Previously, domestic violence was dealt with under Islamic Sharia law -- which in the form taken in Saudi allows mild forms of violence against "disobedient" wives.King Khalid Foundation
Saudi Arabia has passed an unprecedented law that criminalizes domestic violence against women, children and domestic workers, a human rights official said Thursday. Rights activists hailed the development but cautioned that Saudi Arabia, named by the World Economic Forum as one of the five worst countries in which to be a woman, still has a long way to go.
"This is just the beginning, and it's an excellent step, but the road is long," Ibrahim Almugaiteeb, president of Human Rights First Society in Saudi Arabia, told Al Jazeera. "It will be like the civil rights movement was in the United States."
The new legislation aims to protect people from all forms of abuse and offers them shelter as well as "social, psychological, and medical aid," according to its text. Those found guilty could face prison sentences of up to one year and up to 50,000 riyals ($13,300) in fines.
The conservative kingdom has long faced criticism for lacking laws that protect women and domestic workers from abuse.
Previously, domestic violence was treated under a general penal code based on Islamic Sharia law. Judges were left to decide according to their personal interpretations of Sharia codes -- which were often seen as permissive of mild forms of violence against "disobedient" wives -- and generally treated domestic violence as a private matter.
The Protection from Abuse law, approved by the cabinet on Monday, comes several months after a local charity began a nationwide campaign to combat violence against women.
The King Khalid Foundation campaign's main poster featured a woman wearing a veil that showed one of her eyes blackened. Underneath the picture, a caption read: "Some things can't be covered -- fighting women's abuse together."
"Our task is immense, and it doesn't stop with this government step -- it's partially psychological," Almugaiteeb said. "In this society, women have always been made subservient to men."
Women in Saudi Arabia often face social stigma or even legal punishment for publicly disclosing that they have been victims of physical, sexual or psychological abuse -- a taboo which prevents many from reporting the crimes.
"Usually children are involved, or there's no alternative for the woman," Almugaiteeb told Al Jazeera. "Sometimes she wants to keep up appearances that she has a happy family."
One small step
Saudi Arabia imposes many restrictions on women, including prohibiting them from driving. The restrictions are based on laws and traditions that empower male guardians and restrict freedom of movement for women.
The Women2Drive campaign, organized in 2011 by Saudi women's rights activist Manal al-Sharif -- who posted an 8-minute video of herself driving on YouTube -- called on other Saudi women to take the right to drive instead of waiting for the laws to change. Al-Sharif was imprisoned for nine days for driving.
And recently, two prominent women's rights activists, Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni, were given prison terms and barred from foreign travel for attempting to help an abused woman who said she had been locked up by her husband without sufficient food or water.
A crucial part of the new law is that it gives those who report abuse the right to remain anonymous, and grants them immunity from litigation if abuse is not proven in court.
Rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair said the Protection from Abuse law gives women some independence. "Women were required to bring in a male relative if they showed up at a police station to file a complaint," he said, adding that this will no longer be necessary.
The law could also be a step toward changing current regulations that require women to get the approval of male guardians -- fathers, husbands or sons -- to carry out business, apply for jobs or travel outside the country, Abu al-Khair said.
Almugaiteeb, of Human Rights First Society, said he hopes the law will make it easier for both Saudi women and domestic workers to report abuse and seek justice.
The new legislation also allows witnesses to report abuse without having to disclose their identity -- which will be especially important for international domestic workers, who have very few legal rights in Saudi Arabia.
A spate of recent convictions and executions of domestic workers based on flawed evidence of alleged crimes has highlighted the vulnerability of the country's estimated 2 million domestic servants. The reports have sparked serious debate in the kingdom, where about 10 million foreign nationals work and make up more than half of the population.
Almugaiteeb said that once the state begins to implement the law, he and other rights organizations and activists will be watching with "scrutiny" to make sure they address the needs of the women, children, and domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.
And if their needs are not met, "we will not be quiet, we will be very loud," he said.
The social affairs ministry promised that law enforcement mechanisms would be published by the end of this year.
Al Jazeera and wire services. With additional reporting by Renee Lewis.