By Sabria S. Jawhar
18 May 2015
Three incidents occurred in the past weeks that give pause to any Saudi women venturing to the mall or a public place. In Jeddah, a man attacked a woman by slapping her in the face when she rejected his offer for his phone number. In the Eastern Province, two Saudi men in separate incidents attacked two women inside a mall.
In all three incidents, mall security men were nowhere to be found. Saudi men, long considered so masculine that they would intercede when witnessing inappropriate or violent behavior against a woman or child, did not defend these women. The ignorant would argue that these women should not have been out in public without a mahram, conveniently forgetting that it is impossible in modern Saudi society to go about one’s business 24/7 with a mahram always in attendance.
Those very same critics also fail to recognize that any Saudi woman, alone or otherwise, in a public place should not be afraid for their safety.
One of the benefits of being Saudi and living in Saudi Arabia is that women never had to be concerned about their safety. Our society respects women and men generally go out of their way to demonstrate their respect toward them. We never felt that we needed protection. I recall at my orientation session at Newcastle University in England during the first day of classes that a speaker suggested that female students consider carrying a Taser for protection. I was shocked that women would have to resort to a weapon to protect themselves from men. I was glad that no Saudi women would ever consider carrying a Taser in their own country.
Well, my attitude is slowly changing as I see physical and verbal violence against women increasing. When I first moved from Madinah to Jeddah many years ago, my female colleagues and I enjoyed a lifestyle free from worries. Our drivers were respectful and provided transportation at a reasonable fee. Sure, we all ran across Saudi men who inappropriately asked to date us or became too familiar, but these unwanted advances were easily brushed off and men would accept rejection with a measure of grace.
Much has changed, though. Some expats employed as our drivers have learned over the years that Saudi women have few protections. They read the newspapers and watch the news on television and know that there is a concerted effort to strip us from our basic rights. This is an informal, insidious movement in which the conservatives, whether employers, teachers, so-called scholars and the like find ways to impede our economic progress and personal growth. Some expats recognize these efforts and exploit them to their advantage, primarily with rude and inappropriate behavior or price gouging while negotiating a transportation fee.
Some Saudi men see the same oppressive measure and feel that they can commit violent acts against women with impunity. Once confined behind closed doors, those violent acts are now committed in public with bystanders turning a blind eye.
The Saudi government has enacted domestic violence laws to protect women and children, but enforcement at the local level is lacking. And there appears to be no enforcement of assaults committed against women in public. It’s been the practice of local law enforcement to get involved in violent incidents against women only if a video has captured the incident and posted on YouTube, resulting in an outcry on social media. Government policies created at the executive level that protect women and children have not reached local police.
The government staged an awareness campaign two years ago that urged citizens to report domestic violence, but it appears to have had little impact on the community. Saudis could benefit from a renewed campaign to remind citizens of their obligations to report violent incidents and to expand that campaign to include random acts of violence in public places.
It’s baffling that in 2015 Saudis are still ashamed to talk about domestic violence. And now that violence has spilled into public places, Saudis seem to be even more reluctant to tackle the issue. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, while he was crown prince, made it clear some time ago that individuals who took pictures of women or defamed them in any manner would be severely punished with jail time and heavy fines. Yet we continue to fail to execute his directives. That is the real shame.