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The Violence of Silence: Domestic Abuse in the Middle East

It’s time to break the taboo – eradicating domestic abuse in the Middle East is men’s responsibility.

Domestic abuse in the Middle East

Photo: Getty

A few months ago, an Instagram campaign took flight as women around the world posted black and white selfies aiming to support female empowerment. It may not have been immediately obvious what this challenge was, but it soon went viral. It was a well-intentioned idea, but one that, predictably and quickly, lost sight of its goals. Raising awareness of an issue on social media, while commendable, rarely leads to concrete change. Crucially, the campaign failed to directly address the biggest obstacles to female empowerment: toxic masculinity and domestic violence.

Domestic abuse and gender-based violence in the Arab world remains depressingly widespread. A recent report by UN Women estimates that at least 37% of women in Arab countries have experienced some level of domestic violence. High-profile incidents and demonstrations have, in recent months, highlighted the prevalence of the issue. In May, 17-year-old Menna Abdel Aziz made the news in Egypt and around the world when she posted a TikTok video showing her facial bruises after an alleged sexual assault. Though a police investigation would eventually back her story, she still had to face charges of “misusing social media networks, inciting debauchery, and violating Egyptian family values.” Then, on July 1, some 50 Egyptian women on social media accused an Egyptian student of sexual assault and rape, with the number of complaints steadily rising on the Instagram account @assaultpolice. The ongoing campaign has been called Egypt’s #MeToo moment.

Domestic Violence in the Middle East

Egyptian women hold signs during a protest against sexual harassment in Cairo. Photo: Getty

The issues of domestic abuse and sexual assault perhaps run even deeper in this part of the world, with many incidents taking place behind closed doors, and most going unreported. Worse still, is that many countries in the Middle East and Africa have laws that protect men from accusations of sexual assault or violence, or did until recently. Until 2014, in Morocco, its laws allowed rapists to escape persecution if they married their victim. It was repealed after 16-year-old Amina Al Filali took her own life after her family forced her to marry her rapist. Meanwhile, there is an ongoing campaign to abolish Article 153 from Kuwait’s penal code, which allows men who catch a wife, sister, or even mother in a sexual act (zinna) to kill her and face a misdemeanor charge, which carries a jail sentence of three years or maximum fine of 225 Kuwaiti dinars (US $735). The issue of “honor killings” remains common in places like Jordan and Palestine, as it is in certain societies in Asia and Africa, and even in ethnic communities around Europe.

Domestic abuse – where one person aims to control their partner through physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, including hitting, manipulation, threats, rape, or withholding money – is by no means an issue that only plagues the Middle East. However, the patriarchal nature of certain Arab societies as well as the entrenched socio-cultural taboos of airing dirty laundry imply that it is a topic that for too long has not been discussed openly. Dr Sarah Rasmi, psychologist and founder of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, says domestic abuse is prevalent in one way above all others – between partners. “The context in which we see abuse most frequently is with couples,” she says. “Usually what we do is work with the offender on anger management, and the victim will get individual and sometimes group level support.” Dealing with cases before it’s too late is fraught with risk. It is important, Dr Rasmi stresses, to be aware that couples therapy is counterproductive in most cases of domestic violence. “We end up unpacking things that can be quite triggering and conflictual and it can increase the risk of an incident,” she explains. Many elements can trigger domestic violence, chief among them the desire for control and to maintain power and a position of superiority in a relationship. This can also include men feeling challenged or threatened by a perceived change in traditional gender roles; growing up in a broken, abusive home; and poverty. “If you’re living in poverty as a man and you are unable to fulfil what you believe is your obligation or expectations, like provision of resources for your family, that elicits a crisis of manhood and unfortunately one of the ways of managing that is through physical aggression towards a partner,” Dr Rasmi says.

A post from the @assaultpolice Instagram account calling attention to gender-based violence in Egypt.

A post from the @assaultpolice Instagram
account calling attention to gender-based
violence in Egypt.

As a former Jordanian minister of social development, Reem Abu Hassan was a major opponent of Article 308, which protected rapists through marriage to their victims. Now she is honorary president of the Jordanian Society for Protecting Family Violence Victims, which shelters and rehabilitates abuse victims. “There are three categories of abuse: physical, sexual, and psychological. This is where I stress the importance of having services, because the more services a country has and the more guidelines and procedures it has, the more it is able to deal with cases of abuse. So there has to be shelters for battered women, there has to be specialized courts, as well as prosecutors and police who know how to deal with cases of abuse from a multidisciplinary approach.”

Shelter is the starting point – giving victims of domestic violence a safe haven where they cannot be harmed. But it’s the duty of the police and courts to ensure offenders are dealt with harshly enough to make it a deterrent. Women very often are unable or unwilling because of fear to speak up against men, who remain unaccountable and unpunished. “The rehabilitation starts with the basic needs, which are food as well as shelter,” says Abu Hassan. “Then you start working with the victim to make them feel empowered, and that this is not their problem. Most of the victims internalize the violence and start thinking that it is their fault. To make sure the rehabilitation happens, they need to understand that the abuse is not their fault.”

Another post from @assaultpolice Instagram

Another post from @assaultpolice Instagram

Empowering and protecting women – mentally and physically – is only one side of the coin. The other requires eradicating toxic masculinity, which can only be achieved through widespread education. This requires men to be involved in the process at every level. “This is a greater issue, and the World Health Organization and UN Women have many studies indicating that three out of five women are abused in their lifetimes at least once,” she says. “It’s important to send out a message to society that these acts are not tolerated. We need awareness through having professionals working in the field. And we need education for children in schools to understand that this is not tolerated. And of course any effort must be in partnerships with males, because in the end most of the perpetrators are men. They need to be part of the solution.”

Yet many Arab men remain unwilling to take a stand against domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Some are even offended by the collective slight on the Middle Eastern man and are not prepared to defend their wives, sisters, and mothers. That this code of silence still exists in the 21st century is shameful. It is vital that men are made aware of the part they must play in the fight against domestic abuse. Clinging to outdated gender stereotypes is no longer acceptable. “The toxic masculinity issue exists on a global level but it might be more pronounced in certain socio-cultural contexts,” considers Dr Rasmi. “When we find ourselves in a context with traditional gender roles ideology it comes with its risks. One of the things that can happen through education is that it becomes acceptable for men and boys to express their emotions and manage them.”

Read Next: Three Women Speak Up About Their Experience With Domestic Abuse

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