MENA women: opportunities & obstacles in 2014

This piece was written for an anual publication by the Wislon’s Center on women in the MENA Region:

mena_women_opportunities_obstacles_2014 1_0With smaller steps taken in the past, the year of 2014 is expected to be a potentially promising year for Saudi women. In the October 2013 second universal periodic review of Saudi Arabia’s human rights status, I submitted recommendations in the stakeholder’s report to the UN Human Rights Council. Out of the 12 recommendations, six of them—including amending the Nationality Act, lifting of the driving ban, and introducing steps to allow easier access for women to legal counsel and redress—are already under review by the relevant Saudi authorities.

During 2013, women lawyers were allowed to obtain permits to practice in Saudi courts, and a new anti-violence law was finally enacted. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice made two important decisions: to allow women to use their national photo identification cards as proof of identity in courts without the need for a male relative to verify their identity and to assign special family courts in Riyadh. These courts will expect a dramatic reduction in the number of review cases. Moreover, the Ministry of Justice has established punitive actions for judges and officials who violate the new regulations. This year also marks the first occasion of Saudi women participating in municipal elections.

While much more is still needed to empower women to realize their full rights and potential, it is important to highlight the actions of a handful of activists who strived, and continue to strive, to resist gender discrimination in all its forms. The October 26 driving campaign, for instance, not only gained significant international exposure, but created a global and national discourse on the position of women in Saudi society as symbolized by the iconic driving ban. The simple yet powerful theory of Margaret Mead—“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”—has been, again, validated.


The full report can be viewed here

(AJE) Saudi Arabia: The devil in the details


After a long and painful fight, legislation outlawing domestic abuse was finally approved by the Saudi Council of Ministers last week. The step came after many years of negotiation in the country’s Shura, or advisory council, where it had faced several religious and logistical barriers.

The law was preceded by several smaller steps in recent years. Some Saudi physicians started publishing reports on child abuse cases seen at local hospitals during the 1990s, and the national media began reporting on several landmark cases of domestic abuse.

The National Family Safety Programme (NFSP) was established in 2005 by royal decree, and helped teams of health professionals to specialise in investigating, documenting, and reporting cases of abuse to social services or the police. Though the NFSP initially targeted cases of child abuse, women were treated and directed by the same teams. It also launched an abuse hotline – a significant step, although the line was poorly manned and intervention was not always successful.

It soon became evident, however, that the system still needed to be improved. Social services handled cases of abuse poorly, and returned most victims to their families after asking abusers to sign pledges not to repeat their acts. The only alternative for women and children was an endless residence in poorly equipped shelters.

Legal barriers

The structure of Saudi Arabia’s police and legal system was another serious barrier. Except in extreme cases, lawyers faced severe challenges in convincing a court to strip an abuser of his guardianship over a minor or a woman. At times, murder charges could be expunged by blood money and a pardon, and eccentric views that absolve a father (but not a mother) from punishment for murdering a child have been aired in religious courts.

Meanwhile, male guardians learned to use the excuse of “disobedience” as a way of evading punishment for abuse of women or minors. Courts often handled two cases in tandem: that of a domestic abuse victim requesting the removal of their guardian, and a counter-suit by a guardian alleging disobedience on the part of the victim. Because of Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system and women’s inability to live autonomously, the NFSP shifted its focus towards counselling abusive families and preventing violence through education. This did not create safe havens for abused women and children, but may have deterred abusers at times and taught victims to seek help when needed.

This historical background is needed to understand the structure of the recently approved law. Though the final text of the legislation has not yet been publicly released, an earlier version published by the Shura council will be used here for analysis. It defined the word “abuse” to include all forms of harm “committed by one individual against another in a relationship of power: as in guardianship, authority, responsibility, familial relationship, sponsorship, or living dependency”, and included “refraining from or dereliction in fulfilling basic needs for a family member or anyone a person is responsible for by law or Sharia”.

Such a definition acknowledges the guardianship system instead of admitting its harmful effects on women. However, it does attempt to limit the guardian’s power. The definition also laudably attempts to cover all forms of abuse in order to solve the need for a sexual harassment code, which has been enforced as a precondition to allow women’s employment in gender-mixed workplaces.

‘Basic needs’

While fulfilling “basic needs” may sound like a highly subjective clause, the judges in Saudi courts usually interpret this as meaning the minimum living standard for dependents. The “concerned authority” referred to in the law is defined as the governmental entity responsible for dealing with cases of abuse. However, there is no mention of who or what this authority is.

A focus on counselling and maintaining family ties when dealing with cases of abuse, in articles seven and ten, brings to mind the issues faced by the NFSP in referrals and resources. Wishful thinking would encourage us to imagine that better solutions, such as repeated family visits by qualified counselors, rehabilitation centres, and well-equipped family shelters could have been provided by the law, rather than continuing to ask abusers to sign pledges and teach victims how to call for help.

However, on a more positive note, the law mentions relocating victims to a safe shelter if the “concerned authority” believes the case is severe. The law also significantly improves how cases are reported. While abused women in the past were often asked to personally file complaints at the police stations in order to get help, the new system gives all people the right to inform authorities of any cases of abuse. Acknowledging the need for evidence-based decision-making, the new law requires “the concerned authority” to keep a registry, coordinate with concerned entities, conduct research, and educate the public on abuse and its effects.

The new law seems to enforce un-codified mechanisms established by several sectors over the past decade. It also provides abuse victims with a written guide of what is expected by law, and not by internal memos or programmes.

Yet much more remains to be defined in the next few years. Does a woman’s right to work, travel, marry, divorce, and participate in public society fall within the law’s definition of “basic needs”? Will Saudi courts interpret corporal punishment of a wife or child as abuse, or as a legitimate use of authority? Drawing the line would be the best test of the new law’s efficiency to deal with violence in all its forms in Saudi Arabia.

Hala Al-Dosari is a Saudi writer and activist.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


The Swedish Experience

The Swedish VAW act

downloadBesides being third best in countries’ list and the home of Abba, Sweden has created a best practice model for combating violence against women (VAW).   Earlier this year, a generous invitation by the Swedish institute allowed me to witness some of the efforts in the fight of VAW in Sweden.  The first stop was in the Swedish Ministry of Justice, an overview of the major developments in the VAW act ensued.  Though Sweden is one of the countries where equality between men and women is adopted in laws and practice, the power relations between men and women is yet imbalanced.  Thousands of reports have been filed by women subjected to assaults and violence, the perpetrators of violence is often well known to the victim as in many countries around the world.  However, the response to victims is not the same.  An allocation of SEK 41 million to use on variety of measures in VAW and major changes in legislation improved the government response to violence.

In 1999, a new offense “violation of a woman’s integrity” was introduced, considering repeated acts of violence against a woman by a closely-related perpetrator as a serious crime.  Recognizing repeated offense to a woman as damaging to her self-confidence and integrity.  The punishment of a convicted perpetrator is imprisonment for at least six months and up to six years.  This is considered severe in a country abiding by human rights framework where capital punishments and prolonged imprisonments are unconstitutional.  Under VAW revised act, more articles were introduced; rape definition became widened to include other sexual acts and not merely forced sexual intercourse.  Moreover, neglecting to report certain sexual crimes are punishable, as well as prohibition on the purchase of all forms of sexual services.  The latter was being recognized as coercion and exploitation of humans in need of monetary help.  However, the law does not punish the prostitutes who sell the service, rather considering them as the weaker party in the exchange of sexual services.  The VAW obliged local welfare services to provide for victims of violence who needed support according to guidelines set by the National Board of Health and Welfare.  Circumcision became punishable by law and the term definition included genital mutilation.  Circumcision was considered as a serious crime punishable by a minimum of two years and a maximum of four years imprisonment   The law extended the criminal responsibility of a person committed the circumcision to include acts performed outside the country.   Sexual harassment at work, additionally covered by the equal opportunities act, encompasses any discrimination based on sex or any unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature or other unwelcome behavior based on sex that violates the employee’s integrity at work.  The VAW is gender-neutral, recognizing both sexes as potential victims or perpetrators of violence.  There were a number of preventive measures adopted by the act, including assigning special governmental branches with developing programs and policies to combat VAW and follow on global development, improving statistics to include sex of offenders and follow up of cases, and setting up a special research study of VAW in Sweden in addition to other preventive measures.  For someone like me coming from the world of science and research, it was a heartwarming gesture to see research translated to policy and to witness government representatives listening to research findings about the impact of VAW and the futility of capital punishment as means to resolve crimes.  Intervention through counseling and special rehabilitation programs designed for incarcerated perpetrators of violence have shown improved behavioral attitudes toward violence according to the Swedish experience.

Legal intervention of VAW in Sweden

rape_sexoffences_500Brå, or The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, is a public agency directed towards researching and preventing crimes and improving the safety based on evidence.  Brå represents the government agency responsible for official data and statistics on crimes including those related to VAW.  Reports produced by Brå are used by the government decision-makers to generate policies and amend laws.  The statistics generated by the center, showed an increase in rape and sexual crimes, explained as results of increased reporting, possibly due to better response by the governmental entities.  Researchers recognized that there is a large number of hidden statistics on VAW and suggested other surveys reporting on women and perpetrators to be used for a better estimate of sexual assaults.  To date, the reports are not generating statistics on perpetrators unlike the Swedish Crime Survey for instance.

In another interesting visit to the Police and Prosecution, we met two members of a team of VAW, a detective and prosecutor, who explained to us the procedures of reporting a crime related to VAW and the usual legal response.   The team showed up expertise in crimes of this nature due to specialization and cooperation of the team with each others.  The police follow a strict protocol in responding to cases and social services are called in while perpetrators of violence are held for investigation.  The prosecutor discussed with us the emotional instability of victims, which complicates investigating violence cases and taking effective measures by victim of abuse.  During the discussion, we learned that reporting crime of VAW can be done by any suspecting person and not merely by the victim, and that women choose at times to stay in abusive relationships without reporting for fear of social stigma despite the measures of protection available through the system, a finding which is common in many cultures.  In fact, in a society where gender-equality is fundamental, being abused by a partner can be more shameful to a woman than in any other society and conductive to hiding abuse by the victim.  Julien Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, was part of the discussion as he was being accused of sexual misconduct in cases filed by two young women in Sweden.  Controversy exists as to whether charges are genuine or part of a governmental plot to control Assange political activities.

The Social Services response to VAW

In a side street without a visible sign, we reached a homey place, one in many nationwide places for shelters and women’s empowerment centers, the Swedish Association of Women’s Shelters and Young Women’s empowerment Centers.   The center provides accommodation, counseling and activities tailored for victims of violence and their children.  There are 140 women’s shelters centers in Sweden, operated by different organizations.  In turn, the services provided are different, but generally all shelters provide accommodation and coordination between victims and different agencies in the government like the legal system and the social services.  Though most women don’t have to be referred to shelters by the social services, many shelters accept women based on social services referral.  Centers are largely maintained and operated by unpaid volunteers who are well oriented and trained to perform the needed tasks and duties.  The centers offer education and training to young boys and girls about VAW and help in raising awareness on violence through different initiatives and activities.  One of their productions “I said I had a bad dream” targeting children witnessing family violence are available by order in most languages.

The Healthcare & Counseling of VAW victims

The National Center for Knowledge on Men’s Violence against Women (NCK) is knowledge & resource center based at Uppsala University.  NCK is an agency commissioned by the government to promote knowledge about VAW and to generate methods to treat victims.  The center is run by a handful of staff with expertise in the field.  A hotline is maintained by a well-experienced nurse who provide counseling, referral and supporting advises to victims of VAW.    Through different publications, the center provides training for healthcare professionals and engage in discourse on sexual assaults and the negative consequences sustained by victims of violence.  The handbook of national action programme for the healthcare and medical services reception and care of victims of sexual assaults provides a detailed guide for healthcare professionals dealing with victims of VAW.

16We ended our visit at a specialized clinic dealing with victims of violence, the Södersjukhuset Rape Victim center/ Dept of Clinical Science & Education, Karolinska Institutet.  We met with Dr. Lotti Helstrom, an authority in the field, where she answered our questions on women at risk.  VAW occurs across all socioeconomic strata,  and clinical findings of assaults are not always evident.  Victims are often either in vulnerable state to resist the assault or paralyzed by fear and helplessness, making clinical signs of assault untraceable at examination.  Victims’ recovery after an assault is variable and dependent on a woman’s internal strength and the availability of support and effective guidance.   In answering a question about the root causes of violence, Dr. Lotti discussed the culture of violence promoted as a feature of masculinity, that to end VAW, young boys must be taught  about the culture of violence and all the negative aspects associated with it.

A comparison with Saudi Arabia

UntitledMost of the figures we met have stated that the political will in Sweden has been a major force behind the concerted efforts regarding the VAW act.  Maybe this was possible by a previous implementation of gender equality act and the active engagement of women in politics and decision-making.  Swedish government is almost half-filled by women politicians, parliamentarians, and decision makers.  Having women as fifth of the Consultative council, Saudi Arabia can begin to push the envelope further in VAW.  Some research studies estimate that one in three women are living under one form of violence and that half of the Saudi children are subjected to violence.  Our experience has shown that adoption of solutions without empowering victims or creating a protective legislation and a national awareness program was ineffective.    We started to combat violence against women as a side job to violence against children program, both programs did not protect the target populations.  Victims were left with unresponsive hotlines, inadequate shelters and social services, and lengthy, male-oriented legal system.  Our solutions are fragmented, cosmetic, and misguided.  The lack of evidence-based policy making and the bureaucracy of governmental action are major obstacles.  Unless we start collecting statistics, create protocol for handling cases, and develop a national plan to combat VAW, women will not be saved and the cycle of violence will regenerate.   Most importantly, unless we recognize VAW as a major threat to women’s health and well being, little can be offered, a political will has to be raised.

Spring Blossoms

Published in “Women after the Arab awakening”, a Wilson’s center Winter publication 2012, P.8:

My Contribution for International Women’s Day

Saudi women have been a common denominator in most socio-political equations.  Decades of institutionalized guardianship system and gender segregation have rendered women vulnerable with limited autonomy in virtually most aspects of their lives.  Take education and work for instance, though women are outnumbering men in university graduation, they end up competing for limited work opportunities due to the gender segregation policy.  Many educated women accept either low-paid jobs or travel on daily basis on dangerous roads for distant appointments.  Tragic accidents on poorly maintained roads leave many women dead or disabled.  Photo identification continues to be a challenge to accept women’s access to courts whether as lawyers or as plaintiffs.   The newly appointed women members in the Shura council are no exception.  A complete remodeling of the Shura building to allow for separate work spaces was required prior to women’s pursuit of duties.  Segregation is a potential barrier to meaningful engagement of women in shared decision-making.

The guardianship system represents a serious threat in situations of domestic violence.   Without written penal code to address violence against women or accessible resources the problem becomes insurmountable.  Initial figures from small scale studies suggest that domestic violence has become an epidemic, affecting one in every three women and half of all Saudi children.  Vulnerable populations of women such as migrant workers, institutionalized mentally-ill and disabled women and women prisoners at risk of family retribution are of particular concern.

The institutionalized guardianship system with its severe impact on women’s autonomy, the gender-segregation policy, and the limitations of political decision-making must be revoked to ensure a secure and sustainable development of women in Saudi Arabia.

To read the full publication with contributions from other writers and activists:

Challenges to Women’s Security in the MENA Region

A legacy to remember

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – For many people in Saudi Arabia, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz was the symbol of iron-fisted national security. His policies showed a loyal and fierce commitment to the protection of the crown, even if it meant sacrificing human rights or developmental goals. Through his various and prolonged positions in the government, the prince’s views shaped the lives of millions of Saudi men and women for decades.

Upon hundreds of sympathising obituaries published in national Saudi newspapers, the one offered by Dr Muneera al-Osaimi [AR], a nurse who was recently hired as assistant undersecretary to the minister of health (the first woman to achieve such an appointment), was noteworthy. Dr al-Osaimi commended the late crown prince, stating that he was exceptionally supportive of Saudi Arabia women, particularly in offering new working opportunities “suitable for their femininity”.
As common to most clerics’ speeches, the prince did not fail to mention the ill-treatment of women by their families and their objectification by their communities in foreign countries. The highlight of the speech was the prince’s declaration that “no Saudi man allows ‘his’ female relative to be working as a secretary for another man”. Needless to say, that declaration received a gratifying applause from the all-male audience.To get a close-up of the prince’s views on women and their expected roles in the society, a recording of the prince in a public event three years ago can be helpful. In the video, the prince addressed what seemed to be a question on women’s equal citizenship from a lady in the audience. He repeated a popular royal speech on the dignified status of women as mothers, daughters, and sisters. Then, he stated the reservation on women public participation: Ensuring their modesty among men and fulfillment of their primary physiological roles as wives and mothers.

The problem with the views on the late crown prince is that many of them were institutionalised, adding to the barriers on Saudi women’s access to resources and opportunities. The famous call for women to start driving is a stark example. In 1990, the prince legalised a religious edict against their call in an attempt to please the religious fanatics and calm their resentment from the Kingdom’s alliances with the Americans in war.
The unfailing support of the late prince to the Committee of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) was evident. CPVPV enjoyed a free hand in enforcing gender segregation at public events and spaces. Catastrophic events like the Mecca school fire and car chases with any suspected couples lead to “developmental” change in the leadership of the committee and their planned activities, yet women continue to be popular targets for CPVPV.In recent years, the crown prince did not see the need in having female members in the Shura advisory council. Later, he changed his mind and welcomed the king’s announcement in 2011 to admit women into the councilas “a requisite to meet the developmental goals”. The prince made sure to declare that the decision is internally made with no external pressure, hinting maybe to the increased exposure of Saudi women due to the Arab uprising and the revival of the women driving campaign. The late prince preferred the use of the term “development” more than “reform”, as the latter indicates an existing failure that needed to be changed completely. In his views, Saudi Arabia was a success, a work in progress, despite many frustrated voices and petitions submitted by concerned citizens asking for “reforms”.

Supporters of the late crown prince hail his decision in 2001 to issue identification cards for women. Women used to be listed under their guardians’ in family ID cards. The prince explained the decision as a requirement for modernisation, to allow women ease in performing their activities and to prevent fraud and trickeries in the absence of identifications.
Upon the crown prince’s death, calls for reform are being revived. Female activists are wary of having their demands hanging by a thread, of having to rely on a willing “guardian”, or on a “royal decree” to grant them promises instead of rights. Their vulnerability created by lack of legal and constructive measures to protect their rights needs to be addressed. The age-old royal allegiance with the clerics and the extremists to keep women in check has to be reconsidered.Nevertheless, the cards were insufficient to apply for any governmental procedures. This helps particularly in courts, where women are still required to cover their faces and to find two witnesses to confirm their identities. In 2009, Prince Meqrin bin Abdulaziz, the chief of the Saudi intelligence department, stated in a hearing inside the Shura Council that a total of 26 governmental institutions are inaccessible to women, while only 11 governmental institutions accept women with their national ID.

For decades, ill choices were made to marginalise women in exchange for religious extremists’ loyalty. We were left with high unemployment rates among women, painful cases of domestic violence without effective redress, and paralysed half of society, where women are treated like perpetual minors. These issues will not go away by issuing conditionally valid ID cards, or letting the clerics maintain their status quo, or administering a public speech where women’s dignity is described as sacred, or promising rights when the “society is ready”. We may not know what or who to expect, but we sure have a legacy to remember, and to avoid.

Published on Aljazira English (AJE):

On the lashing sentence of a Saudi woman driver “The Guardian piece”

This is the original piece I’ve sent to the Guardian before publishing, the link to the published article is at the end

In a sudden turn of events, Shaimaa Justaneyah, one of the female drivers who challenged the ban on women driving in Saudi, was sentenced to 10 lashes in Jeddah city of Saudi Arabia.  The paradoxical verdict came shortly after a historical royal decree to grant Saudi women suffrage rights.  Shaimaa’s case was being tried for months; she witnessed three hearings already with her male guardian before she finally received the verdict.  By keeping a low profile and avoiding media or activists’ attention, she hoped to sign a simple warranty not to drive, as customary, at the end.  Her tactic was aimed to avoid retaliations by authorities or worse, to avoid getting accusations of incitement against the country, a charge that is not uncommon against activists with worse outcomes.  Receiving the dramatic sentence, Shaimaa finally contacted the women2drive coordinators; they immediately issued a statement about her case that travelled all over the world from their websites and social networks.  The statement was followed by an online open letter to King Abdullah to look into the outrageous sentence.  The case of Shaimaa was being filed for appeal.  The news of the sentence dimmed the celebratory spirit of the historical royal decrees and sent obvious messages to Saudi women that their struggle toward their basic rights is yet in the infancy stage, at least on the legal front.

            Shaimaa is not alone, another woman in Jeddah, Mrs. Najla Hariri, who used to drive repeatedly in Jeddah due to the absence of a driver, was also called for questioning and facing a similar case with unknown outcomes.  Currently, there is no feedback from the government on the issue of women driving.  The sentence of 10 lashes fired resentments on social networks and international news pieces.  A royal member, Princess Amera Al-Taweel, finally tweeted brief statement on a royal pardon by the king.  The pardon was later confirmed by a published story on Forbes.

Historically, the case for women driving has been raised by women activists repeatedly in the past twenty years, receiving various consequences on activists ranging from banning from travel or jobs, detention, and defamation. The ten days detention of the activist Manal Al-Shareef at the beginning of her driving initiative ended abruptly by a direct intervention from the King.  She resumed her activism after a short period of inactivity following the detention.  The driving initiative received support from local and international groups and praised by encouraging statements from top women leaders across the world including Clinton and Ashton.  Driving right is viewed by Saudi women as a basic need that would empower hundreds who currently rely on the availability of drivers or male relatives to commute.  Most of women affected are those from lower to middle class families or working women.  Recruitment of drivers is not formally granted to women but to their male relatives, making the issue more complicated for women who are not supported by capable male relatives or for women who can’t accommodate drivers in their homes.  The inconvenience created by the restriction on women movements granted a high response rate for the women driving initiative.  It is believed that the simple step of allowing women the right to drive would enable greater number of women to enroll in jobs or education and would ease the financial burden on many families with limited income.  It is not understood why the ban still exist despite the repeated calls to lift it.  The official religious scholars who usually oppose the calls for women empowerment on any level are shown to be the first to comply if the alleviation is decreed by the king.  Observers have noticed the quick change of hearts of the hard-line scholars when the King decided to open the first Co-Ed University and when he granted women the suffrage rights.  All it takes usually is a royal decree to correct any opposition or ill verdicts.  The opposition to women driving in Saudi has been focused on issues such as priorities of women rights, gradual changes of status-quo, and preparing the infra-structure to ensure no gender mixing takes effect.  Yet, all those claims are easily challenged by the presence of many Saudi sectors were women are served by male officials as in hospitals, governments offices, courts, and airports, without any notable problems.  Saudi women rights have been at the tail of the reforms list for many decades.  In celebrating the 81st anniversary of Saudi Arabia, overdue decrees would be allowing women the basic rights of commute and lifting the guardianship law restrictions, and perhaps then they can exercise effectively the promised suffrage rights.  A face-saving leap would be to bring forward the legal system to the 21st century, where royal decrees are no longer required to usher necessary justice.


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