Riyadh // In a first for Saudi Arabia, experts gathered this week to discuss publicly the problem of domestic abuse and develop a national strategy for preventing and dealing with family violence. The two-day forum, attended by about 160 men and women, was held under the sponsorship of Princess Adela bint Abdullah, the daughter of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, a strong supporter of efforts to tackle domestic violence.
"Abuse against women and children is increasing astonishingly. So there needs to be a professional strategy to create a balance in relationships between family members," said Princess Adela. "Abuse of women and children is a real threat to the stability of our society. It is a worrying universal phenomenon, not just a local one." The meeting is another illustration of Saudi Arabia's tentative steps - since King Abdullah took the throne in 2005 - to openly address major social problems. Buoyed by this royal encouragement, Saudi women - and some men - have become increasingly outspoken on the issue of domestic violence.
Participants in the symposium, billed as "The First National Expert Meeting on Domestic Violence", included representatives from ministries, judges, prosecutors, policemen and health professionals as well as activists from the non-profit sector. It was organised by the National Family Safety Program, an agency created by royal decree in 2005 with the mandate to raise public awareness about child abuse and domestic violence, and assist abuse victims. Princess Adela is vice president of the programme.
After launching several initiatives to combat child abuse, the programme is turning its focus to spousal violence. This week's meeting "is the first time that we are addressing abuse against women", said Maha al Muneef, a paediatrician who is the programme's executive director. "This event shows that we do care about this issue and that we are not denying it, we are facing it," said Haifa al Ashaikh, 26, a psychologist with the programme.
It is also proof, she said, that Saudi women "do have good minds" and "are more active than people in other countries think". The session issued 22 recommendations, starting with the need for a clear national recognition of the existence of domestic abuse in Saudi Arabia. That need was a major reason for this week's conference "because there were lots of voices in the community trying to hide this problem" of domestic violence, arguing that it is an isolated phenomenon, said Dr Majid al Eissa, 35, a paediatrician who is medical director for the National Family Safety Program.
But as awareness of human rights grows in the kingdom, Dr Al Eissa said, people "are more receptive of new ideas". Domestic violence is "a global issue and we should start talking about it more explicitly". "This is the only way to find a solution." The conference was held in a hotel ballroom in which men and women were separated by an opaque screen, which allowed them to hear and ask questions of each other.
The discussions were closed to the press, but participants talked about them later. In one discussion on the options open to a woman beaten by her husband, all agreed that she has the right to report the abuse to the police, participants said. But some speakers argued that she had to go to the police station with her male guardian - though in many instances it might be the guardian who attacked her.
Dr Al Eissa said that changing the minds of Saudi men on the permissibility of physical violence against wives may be difficult, but he said: "We're not different from any other part of the world." Another recommendation of the meeting was to create a database on incidences of child and domestic abuse so their extent will be clearer. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to addressing domestic abuse in the kingdom is the lack of national consensus on what constitutes abuse and whether or not husbands have the right to use physical violence against their wives.
Sheikh Salman al Oadah, a prominent religious scholar, said on Tuesday that Islam does not sanction the use of violence against women and children, and that marital relationships should be marked by mercy and tolerance. The conference recommended that Saudi religious authorities issue an unequivocal expert religious opinion, or fatwa, on violence in the family so that it can serve as the basis for legal decisions in courts, which enforce Islamic law.
There have been previous efforts to raise public awareness about domestic violence. Last month, for example, the Al Nahda Female Philanthropic Society started a public campaign to combat domestic violence under the slogan, "Let's protect them, not harm them". It will target one Riyadh neighbourhood with social and sport activities to highlight the issue of domestic violence. But this week's conference was the first by a government-sanctioned body that brought together officials and activists from non-profit organisations.
The programme works under the aegis of the National Guard Health Services and has more than 1,000 members, said Dr Al Muneef, the director. In an interview, Dr Al Muneef said that the programme has already held three workshops on child abuse, inviting about 250 physicians, social workers, policemen, judges and prosecutors. It is essential, the physician said, to give priority to education and training because these are the foundation on which to build an institutional system of reporting, prevention and treatment of family violence.
"You have to work with the culture, with the people … and go at their pace," Dr Al Muneef said, adding that some prosecutors who took the workshop told her it had opened their eyes to the problem of child abuse. Awareness of family violence also has been heightened in recent years by media coverage of several incidents in which children were tortured or beaten to death, and by the publicity given to the 2004 beating of Rania al Baz, a well-known television anchorwoman, by her husband. Pictures of her battered face were published in Saudi newspapers.
Saudi Arabia has "a privacy society", said Dalal Hamdan, 24, a social worker. "You cannot talk about things easily so we need conferences to raise public awareness." Ms Hamdan said that she and her co-workers at the National Family Safety Program already see results from their work. "We see a lot of co-operation from the public," she said, citing calls from people who said they saw an abused child or wife. "And they ask, 'What can I do?'"