Earlier this year, a powerful image was circulated in Saudi Arabia. A woman with one black eye stared bleakly out. Underneath her niqabed face was written the simple phrase in Arabic: "And what is hidden is greater", a saying that translates as "the tip of the iceberg". This kicked off "No More Abuse", a campaign to highlight and tackle domestic violence in the country. There was some scepticism about the drive, backed by an official charity, but it seems that it has paid off, culminating in an historic move this week as Saudi Arabia's cabinet passed a legal ban on domestic violence and other forms of abuse against women for the first time in the kingdom's history.
The legislation makes sexual violence in the home and the workplace a punishable crime. Moreover, it provides for shelter for victims of abuse and places the onus on law enforcement agencies to follow up on reports of abuse. It is backed up by a jail sentence and hefty fines. While this is an encouraging move, there are too many ways in which it can be thwarted. Such legislation is only fruitful if backed up by the right attitudes. The law does not exist in a vacuum: the problem in this instance is that it is a forward step in a country where male guardianship is not only deep rooted in culture, but enshrined in the law.
The implementation of the law is quite obviously hamstrung by the fact that the ability to report incidents of domestic or sexual abuse is severely limited. There are overwhelming emotional challenges in the act of defying family and the unfamiliarity of calling the law into the home in a society where the private realm is sacrosanct. Ironically, it is probably expat women who will reap more benefit from the law, as they are less constrained by culture and extended family pressures.
Then there are the farcical practical limitations of say, actually reporting a father or husband (who make up 90% of abusers in the kingdom) to the police, when they are your guardian and would probably need to drive you there.
There is a fundamental contradiction between trying to protect women, while also entrusting their fates unconditionally and entirely to their male guardians.
However, in general, these difficulties are not peculiar to Saudi society or even conservative cultures. It is challenging to report abuse for similar reasons anywhere in the world. Emotional confusion, fear of reprisal, or social ostracism and the difficulty of producing proof can all conspire to sweep the problem under the carpet. In a way, the cases that are visible or reported even in the west are also, in their own way, "the tip of the iceberg".
Perhaps we shouldn't fixate on the immediate practical implications of this new law. The hope should be that it will begin to change attitudes. Sometimes the value of a law is in allowing victims to recognise, acknowledge and challenge abusive behaviour. The King Khalid Foundation document that resulted in the new legislation goes into great detail about the unacknowledged levels of domestic and sexual abuse in the country, but goes further in classifying intimidation and emotional torment as abuse, and even outlines protection from abuse as integral to human and citizens' rights.
The issue is not whether victims of abuse will seek redress in a court of law but that they are furnished with the tools and legal framework to recognise and identify all forms of abuse for what they really are. In a culture where so much is falsely justified by religion and custom, where so much self-repression masquerades as honour, such strong language is vital and welcome.
Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese writer and commentator who lives in London.
This article was published in the Guardian
Photograph: King Khalid Foundation