Saudi Arabia Bans Domestic Abuse, Will it Make Any Difference?


On August 26, 2013, the Saudi Cabinet approved the "Protection from Abuse" law. The law now makes domestic abuse illegal, punishable by one year in prison, and a fine of up to 50,000 riyals (or about $13,330).

Bear in mind that it's not just women that can rejoice, as children and domestic workers are finally legally free from abuse as well. Domestic workers are largely forgotten within discussions on abuse, despite facing appalling living conditions. As Human Rights Watch notes, "While many domestic workers enjoy decent work conditions, others endure a range of abuses including non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workload, and instances of severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse." It goes without question that the ban will place a strong message against abusers, especially as a nation that uses a very strict form of Sharia law as its basis.

However, there are still quite a few issues that impede the efficacy of the law itself. The main being the continued use of a system focused on male guardianship. In order for women to report abuse, she usually needs a man to drive her to the authorities. While this might not be as much of a problem in areas like Riyadh, where women can hail a taxi, it certainly is an issue in places where taxis aren't commonly found, such as smaller towns and the countryside, which makes it either expensive or impossible to reach the help they need. Even then though, the new ban on hailing taxis effective on October 22 will get in the way of that too, as many women will be prohibited from calling by their relatives and employers.

For female domestic workers in particular, the real issue that allows horrific abuses to occur stems from the Kafala system, where employers are usually the sponsors of their employees and the ones that hold their visas. It prevents workers from being able to leave Saudi Arabia, effectively trapping them in the country to work for their employer. A domestic worker named Ponnomma S. said in her interview with Human Rights Watch, "For five months, they didn't let me have any phone calls. They locked me in my room and beat me up." If workers are treated this way, then it doesn't take much imagination to think of similar abuses being committed against women in families that cannot afford domestic workers. Some work as captives of the home, working in slave-like conditions with no pay and forced confinement. Many of these women are from foreign countries; Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Philippines, and are told they will receive payment to support their families. They, like women suffering spousal abuse, fear for counter-accusations of witchcraft, adultery, and theft. In instances like Amanthi K.'s, workers may be charged for being raped and bearing children. As she said: "The court decision was that if you have unwanted sex and have babies you are imprisoned for one-and-a-half years; that was the charge for me. I don't exactly know what has happened [to my employer who raped me], but I think he was arrested and [he] paid a bribe." These kinds of charges make it very difficult to stand up and report abuse, as they will often be prosecuted themselves. 

While the Protection From Abuse law is a step forward, there clearly needs to be more measures before abuse can be dealt a real blow. The bans on women driving and hailing cabs prevent them from independently accessing the infrastructure, the Kafala system which leaves many workers stuck in the country and susceptible to exploitation, and the moral laws that women can be so easily charged with all prevent them from stopping abuse. Now, it's time for feminists and human rights activists to begin focusing on and protesting against the issues that impede the process of reporting abuse.