As the Gulf region struggles to contain the growing ISIS (Da’esh) threat, discern the potential implications of the war in Gaza, and identify the geo-political shifts that may arise through the re-engagement of the United States in Iraq, one’s focus may meander away from the lack of legal protection granted to women in the Middle East. This is particularly true in the case of domestic violence and sexual harassment, despicable acts that are not recognised as a crime in some countries and inexcusably minimalised in others. While these crimes are perpetrated against women specifically, this is a human rights issue, not simply a woman’s issue. Eliminating the cultural acceptability of a man beating his wife will take cooperation among all levels of society, starting with government officials who must alter the laws of their nations, and judges who should make examples of men who violate the sanctity of a woman simply because they mistakenly believe that this right exists. The progress of a nation depends on many factors but none is more important than that of human dignity. Economic growth, territorial expansion, or military sophistication pale in comparison to the ability of a society to respect the rights and liberties of its citizens. Sadly, too many nations in the Middle East harbour archaic social values that will continue to impede their path to modernity.
Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are two of the most egregious countries in terms of domestic abuse. The UAE repeatedly contradicts itself by tolerating domestic violence while pretending to be a nation devoted to casting it out of the culture. The UAE signed the UN Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women but this has proven to be a ceremonial gesture signed in invisible ink. The UAE does not have a domestic violence law and the country has not released any documentation acknowledging prosecutions for any form of domestic abuse. The larger effects of this type of legal negligence impacts children as well as the abused, and when courts are so clearly stacked against women, the victims of violence often lose custody of their dependent children. The courts are structured in such a manner due to a lack of comprehensive police work or even a level of compassion from police for abused women. According to Human Rights Watch, one victim of abuse was told by Dubai police that she was unable to report her husband for the violence perpetrated against her for she was the property of her husband: ‘He could do what he wanted as it was his house and I was his wife’ was the justification offered by police who told the woman to return home and apologise to her husband for even introducing the idea of bringing charges against him. This type of behavior by police only allows dehumanising treatment to propagate and sends a clear message to the next generation of UAE men that physical abuse of one’s spouse is tolerated and is a de facto privilege of marriage.
Failure of the UAE Courts
Perhaps the most outlandish decision rendered by the courts of the UAE came against a battered woman who was ordered to pay to fix a door that was damaged during her attack from her husband. The victim was able to divorce her husband in early 2014 after years of abuse, but she lost her appeal on the door issue and lost custody of her daughter as well. The courts and the UAE government placed the young girl in the home of a clearly dangerous man, therefore destroying the life of the mother and risking the well-being of the young girl. The lack of long-term vision by the UAE government is shocking, but the courts will argue that they are simply adhering to a penal code that allows men to ‘chastise’ their wives, and a threat to this law is an act against Sharia law. Naturally, this is a misrepresentation of Islamic Law, as Badria al-Bishr points out in her article concerning domestic violence in Saudi Arabia, as the Prophet Mohammad ‘described those [men] who hit their wives as evil’, but this is of no matter to a legal system designed to maintain a male hierarchy free from any perceived challenges from women. By ostracising and neglecting the female population of a country, the UAE government is establishing a blueprint for eventual failure as reform will ultimately arrive, either led from within or forced upon the country by outside forces.
Saudi Arabia Implements Reforms
As distressing as the news coming out of the UAE may be, at least one Gulf nation notoriously connected with female repression and degradation is endeavoring to remedy itself. Saudi Arabia is attempting to alter the male mindset with an aggressive campaign against domestic violence. Images of a woman’s eyes, one terribly blackened, with the caption ‘Some things can’t be covered’ was a precursor to the Kingdom’s ‘Protection from Abuse’ Law passed on 26 August, 2013. The Law provides women with an opportunity to report abuse without a fear of repercussion and requires the police to take these matters seriously, attempting to eschew the cavalier nature of the authorities in the UAE. Any type of social modification takes years for implementation to truly take root and success of social reform is only truly measured when it is no longer considered to be a reform but merely an aspect of life. To that end, Saudi Arabia may need decades to shed its history of blindly ignoring the suffering of women. The Kingdom has numerous changes left to be made to improve the quality of life for women, but granting them protection within their own home is a critical step to producing a generation of husbands who will respect the rights of their wives and women who will not fear their partners.
The lack of concern for domestic violence victims is an outgrowth of societies that do not value women as people, but rather view them as secondary players within the culture. Changing mindsets to change behavior will require educating men to see women as valuable and equally capable of assisting in the progress of a country. Domestic violence is an act of vehemence that reflects a lack of appreciation for the dignity of the victim. The roots of domestic abuse need to be openly discussed by government leaders, and Saudi Arabia’s public service campaign is a gesture to be applauded for it forced into circulation a topic that that has been clandestine for too long. One shocking measure is that of a Middle Eastern-born artist living the state of Florida in the United States. Calling himself ‘Saint Hoax’, he uses images of Disney princesses (without Disney’s permission) and paints them to be the victims of horrific physical abuse with the tag line ‘When did he stop treating you like a princess? It’s never too late to put an end to it’. Despite receiving mixed responses, the creations are powerful and retain a greater sense of impact coming from an artist of Middle Eastern descent. However, posters and internet promotions alone will not curb the violence-the legal systems and the government must do their share to shift perceptions on what constitutes permissible behavior.
Egypt’s Struggles with Domestic Violence and Sexual Harassment:
In June of 2014, just two days before leaving office and the ascendance of Abdel al-Sisi, Adly Mansour attempted to quietly alter Egyptian society with the declaration of Egypt’s first law that specifically targeted sexual harassment, but is it enough to curb what appears to be a behavioral epidemic in Egypt? Egypt is among the worst nations in the world to be female. The World Health Organisation notes that female genital mutilation was used on over ninety percent of the female population as recently as 2008. Even Tahrir Square, regarded as the birthplace of the Arab Awakening, was a haven of groping and other inappropriate sexual acts towards women during the periods of protests against then president Hosni Mubarak. Like the UAE, the challenges facing women in Egypt come not only from male perpetrators of the crime, but also from the police that lack tact, compassion, and empathy for the victims. Unfortunately, the law is worded in a particularly obtuse manner and can be broadly interpreted. While the law does make harassment a crime punishable by six months in jail and a hefty fine for a first offense, the law also states that ‘harassment’ involves a man ‘stalking or following’ a woman and ‘communicates sexual or pornographic content’. The deficiency of the law is that it allows police officers to determine when a woman is being ‘stalked’ and establishes a show down between the female victim and her perceived harasser. The police would be then forced to take a side and Egypt’s history points squarely against a woman receiving reasonable doubt. Additionally, the comments, if they are deemed to be lewd, must be made in conjunction with the alleged stalking, and the same offensive comments, if not explicitly connected with ‘following’ or ‘stalking’, would not constitute a crime. The inconsistency is vast and troublesome.
Take the Burden off the Victim
A victim of sexual harassment, domestic abuse, or sexual violence experiences terrible trauma that can be humiliating to discuss, particularly within a culture in which female sexuality is a secretive topic. Women throughout the Middle East need protection from violence, but they also need to have protection from further violation of dignity. This means that women should be examined by female doctors in a private, safe, and sanitary environment free from the prying eyes of men and/or condescending comments. Police officers must be trained by the government in the field of dealing with cases of a sexual offense so they know the proper questions to ask, the information to gather, and the evidence to protect. Currently, both the societal and legal structures limit the freedoms of women to protect themselves against atrocious crimes and governments should view this as an embarrassment that precludes them from playing more significant roles in world affairs. Passing laws are essential measures to changing behaviors and improving societies, but laws are vacuous if not enforced properly. The challenge for the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt is to move beyond the perception of concern and undertake the heavy lifting that is required to change minds and shift attitudes. This will also require greater inclusion of women in the political and Law-making arenas in these nations in order to gain a more complete worldview and assist in shaping laws that reflect gender-specific needs. This is not an unattainable goal, but slight progress should not be celebrated as monumental strides forward; rather, only when women are granted complete legal protection will these countries deserve to truly be commended.
 “UAE: Weak protection Against Domestic Violence” www.hrw.org 04/08/2014
3 Gover, Dominic www.ibtimes.co.uk 05/08/2014
5 “UAE:Weak protection Against Domestic Violence” www.hrw.org 04/08/2014
6 Al-Bishr, Badria. “In Saudi Arabia, Domestic Violence Fine Gets Laughs”. www.english.alarabiya.net 20/04/2014
7 “Saudi Arabia Outlaws Domestic Violence’ www.aljazeera.com Accessed 01/08/2014
8 Ingles, Jacqueline. “A Domestic Violence Campaign by Artists Saint Hoax Shows Bloodied, Bruised Disney Princesses”. www.wptv.com 09/07/2014
9 El-Rifae, Yasmin. “Egypt’s Sexual harassment law: An Insufficient Measure to End Sexual Violence”. www.mei.edu 17/07/2014
10 “Sexual and reproductive Health” www.who.int Accessed 16/08/2014
11 El-Rifae, Yasmin. “Egypt’s Sexual harassment law: An Insufficient Measure to End Sexual Violence”. www.mei.edu 17/07/2014
11 Egyptian women protesters sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square. theguardian.com, Friday 8 June 2012. Accessed 17/08/2014
12 El-Rifae, Yasmin. “Egypt’s Sexual harassment law: An Insufficient Measure to End Sexual Violence”. www.mei.edu 17/07/2014
One response to “Abuse of Power: The Failure of Governments to Protect Women from Domestic Violence and Harassment”
Richard, Thank you for writing this article. The marginalization of women is the number one issue with regard to sustainability for the world and topped the list for UNESCO’s decade of education for sustainable development. It is crazy to think that women are still considered property in certain parts of the world and that women need permission to work and have a driver’ license even in Dubai, (which seems to be a beacon of modernity surrounded by very ancient countries, cultures and customs). I wonder how many of the officials practice domestic violence and how many oppose it. When men are willing to kill their daughters just for being a girl, or for committing adultery, I wonder how a shift of mindset will ever be possible. I think it is also interesting to consider the implications that western culture getting involved has, and while (to play Devil’s advocate) the argument can be made that we are purely ethnocentric, it is obvious that there will always be push-back when the west is trying to change how the east operates. Take democracy as an example. Nonetheless, it is extremely important that this message keep reaching people outside of the middle east, so that as a global community, we can show that this is wrong and maybe someday women can go to a volleyball game without being arrested.