Sunday, June 26, 2005

Justice for Women: Some Urgent Steps

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

Before I left home today, I was shocked to see our neighbor so broken. She was beaten hard by her drunken husband. He banged her head to the wall, knifed her hand, and used metal and wood sticks over all parts of her body. When she escaped, he followed her to the street. She was only saved when my family took her in.

Later in the day, the poor woman returned home for the sake of her three-year-old daughter.

What options does she have? I wondered. She could go to the police, but she might not be able to prove her case. If she could get through all the painful legal and security procedures that could go on for years, how could she and her little daughter survive? If divorced, she will be deported to Somalia, her poverty-stricken country.

Thousands of women are grilled in a harsh, unfair cultural and legal environment. A woman may escape but that would be a move from her family’s fire to society’s Hell.

A Saudi woman was refused once and again her man of choice. When she protested, her father threw her out and her uncle took her in. Both insisted she can’t marry an airline captain because he would be away most of the time.

With nowhere to go, she went back to her father and accepted the first suitor. As it turned out, he was an animal — rough, tough, and raw. He would see her unconscious on the ground and take her to bed to fulfill his desires, instead of calling for medical help. When she finally left home and walked mindless all over town till midnight, everyone assumed she ran with a boyfriend. She accepted all kinds of punishment on her return to her family but insisted she would prefer to die before she returned to her husband.

After divorce, she was put under virtual house arrest; denied marriage, education and even contact with her divorced mother for many years. No friends, visitors, parties or telephone calls were allowed. When the ban on marriage was finally lifted, she felt so scared that she might refuse suitors for fear of more nightmares with another heartless man.

She was luckier than others, though. Many women had to accept life of endless nightmares with abusing husbands for the sake of their kids, or because their families won’t take them back, or they can’t prove their case to biased male-dominated courts. A woman I know endured over ten years of torture to stay with her six children. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she filed for divorce and custody. Because she didn’t cover her face in court, the judge assumed she was unfit to raise them properly. He ruled that she could see them once a week, but her ex-husband invented all kinds of excuses not to let her. For years, she would wait in a car outside their schools and home just to see them going in and out. She finally had the ruling overturned and won custody. Without her rich and well-connected father, she wouldn’t have managed.

Another woman who fled with her kids from an abusing father found protection with a prominent family. After a long process, the court found that he did abuse his kids ... sexually. Another father was torturing his infant daughter. Her mother had to cover up because she had nowhere to go if divorced. Doctors refused her lame explanation and informed the authorities. Mother and daughter are now in a safe home while the investigation is going on.

Many mothers are blackmailed to drop their custody right for freedom. Overwhelmed courts are making it so difficult for poor and ignorant women to file for divorce, not to mention the difficulty of proving grounds for breakup. The few safe homes in major cities cannot cope with all cases. A free legal aid is just starting in Jeddah, and had yet to be readily available to women in distress.

Small steps and half measures are not enough. We need to discuss the whole issue of “women under stress” in an open national forum with women making half the participants. Major changes to the legal and court system has to be made. Safe homes, police protection, hotlines for help, easier access to legal aid, women sections in courts and — why not? — female judges are needed. We also need harsher and faster justice: An eye for an eye, longer prison terms, and larger compensation. These and other solutions will come up in such forums, and we must implement them not tomorrow, not today, but yesterday. It is high time for real justice for women.

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