A young Saudi woman walking in downtown Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2002 (Photo: Reuters/Ali Jarekji)
Saudi Arabia's Council of Ministers has passed landmark legislation recognizing all forms of abuse — including domestic violence — as crimes.
Thomson Reuters reports that until now, Saudi Arabia "regarded domestic abuse against women and children as private matters." Under the new legislation, psychological, physical and sexual abuse will all be punishable by law.
Those convicted of abuse will face jail terms ranging from one month to one year, and/or fines of between 5,000 and 50,000 Saudi riyals (approximately $1,400 to $14,000), the Saudi Gazette reports. In the case of a second offense, the punishment will be doubled.
As well as penalizing abusers, the legislation includes provisions to provide shelter and health care to victims, said Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Dr. Abdulaziz Khoja in a statement to the Saudi Press Agency.
There isn't much solid data on the prevalence of abuse in Saudi homes. A recent report from the U.S. government, for instance, found that estimates of "the incidence of female spousal abuse," provided by officials working at the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs, "ranged widely, from 16 to 50 per cent of all wives."
The law also dictates that anyone who learns of abuse "shall report it" to the authorities, according to the Gazette.
Critics of the new legislation say it is flawed because it requires women to be escorted by a male guardian in order to officially report a crime.
"It asks them to bring their male guardians when filing domestic abuse complaints," Suhaila Zain Al Abideen Al Hammad, a social activist and member of the Saudi Arabia-based National Society for Human Rights, told Arab News.
"They also ask their male guardians to pick them up after the report is done and ask the abusers to sign pledges to never do it again."
Two campaigns launched in Saudi Arabia earlier this year focused on the issue of domestic abuse.
One was a social media initiative called 'Multiply', organized by a group of young Saudis. The other was an official government poster campaign, featuring an image of a woman wearing a veil with one black eye. The English tag line read "some things can't be covered."