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memri
July 1, 2013 No.
991

Saudi Twitter Campaigns To Combat Violence Against Women

By: Y. Admon*

Introduction

Violence towards women is a common and expanding phenomenon in Saudi Arabia and an issue that greatly preoccupies Saudi society. According to the executive manager of the National Family Protection Program, three out of 10 Saudi women are subjected to domestic violence.[1] Shura Council member Dr. Salwa Al-Hazaa said that the phenomenon of violence against women and children is spreading extensively throughout the kingdom, and that the main reason for this is discrimination against women and their treatments as inferior.[2]

On June 16, 2013, the government Saudi daily Al-Riyadh published an extensive report on the response of the Saudi police in cases of women's complaints of domestic abuse. The report pointed to a fundamental system-wide problem: lodging a complaint requires the presence of a male guardian, who in most cases is the abuser. A victim arriving on her own cannot lodge a complaint. The article also claimed that police stations, which are usually the first place to which battered women turn, are not prepared to meet their needs. An example is the absence of a special area where the women can wait. Moreover, women do not receive appropriate treatment at the stations.

Dr. Suhaila Zein Al-Abidine, of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights, said that officers at police stations do not respond to complaints by women and tend to disbelieve them. Additionally she pointed out that these officers are men, and therefore the complainant cannot expose her body in order to prove that she was beaten. She argued that it is necessary to employ at least two women at each police station to handle women's complaints, and also to pass laws that would help women demonstrate that violence was employed against them. Shura Council member 'Ali Muhammad Al-Tamimi also called for employing women at police stations, and for referring battered women to a shelter where they can receive appropriate care.[3]

The spread of violence against women prompted diverse bodies in Saudi Arabia to launch three different campaigns over the last two months aimed at heightening awareness to the problem and confronting it. All three campaigns were launched on Twitter, which, along with other social networks such as Facebook, constitutes a convenient and accessible platform for raising pressing issues related to the status of Saudi women. One of these campaigns is conducted by an institution affiliated with the royal family, while the other two were initiated by citizens. In addition, articles were published in the Saudi government press warning about the severity of the problem of domestic violence and calling for its rectification. Nevertheless is apparent that the efforts to eradicate the phenomenon of violence against women or reduce it have not yet yielded tangible results.

In fact, there have lately been incidents that attest to the continued oppression of women and of those championing women's rights. For example, prominent Saudi women's rights activists Wajeha Al-Huweidar and Fawzia Al-'Uyouni were recently sentenced to 10 months imprisonment for inciting a woman against her husband. The woman, Nathalie Morin, a Canadian mother of three who is married to a Saudi and lives in the kingdom, approached Al-Huweidar and Al-'Uyouni and asked them to help her and her children by bringing them food and water because her husband had imprisoned them in the house and was abusing them. Upon arriving at her house, Al-Huweidar and Al-'Uyouni were arrested and accused of attempting to smuggle the wife and her children out of Saudi Arabia.[4] This affair is one of many that attest to a lack of improvement in the status of women in Saudi Arabia, and even a regression in this area.

The following are excerpts from recent press articles on violence against women, and details on the Twitter campaigns.

Saudi Journalists Warn About The Problem's Severity, Call To Pass Laws To Protect Women

The articles on domestic violence in the Saudi government press criticized the functioning of the judicial system in these cases, as well as the Saudi media for failing to address the issue sufficiently, and called for legislation that would protect women against violence.

Promoting Legislation To Protect Women

In an article in the government daily 'Okaz, columnist Amira Kashgari wrote: "...We do not require a more powerful warning bell than what is demonstrated by the number and the proliferation of cases litigated in the courts involving women who are subjected to violence and oppression... For example, the Al-Medina office of the Human Rights Association has received many complaints pertaining to family issues, first and foremost domestic violence and especially violence against women and children... According to the office supervisor, most of the complaints 'are by women whose right to a decent and secure life has been violated and they were exposed to violence, to the point of murderous blows. In some of these cases, [the women suffered] fractures and hemorrhages, had their hair shaved off, or were bitten, whipped with a rod, or imprisoned. If they want a divorce, [these women] are compelled to bargain for their children, and they are [often] deprived of the right to raise or see their children, even if [the court] rules in their favor...

"We require clear, vigorous, and binding laws in the courts and police stations that will address the problem of violence in a practical manner, not just glittering promises... We need a personal status law that [no one] can dispute. We need laws that will defend a woman against her violent husband... protect children from sexual harassment... and [prohibit] underage marriage... [But] all the talk about laws that are absent is meaningless, and the woman's hope for a decent life without violence, adhl,[5] and sexual harassment becomes a nightmare, due to the excessive waiting."[6]

The Judicial System Turns Its Back On Women

Hassan bin Salam, a Saudi researcher and columnist for the London daily Al-Hayat, criticized the Saudi judicial system for its heedlessness towards women's problems. In an article titled "[Must] She Kiss The Head Of The Judge To Obtain Her Rights?," he wrote: "Recently I saw a story on one of the television channels about a Saudi woman who was exposed to violence on the part of her father. She spoke sadly and with frustration about how much she had suffered, especially after she approached the courts. [There] she lost all hope, because her father was present at the hearing and the case was closed... after he kissed the head of the judge. With great pain she said... 'I [too] am prepared to kiss the head of the judge in order to emerge from the hell in which I am living...' What greater pain can there be than that of a person who is suffering from oppression and wishes to remove it from herself in court, [which is supposed to be] the place for realizing truth and justice between people, [but the court fails her]?

"We not dealing with one specific case or with sporadic cases, for [many] women have found injustice when they appealed to the court to redress a wrong that had been done to them, in cases related to violence, child rearing, divorce, inheritance, guardianship, etc. [This creates a situation where] the woman has to choose between only two options: [continued] oppression on the part of the defendant, or having the courts ignore her testimony before a judge..."

Bin Salam argued that the Saudi judiciary has a cultural problem rooted in its elderly judges, who should be replaced with new judges versed in today's perception of human rights: "...The problem in our judiciary is not [only] a legislative one... It is also an ideological and cultural problem... The judiciary is comprised of people with a [specific] legal mentality... Some of the judges do not have sufficient training in, or knowledge of, the modern human rights culture, and the approach that they adopt in their judicial work has been the same for decades... [Therefore,] the judiciary must undergo [not only] legislative reform but also a reform in terms of the court personnel, [by] developing [the judges'] 'judicial mentality' and employing new people with advanced education on human rights and [suitable] legal and academic training."[7]

The Saudi Media Is Responsible For The Lack Of Awareness

In an article on the English-language government daily Saudi Gazette, radio broadcaster and columnist Samar Fatany wrote that despite efforts to check the phenomenon of violence against women in Saudi Arabia, this phenomenon is only increasing. She pointed out that Saudi Arabia has no specific laws against violence towards women and children, and therefore these acts are not considered crimes and are not addressed by the courts. She also argued that the Saudi media plays an insufficient role in combating this violence, due to the lack of suitable professionals, such as journalists knowledgeable about the issue of domestic violence. She suggested solving this by educating journalists on these topics.[8]

Twitter Campaigns Against Violence Towards Women

As mentioned, three Twitter campaigns were launched in the past two months in Saudi Arabia in an attempt to raise awareness to the phenomenon of violence towards women.[9]

The "What You Can't See Is Even Worse" Campaign

In April 2013, the King Khaled Foundation, which is directed by one of the princesses of the royal family and works to raise awareness to the issue of domestic violence, launched a Twitter campaign on this topic. The campaign poster shows a veiled woman with a black eye (see below), captioned "What You Can't See Is Even Worse."


The campaign poster: "What You Can't See Is Even Worse – Together In The Struggle Against Violence Towards Women" (image: twitter.com/KKFoundation)

The campaign director, Princess Bandari bint 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Faisal, who is active in promoting social initiatives in the country, said that the objective of the campaign is to raise awareness of the topic and guide women on how they should act if they are exposed to violence.[10]

As part of the campaign, a hashtag was launched, under which users expressed solidarity with battered women and called on more people to join the campaign. One of the tweets said: "Women have been severely oppressed due to an erroneous understanding of religion and an arbitrary use of customs and traditions..."[11]

Another said: "Workers in hospital emergency rooms know that these are not just isolated incidents, but a phenomenon we must vigorously check."[12]

Twitter users also posted the phone number of a hotline for reporting cases of domestic violence.[13]

The "Hit Her, I Dare You" Campaign

In May 2013, young Saudis initiated a Twitter campaign under the hashtag "Hit Her, I Dare You." They posted photos of themselves holding up signs bearing slogans against violence towards women, such as "when you raise your hand, you lose your masculinity." The campaign participants also posted instructions for self-defense.


"I don't hit her"


"You're the inferior one, you have no brains and no religion"


"Put your
iqal[14] on your head, not in your hand"

The campaign was also publicized on Facebook, on a page titled "Uprising of Women in the Arab World" and on another titled "My Right – My Honor," which promote women's rights and awareness.[15]

The White Ribbon Campaign

The third initiative, called "The White Ribbon Campaign," is aimed at encouraging men to support women's rights and reject violence against them, and at mobilizing society to confront this phenomenon. The initiative was also publicized on Twitter under the "White Ribbon" hashtag, and it involves media campaigns and workshops for men throughout Saudi Arabia. Taking part in it are media personalities, intellectuals, jurists, activists from the Saudi Human Rights Association and Human Rights Council, Shura Council members (both men and women), athletes, and social activists, among others.

The initiative was prompted by a UN report on violence against women worldwide. The initiators call upon the Shura Counsel to promote legislation ensuring women's rights and protecting them from all forms of violence. They wrote: "We want to operate on an egalitarian basis, men and women [together], in combating violence against women, and to create an involved and decent Saudi society." They explained that they intend to combat violence against women not only in the home but also at the workplace, and to oppose underage marriage and the sexual exploitation of children.[16]


The White Ribbon campaign – calling upon men to refrain from violence against women

 

* Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

 

Endnotes:

[1] Saudi Gazette (Saudi Arabia), June 30, 2013.

[2] Middle-east-online.com, May 12, 2013. The phenomenon of violence against women constitutes an additional expression of their inferior status in Saudi Arabia. In 2000 Saudi Arabia signed the Convention to Eliminate All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), while entering reservations to some of its clauses. One of the Saudi reservations states: "In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and norms of Islamic law, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention" (un.org, September 7, 2000). This makes the signing of the convention meaningless, because the denial of women's rights can be justified by saying that it is mandated by Islam, including the beating of women, as it is written in the Qur'an (4:34), "beat them [your wives]."

Therefore, Saudi Arabia's signing of the convention made no contribution to improving the status of Saudi women, who are still considered one of the most oppressed sectors in the kingdom: they are prohibited from driving; they require the approval and escort of a male guardian for almost every move they make; divorce and inheritance laws discriminate against them; the unemployment rate amongst them is very high, and the public debate about their limited vocational horizon has been ongoing for years.

[3] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 16, 2013.

[5] Literally "abandonment," a situation where a wife remains bound to her husband by marriage even though he has left her.

[6] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 4, 2013.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), June 11, 2013.

[8] Saudi Gazette (Saudi Arabia), May 11, 2013.

[9] On the effectiveness of Twitter as a tool of political and social protest in Saudi Arabia, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 903,

"Saudi Regime Fears Social Networks As Means Of Triggering Popular Protests," December 3, 2012.

[10] Middle-east-online.com, May 12, 2013.

[11] Twitter.com/ameera_al7arbi, April 30, 2013.

[12] Twitter.com/Bandarmt, April 30, 2013.

[13] Twitter.com/Arwa_alhujaili, May 26, 2013.

[14] The iqal is the rope used by Arab men to fasten their headdress.

[15] The "My Right – My Honor" Facebook page was launched in October 2011 as part of a campaign to promote women's driving in Saudi Arabia.

[16] Sabaq (Saudi Arabia), April 19, 2013.