A Woman’s Intifada against Domestic Abuse in Saudi Arabia

As we drove toward the drive thru line for some coffee, my colleague and I noticed a phantom body, covered with a traditional floral prayer cloth that rippled in the wind. It stood still, as if no one could see it, a dancing body in a gas station crowded with men in cars.

Responding to the strangeness of this scene, my colleague and I began throwing questions at each other: Do you see what I see? What could this person be doing here at a time like this? Could this person need our help? My colleague reversed the car and drove out of the drive thru line and toward the figure. In one calm, almost silent movement, he pulled over and extended his arm toward the backdoor to push it open. Humidity raced in, bringing the odor of gas with it.

I stretched out in the direction of the open door and whispered to the figure, “Excuse me… Do you hear me? Are you okay?” The flowery cloth swayed in front of my eyes for a few seconds before walking toward me. My heart raced. I had no idea what to expect. The figure sat behind my colleague and closed the door. Silence enveloped us for a moment, until I repeated, “Are you okay? Can we help you with something?”

The moment the cloth fell and I saw her swollen purple eyes, I swallowed my shock. She had been beaten by her father. “Nothing new, he always does this,” she said. This time, she had called a taxi and escaped to her fiancé, who worked at a cafe near the gas station. She had planned to stand outside and wait for him, until the end of his night shift. I gave her specific instructions on the steps to take in order to document the abuse, including getting a medical report from a hospital and visiting the police. “Can we please try to make sure you’re not put in this situation again?” I begged her, as she repeated, “This will all end when I get married soon… It will end!”

This was my first day serving as a psychological and social caseworker at the Family Protection Society in southern Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I did not have any clients in the office that morning. As it turned out, my first case was, instead, waiting for me by a gas station in the evening shadows of northern Jeddah, minutes away from my home on the calming shores of the Red Sea. Some things, it seems, remain invisible, until we choose to see them.

Her name was Haya. She had stood out to me that night in her floral sheet, even before I saw her bruised eyes and heard her trembling voice. But, I was disheartened that she was pinning her hopes for escape on marriage. Following our encounter, I could not avoid asking these questions: Was marriage a means to overcoming an oppressive childhood? Would that form of intimacy really be her escape? What was her fiancé like? Might he also be abusive? How had she even met him?

At the time, Haya’s decision to use marriage as an escape valve colored my view of her. I would later come to understand that this judgment placed blinders on my eyes, that I could not appreciate Haya’s decision until I challenged my own prejudices about her chosen form of resistance.

The last time I heard from Haya, she was mourning the death of her grandmother, but happily married. Not all stories of domestic abuse end as well as Haya’s did, however. For many of my clients, life changed in an instance. One day, they were fourth-graders, and the next morning they were prostitutes.

This was the case for nine-year-old Suhaila.

The morning started like any other for her. Suhaila woke up and got ready for school. Her dad was supposed to drop her off, as he often did. That morning, however, he took a turn into an unfamiliar neighborhood. Suhaila and her father got out of the car. She sneezed two or three times, the sounds echoing as she and her father walked through the unknown building they had parked in front of.

They did not knock on the door, which seemed to open on cue. An unmistakable smell of sweat, of thirst, came from the room. Suhaila stood in her baby-blue school uniform, not knowing that this was to be her last day of school for a long time.

From that day onward, or at least until we met, Suhaila was a hostage of sexual violence, a fate dictated by her father’s financial difficulties. Seven years later, Suhaila, now sixteen, stared at the ceiling as I placed my pen on the notepad between us. “I realized that my struggle in math was not the worst that happened to me. This became my new routine. I miss school and studying a lot. I want to go back to school, can you make this happen?” Suhaila asked me. Her father was already in prison when we met, thanks to her brother’s testimony about what their father had done to Suhaila.

To help her rejoin society and resume her education, I had a national ID issued for Suhaila and registered her in school as a sixteen-year-old eighth grader. She stopped by my office directly after school, a few times later. She would take her books out of her backpack and place them on the table, and we would talk about school for a while. She seemed happy.

Unfortunately, Suhaila was still living on the knife’s edge between normal teenage life and abuse. Suhaila’s grandparents, with whom she lived, were old and poor. After one of our sessions at the center, her grandmother told me, “I’m thankful you put her back in school; she’s always wanted that. We love her, but she’s become a burden on us now. We’re old, and her dad used to pay for our needs. It’s been really hard ever since.”

The last time I heard from Suhaila, her brother was considering dropping the charges against his father, which would have allowed him to leave prison. Suhaila’s brother needed money and his father had promised to pay him well in exchange for his freedom. At the time (the year was 2011), domestic abuse was not yet criminalized in Saudi Arabia; women and girls like Suhaila could not bring charges on their own against their abusers and needed the testimony of a male guardian in order to report an instance of abuse. As reported by Human Rights Watch, in August 2013, Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers “broke new ground by passing a draft law criminalizing domestic abuse…When the unspecified agency determines that abuse rises to the level of criminality, it can refer offending parties to criminal justice authorities for arrest and prosecution.” But, many obstacles to implementation still remained, and may have contributed to an increase in domestic violence cases soon after the law was passed.

Where legal remedies are absent or ineffective, broader and more innovative ways of dealing with domestic abuse are needed. Suhaila’s passion for education, and the subtle tactics she used to protect herself, and, at times, to convince her grandmother to come to my office, manifested her strong resiliency and determination, which remained equally strong even after she heard about her father’s possible release from prison.

Thanks to the encounters I had with women like Haya and Suhaila, I came to understand the complex ways in which power structures work and the different forms of resistance that can arise in response. During those years, I was also engaged in a form of theatre called Theatre of the Oppressed, a creative medium that allows audiences to engage with different forms of oppression. My work with the theatre further developed my thinking on the experiences I had at the Family Protection Society. I had joined the group hoping to disconnect from my day job. But, as I engaged more with the theatre and its community, I saw the lives of my clients play out on stage. I saw Haya, the girl in the floral cloth, and came to respect her choice of marriage as an act of rebellion. I saw Suhaila’s commitment to continue her education as yet another form of resistance. Those moments on the stage made me appreciate these alternative modes of resistance as equally important to filing a criminal complaint or testifying against an abuser.

Resistance is what you define for yourself, though some of its forms will remain invisible, until you choose to see them.