A father brutally beats his 17-year-old daughter with a piece of wood. She is taken to a hospital where she subsequently dies. The reason? She got in touch with her mother who was divorced from the girl’s father. Thus ended the story carried in Al-Watan newspaper. The tragedy, however, opens the door onto something bigger and much worse — the trend to violence in Saudi society. And not just violence but violence against close family members.
This case is not the first of its kind. Many of us remember another well-publicized case, that of Ghossoun, a 9-year-old girl who was tortured by her father and stepmother. She too finally died in a hospital. There are of course other cases that make it into the newspapers from time to time — victims may be daughter, wives or children. There is a common thread running through all of them and that thread is violent and uncontrolled behavior.
Why are such things happening now? The simple answer is not that such things never happened before. They did — but the media these days are very active in covering social issues. The reasons for the violent and uncontrolled behavior need to be studied and carefully analyzed; causes need to be postulated and solutions attempted. An unfortunate common thread running through most of the recent cases is the leniency of the punishment given to the guilty. At this point, it needs to be said that society is to blame; it gives the head of the family more or less unlimited power to discipline and control his family as he sees fit. True, this power does not include the right to use physical punishment but if the father or husband is angry and if he resorts to violence, society looks on that violence as within his rights as head of the family.
It seems to be understood that the right to physical punishment is allowable if it is used moderately — but what is “moderate” and what is “extreme”? A slap may be moderate but what if it breaks a tooth? Giving such absolute power to any group in society is bound to result in all kinds of abuses. Society trusts men without reservation in that regard; women and children must be patient and accept their lot. The guilty man normally escapes blame by using the society-given right to control and govern his family; in some cases when there has been excessive violence, the added reasons of bad temper and anger are cited — again to be accepted as part of the whole social role of the guardian of the family.
To be fair, some of the cases have abusive woman as well as men. In the Ghossoun case, for example, her stepmother was as guilty of torturing the poor girl as her father was. In many cases of abuse, women have to bear part of the blame, as they encourage the situation either by participating or by being silent witnesses — in either case their responsibility should be established and they should bear a part of the blame and be punished.
According to Jeddah-based psychologist and founding member of the Society for Protecting the Family, Samira Al-Ghamdi, the main problem lies in a social system that accepts the right of the male to govern unconditionally. She says that as long as there is confusion on the concepts of the rights and responsibilities of the head of family, things will remain the same and abuse cases will go largely unpunished and very often even undetected and unknown by the community at large.
Al-Ghamdi explains that Saudi society has a mixed set of beliefs that combines traditional laws and Islamic laws and that the whole is seen as Islamic law. As more abuse cases come to light, we have begun seeing some punishments — varying from jail sentences to executions. What is surprising is that the punishments do not seem to deter people from committing the same crimes. As Al-Ghamdi points out, the problem lies in the way society thinks. “Society clings to its ways and people refuse to change,” she says. “Too many people view the efforts to stop abuse of women and children as defiance of social rules that have been established for centuries.”
In such a situation, until society changes its ideas, we are bound to see more and more cases of abuse. We hope that we do not have to wait long before action is taken, not only to punish the abusers but also to understand what causes abuse and how it can be controlled and eliminated.