September 26, 2013

 This week, a Saudi appeals court upheld the conviction of two women’s rights activists for trying to help a woman who claimed her husband locked her and their children in their home without enough food or drinking water. They are facing significant jail time –10 months in prison – and a 2-year ban on foreign travel.

The case speaks volumes about the attitude towards domestic abuse in Saudi Arabia and shows what an uphill battle it will be to get officials to enforce the law criminalizing domestic abuse that was passed in August. 

On September 24, a Saudi appeals court upheld the June 15 conviction of Saudi women’s rights activists Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni for “inciting a woman against her husband,” based on their attempt to help the woman in distress.

This conviction is disturbing for several reasons. For starters, the “inciting a woman against her husband” charge is discretionary, defined by an individual judge, rather than a recognizable criminal offense. And the judge did not allow the woman they tried to help to testify during the trial.

Even worse, these activists may go to jail for trying to help a woman who claimed she was facing the very kind of abuse that the new law is meant to stop.

Rather than take the abuse case seriously, authorities prosecuted the activists. We have documented cases in which Saudi law enforcement officials refused to intervene in domestic abuse cases, preferring not to interfere with a man’s “sovereignty” over his female legal dependents. Despite the new law, anyone who seems to challenge this sovereignty by helping dependent women – as this case demonstrates – could face criminal liability.

The new law itself doesn’t identify who exactly can intervene in domestic abuse cases. So women at risk of abuse remain trapped, unable to seek help due to a driving ban and unable to receive help from the outside world.

For the new domestic law to work, attitudes need to change. By upholding the judgment mere weeks after passing the new abuse law, authorities are sending mixed signals on domestic abuse: on the one hand domestic abuse is a criminal offense, but trying to intervene in abuse cases is also a criminal offense.

Saudi authorities should immediately speak out against the conviction of al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni and make clear they will not enforce the court’s verdict. They should also put an end to the discriminatory male guardianship system, which creates conditions for these abuses to take place with impunity.