x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Domestic abuse has different faces

Spousal "violence" is not just physical, some experts say, and practices such as withholding the car keys may constitute abuse. It's a plausible claim but the terrain is tricky for governments.

Every married couple has its own dynamics. How decisions are made, who's in charge of what, how much is spent, matters of child-rearing - all these decisions and many others are reached through a process which can vary greatly from one household to the next.

Social norms, family traditions, peer pressure, religious teachings, economic circumstances, and of course individual personality and behaviour all weigh in the balance in such matters. And normally the state has little incentive to put its hand onto the scale in the case of any couple.

But there is a limit to everything. When a marriage breaks down, for example, divorce is subject to certain rules designed to enforce fairness. Short of marriage breakdown, too, some practices may be deemed unacceptable. The question is: which ones?

Sociologists and other students of these matters now argue that practices such as a husband forbidding his wife access to her own salary, or to the keys to the car, constitute an unacceptable form of "violence" against women. In the UAE and around the world, more voices are being raised against these practices, in campaigns to change social norms.

On the substance of the issue people such as Fatima Al Kindi of Al Nahda Women Association have a legitimate point. Speaking this week at an event sponsored by the Dubai Police, Mrs Al Kindi argued that "this type of abuse is more widespread" than physical violence and demands the same sort of response. (She also acknowledged during her remarks that there are also sometimes cases of violence - by any definition - against husbands by wives.)

Changing practices which may be controversial is a delicate business. But Mrs Al Kindi and others like her do a service to all by raising the issues and pointing out the objections which many people - not only women - do have to such strict treatment. It is for example very difficult to justify depriving a wife of the salary she earns for herself and the family, or of the right to drive.

Marriage deserves the dignity of privacy, but every individual, too, has dignity which deserves, and sometimes needs, protection under the law.