Women of Courage: How Dr. Maha Al Muneef is leading a Crusade to Stop Domestic Abuse in Saudi Arabia

Despite strong condemnation from Amnesty International and other human rights groups, domestic violence is a norm in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. According to a report released in 2015 around 8,016 cases of domestic abuse problems were reported in the country that year. However, since so many cases of abuse go unnoticed, it is difficult to determine the actual rate of abuse in the country.

According to an estimate by the US State Department, around 16 to 50 percent (3.84 million to 9.6 million) suffer domestic violence in Saudi Arabia. Most of the cases were reported to occur in the Riyadh, Mecca, and other cities in the Eastern Province. There were reports of physical and psychological abuse of not just women but children as well.

The widespread use of social media has revealed horrid cases of abuse in the country. A Saudi newscaster named Rania al-Baz was nearly beaten to death by her husband in 2004. She posted photos of her injuries online that raised international outrage and sparked a debate about violence and abuse in the Gulf country. Her husband had reportedly slammed her on the marble floor during a domestic fight due to which she suffered 13 fractures, and nearly lost her life.

Another heavily publicized case was that of Samar Badawi who had exposed the failure of the patriarchal system to protect women from abuse from their spouses and other relatives.

Crusade against Domestic Abuse Problem in the Kingdom

Realizing the problem of abuse and biases that is present in the very infrastructure of the judicial system, Dr. Maha Al Muneef and her organization have launched a program to root out the evil of domestic abuse in the country.

The efforts of Dr. Al Muneef in combating domestic abuse problem in the Kingdom had been honored by the US Department. The US President Barack Obama had handed her an International Women of Courage award during his last visit to the Kingdom in 2014. The award had recognized her work to assist victims of domestic abuse in the Gulf country, and to push forward for legal reform against the abuse.

Dr. Al Muneef has played an important role in influencing the decision of the Shura Council in 2013 to enact the Regulation to Protect against Abuse. The law had set penalties for domestic abuse problems, including prison term and fines of up to US$13,300.

This law defines domestic violence and sets the penalty for crimes of domestic violence between one month and a year in prison, and/or up to 13,300 USD in fines. It also allows women to make complaints about abuse or domestic violence without the approval of their guardians.

The National Family Safety Program (NFSP) was launched in Saudi Arabia by a royal decree as a result of the push by Dr. Al Muneef for women’s rights. The NFSP hosts meetings every month within the Kingdom to combat domestic violence in the country. The community meetings have become a platform to discuss problems relating the domestic abuse problem with the aim of putting an end to the ‘absolute’ authority of male guardians.