She was slapped for talking back. Her father, an unyielding man, was known to shift moods suddenly and turn his anger on the family. At the tender age of 16, she was more concerned with protecting her younger sister than her school exams the next day. Despite promises to leave and never look back, this Abu Dhabi resident continues to live with her family, awaiting the next argument, and inevitably, the next blow. One wonders: is it loyalty that compels her to stay? Love? Or is it that the stigma associated with domestic abuse - the idea that "what happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors" - trumps the desire to reach out beyond her tight-knit circle of supportive family and friends?
The UAE's legislators hope to dispel such hesitation. As we reported yesterday, the Protection Family Centre is drafting new laws that would penalise abusive husbands and prevent family members from dropping charges of abuse. The latter measure particularly champions children, who could be dissuaded from pressing charges by family members. If passed, the laws would herald a new age of transparency for a social taboo seldom discussed, let alone prosecuted, in many Arab countries. While cases are still rare, a UAE University study in 2005 worryingly found that two thirds of women permanently residing in the country had been subjected to some form of domestic abuse. A third of those aged 18 to 30 claimed a family member had been involved, while half say they had witnessed abuse of their mothers.
Statistics in neighbouring countries echo a disturbingly similar situation. Seven out of 10 Arab women living in Israel believe that women who are pushed, slapped or struck by their male partners are not victims of abuse, according to a poll conducted in 2008 by the Na'amat women's organisation. In Iraq and Jordan, violence and economic stagnation have led to a rise in domestic abuse, the International Organisation for Migration has reported.
"A well-raised Iraqi woman should tolerate everything in silence," one woman was reported as telling researchers. A heartening sign of changing times, however, is that legislative action seems to be responding to an increased willingness to bring such matters to light, particularly by women's organisations, NGOs and leaders who believe that state intervention is necessary in matters of abuse. The privacy of family affairs was once held inviolable; something that was to be protected at all costs. When the UAE's ground-breaking legislation becomes law, it is the victims, rather than family honour, who will be the first priority when it comes to protection.