There is screaming and yelling and giant thuds. The family, as far as we can tell, include mom, dad and three or four children. The children can be as loud as their father, so it’s pretty much of a screaming and rather physical family.
I don’t know how to describe this family other than to say that it appears to be an abusive environment. In the hall, the children are sullen and defensive to any kind of remarks. It’s not uncommon for them to be locked out of their apartment when they come home from school, sitting for hours begging their mother to allow them inside.
But I, like my neighbors who can’t be deaf to what goes on inside that apartment, have not reported our suspicions to the police (although I did report it to our apartment owner). In any society where abuse occurs there are neighbors, acquaintances, friends and even extended family members who won’t acknowledge domestic abuse that occurs in front of them.
There is the human instinct of wanting to mind our own business and reluctance that maybe the abuse we see is misinterpreted. If we were wrong, we would shame the family. Last month, my husband and I were shopping in the supermarket when we saw father slap his adult daughter across the face. The daughter briefly registered shock, but then moved on with her shopping. I could sense that she had been through such public shame before, but the other shoppers pretended that nothing had happened.
Last August, Saudi Arabia passed a legislation that made domestic abuse a crime. The Shoura Council urged the pubic to report abuse to the police or a teacher. It was a revolutionary step by the council to protect the weak and vulnerable from abuse. It’s too early to tell whether there is a spike in reports of child and domestic abuse since August, but I suspect that Saudi society has not caught up with the law. There is a resistance to inform on neighbors because family privacy is so ingrained in our culture.
Yet we must recognize that children’s deaths due to abuse is on the rise in Saudi Arabia. Twelve children were killed due to abuse in 2012, up from six in 2011 and five in 2010. Hospital protection centers reported 200 cases of child abuse in 2012, with 80 percent registered as physical violence and 20 percent reported as sexual abuse. These figures do not include the emotional and verbal abuse children suffer.
Part of the problem lies in our culture’s reliance on corporal punishment as a means of disciplining children and the inability of some parents and even teachers draw the line between what is effective physical discipline and what is abuse.
Corporal punishment of children in the home is outlawed in many Western countries, although it remains legal in 49 of the 50 states in the United States. Corporal punishment in schools is still legal in 19 states in America.
Having grown up in the Saudi school system, corporal punishment of students was normal, although my parents never used it when I was a child. As a result, using corporal punishment as a means of disciplining a child has less appeal to me, especially as I grow older and continue to see the effects of abuse of children.
At the end of the day, most well adjusted adults can make the distinction between corporal punishment and abuse. And it’s better to be safe than sorry when one witnesses abuse. First instincts are often the right instincts. If it smells like smoke, there’s fire, so acting on an impulse that one has witnessed abuse is the right impulse.
To report suspected abuse, individuals should call the 1919 emergency hotline.