Manama: The recent media reports about two children who were subjected to heart-rending abuse at the hands of their parents have evoked outrage, anger and condemnation among Saudi citizens even as the realisation grows that such reports point to deeper social issues.
The nation was still reeling from the reports that a man who tortured his five-year-old daughter to death had apparently escaped with a light sentence when the local media reported that a nine-year-old boy was being treated at a hospital for injuries inflicted by his father, who repeatedly poured scalding hot water and tea on him.
“That was really too much for us,” Rayyan Abdul Aziz, a real estate agent in the Eastern Province, said. “We are sickened by these reports that alarm us about the depths to which some parents have stooped. People today want concerted and long-ranging efforts by all segments of the society to put an end to a phenomenon that grew out of unacceptable societal norms and values held by some people who have little or no regard for the wellbeing of children despite the clear teachings in Islam to protect them,” he said.
The recent cases have focused attention on parents as perpetrators of domestic abuse, especially when they are virtually certain that they will not have to face the consequences of their actions.
In the death-by-torture case, the father had passed himself off as a preacher to give lectures on a private television channel about ethical and moral behaviour. He, however, didn’t have any qualms about torturing his own daughter, Luma, “to discipline her” after the girl’s unsuspecting mother, who was divorced from him, took her over to visit him at a residence where he was living with his new wife.
Luma lived with her divorced mother, but she was allowed to visit her father even though he reportedly did not seem to care about her.
According to Luma’s mother, her former husband had a history with drugs but seemed to have reformed himself before marriage. However, his violent streak surfaced following their marriage and he would often beat her, she said. Unwilling to continue her life with him, she filed for divorce and a court in the eastern city of Dammam ruled in her favour. The judge told her that she would have the custody of their daughter until she turned seven.
She said that, following the divorce, her ex-husband took a new wife and saw Luma only on four occasions.
“The last time was when I took her to visit him after he lapsed into a long silence even though Luma was keen on seeing him,” she said. “The agreement was she would spend two weeks with him, but he refused to let her come home to me. The last words I heard from her were ‘I love you mum and I always pray for you.’ Her father often said that he would make her forget all about me,” the mother said.
She was later informed by police in Riyadh that her daughter was in hospital, where she was being treated for severe burns and bruises and that her condition was critical.
“I could not recognise my own daughter when I saw her in hospital. It was such a terrible shock to see her frail body in this tragic state. She remained paralysed for eight months before she passed away,” she said.
Reports said that the father used wires and an iron rod to punish his daughter and that he had doubts about her virginity.
But Suhaila Zain Al Abideen, a Saudi human rights activist, said no religious or social dimension could explain the father’s behaviour with his daughter. “Let us look at all the theories,” she said. “If the father went by the weak saying that parents could hit their children, it never meant breaking skulls, ribs and a hand. It did not mean using fire to burn a child,” she said, quoted by local news site Sabq.
A father cannot logically have the slightest doubts about his child’s sexual attitudes, she said. “She is a child and what does a five-year-old child know about sexual relations? This is totally illogical. Even if she had been raped, she is the victim and does not understand anything about these things,” she said.
“The punishment, if all the evidence is incriminating, is to give her 100 lashes, and not to break her skull or to torture her,” she said, insisting that the father had no justification for his actions on social, legal or religious grounds and had to be severely punished for killing his daughter by torturing her.
According to the activist, the “tragedy is that the father claims to be a religious preacher”.
“This is a disaster. Islam does not condone violence. Unfortunately, the father knew that he would not be punished severely because, if retribution had awaited him, he would have never tortured his daughter. A preacher is supposed to be a genuine guide in words and deeds,” she said.
In the second child abuse case to make the news in the country recently, a boy repeatedly burnt by his father spoke out about what he endured after his grandfather helped move him to a care centre from his father’s home.
The boy’s father had poured hot water and tea on his son on numerous occasions and also stubbed out cigarettes on his frail body.
The mother chose to remain silent to the abuse but the paternal grandfather reported the matter and the boy, Rakan, was eventually rescued from the his own parents.
The grandfather alerted the Protection Home in Jeddah which took the young boy in.
According to the grandfather, the father did not even have formal identity papers issued in his son’s name. The boy thus never went to school.
Rakan, currently receiving treatment at King Fahd General Hospital in Jeddah, refused to return to his parents, saying that both his father and mother repeatedly punished him with hot water and fire.
“My father poured hot water or hot tea and burned me with fire. He also beat me every day even when I did nothing wrong. Whenever I suffered from the scalding hot liquids or terrible burns, nobody rushed to help me or to treat me,” he recalled.
With the number of abuse victims on the rise, activists and compassionate people face formidable challenges owing to the conservative nature of Saudi society and the privacy reserved for family matters.
Getting information on domestic abuse often proves elusive and even professionals come up against massive challenges addressing such cases.
Last year, Princess Adila Bint Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, who patronises many charitable foundations and who has often spoken out against domestic violence, said that strategists and policymakers would need more information, research and studies to help young victims of abuse.
“These are the scientific factors that provide the sound knowledge necessary to lay plans, strategies and programmes that address the lack of care and accomplish the achievements that support children,” she told local Arabic daily Al Riyadh.
Najla, a private school teacher, said that the reasons often given by people to explain negative attitudes by parents included “social exclusion, lack of social skills and addiction to drugs”.
“These have seemingly combined with a culture of passive behaviour and silent attitudes and the lack of strong preventive reactions,” she said. “However, more facts are needed to launch robust drives to promote awareness and instil a culture of truly preventive measures because there is no reason to allow this phenomenon to continue, or, alarmingly, to grow as indicated by the figures released by competent agencies or authorities,” she said.