In Saudi Arabia, domestic violence and spousal rape are neither criminalized nor well-reported behaviors. But a new ad campaign put forward by the King Khalid Foundation is attempting to stop it anyway.
The "No More Abuse" campaign put forward by the charity (named after a 1970s monarch in the region) has been praised widely. The image, that of a woman in a dark niqab with a black eye, is obviously powerful. The text: in English, "some things can't be covered," and in Arabic, "the tip of the iceberg," is similarly powerful. And the campaign web site gives users access to domestic violence resources, information for reducing violence of this sort, and even encourages reporting domestic and sexual violence to authorities — something rarely done due to social repercussions and the entire structure of the Saudi culture.
The State Department reports that 16-50% of Saudi wives have survived abuse. Keep in mind that despite those drastic numbers, under-reporting means they are inevitably higher. Women in Saudi Arabia cannot leave the home without a male guardian, and if they attempt to leave the country their guardians receive a text message alert instantly. Women aren't allowed to participate in some social activities at all, and if they want to drive a car alone they might get lashed.
To encourage people to report domestic violence is admirable in a country mired by such restrictive and conservative gender apartheid, but obvious oversights of the campaign include the element of power and control often present in abusive relationships. Domestic violence occurs, in part, due to our overall violent cultures and social norms, as well as the idea that it is "socially acceptable" to do so — and in that way, this campaign will go far to change hearts, minds, and perspectives on this issue across gender lines. But inherent in a relationship that includes abuse is a direct attempt to isolate and destroy the person being abused, something an ad can't fix. Women face social ostracization for reporting these crimes, and often it can endanger their lives. If there are no pre-existing legal protections in order for them, how can these resources impact their lives? If there are no legal structures in place to put offenders into jail or rehabilitation programs, how can these resources change their behavior?
The "No More Abuse" campaign is a valiant effort to bring awareness to the reality of violence in Saudi Arabian women's lives. Starting a discussion is indeed the first step to legal reforms. But until the reigning government in the region begins to give survivors and victims of abuse, assault, and other forms of sexual and relationship violence more than lip service on the issue, no real change can be affected.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but it's unclear if the right people are willing to listen — still.