A new domestic violence hotline in Saudi Arabia received 1,890 calls in its first three days, reports Abdullah Al-Muaiqil, the deputy minister for social affairs. Half of those domestic abuse allegations concerned new cases.
Saudi Arabia only criminalized domestic abuse in 2013, after a “No More Abuse” campaign that featured a woman’s blackened eye looking out from under her niqab. The campaign’s slogan read: “And what is hidden is greater.”
The domestic abuse call centre is the result of continuing reforms. Haaretz reports that some human rights groups were critical of the new legislation, saying that it lacks specificity and enforcement mechanisms.
The Guardian noted in 2013 that it would be difficult for Saudi women to report abuse, for doing so may be considered “defying family” or “calling the law into the home in a society where the private realm is sacrosanct.”
Before the 24-hour hotline was initiated, the barriers to reporting abuse in Saudi Arabia were far more practical: in all likelihood, victims of abuse wouldn’t be able to reach a police station without being driven there by their abuser. Fathers and husbands account for 90 percent of the kingdom’s perpetrators of domestic violence.
The call centre’s overwhelming popularity, while certainly tragic, hints at changing attitudes in a conservative culture. When the practical obstacles to reporting domestic abuse were greatly lessened, so too were the societal ones. The first steps to eradicating domestic violence must be to admit its existence.
The nearly 2,000 victims of abuse who called in appear to have faith in the newly reformed system, one that pledged to protect them three years ago. We can only hope that it will fulfill that pledge.