against children being successfully passed. HRH Banderi A.R. Al Faisal hopes that the new campaign will have a “positive effect on pushing that [draft law for violence against women] through”. Global studies also suggest that abusers can be stopped if help remains at hand. “The results [of the WHO Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence Against Women] indicate that violence by a male intimate partner is widespread in all countries. However, there was a great deal of variation from country to country, and from setting to setting, indicating violence is not inevitable.”
Whether the ‘No More Abuse’ campaign can ensure the criminalisation of domestic abuse for women in Saudi Arabia remains to be seen. “A campaign can only have so much impact,” admits HRH Banderi A.R. Al Faisal. “The real test of success is if we have affected a change in the mindset of a community and it is still too early to tell.” For the sake of women like Laila, let’s hope so.
You’re Not Alone
● Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWAC)
For help, call 800-111, SMS 5111, email email@example.com or visit www.dfwac.ae
● Ewa’a Shelter for Women and Children
For help, call 800-SAVE or visit www.shwc.ae