The torture and murder of 5-year-old Lama Al Ghamdi could hardly have been more horrific—and news of it, repeated in countless Twitter feeds, has enflamed opinion around the world. But the fact that this story of one little girl’s death and one father’s monstrosity went public is also a sign of just how hard women in Saudi Arabia are working to fight the cruel misogyny embedded in the kingdom’s version of Islamic law. And among those women is a daughter of the king.
The basic facts are these, according to Saudi activists and Saudi press reports: When Lama Al Ghamdi was hospitalized on Christmas Day 2011, she had a crushed skull. Her left arm and some of her ribs were broken and one of her fingernails torn off. The child’s mother, who is divorced from the father and did not have custody, says that hospital staff told her the girl’s rectum had been torn open and the abuser had attempted to burn it closed. It took 10 long, agonizing months before, finally, the little girl died.
Fayhan Al Ghamdi, a self-styled Islamic preacher who appears occasionally on local TV shows pontificating about morality, was arrested last year and charged with murder. He told authorities that he had suspected his 5-year old daughter was not a virgin. He had even taken her to a doctor to check. But apparently that had not satisfied him. He admitted he’d used a cane and electrical cables on the child. That would have been quite a confession. But, then, Islamic scholar that he believed himself to be, he may have felt he wouldn’t have to pay too steep a price for the crime.
Saudi law claims to follow a clear path (sharia) laid out in the Quran, but in practice it’s based on a maze of sayings and traditions (hadith) with as many baffling contradictions as the codes used by lawyers anywhere. According to one reading, a father cannot be held fully accountable for the death of his children; their loss is a punishment for him. So the question arose in the proceedings whether Al Ghamdi could simply pay the mother “blood money” for the loss of her daughter and walk free.
Contrary to the first bulletin on the case put out by Saudi activists Aziza Al Yousef and Manal Al Sharif (who are famous for challenging the ridiculous Saudi ban on women driving), the court never actually made this now-infamous ruling. Al Yousef, backtracking, subsequently explained to the BBC that “there is no official verdict yet” and the blood-money question is “just talking.” But the activists, for obvious and laudable reasons, want this option to be taken off the books in this case and for all time.
The mother has said she will not accept payment. She has asked that the stepmother be investigated as well, and she has told her advocates that she wants to see her ex-husband executed, which in Saudi Arabia means beheading.
Before the middle of the last decade, domestic violence and child abuse in Saudi Arabia were treated mainly as family affairs. Nobody wanted to talk about them, and if police did bother to investigate suspected crimes, which was rare, they found proof very hard to come by.
But it’s important to remember Saudi Arabia is not the only country where domestic abuse is a hidden crime. Indeed, the United States has the worst record in the industrialized world. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost five children a day die from neglect or abuse, but according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, those numbers almost certainly are understated.
In Saudi Arabia concerted action to get abuse cases reported and abusers prosecuted began with the creation of the National Family Safety Program in 2005 under the patronage of King Abdullah’s late sister, Princess Seeta, and with the active involvement of his daughter, Princess Adelah. She serves as the vice chair and is as passionate as she is privileged when it comes to fighting for women’s rights.
“We are finding it hard; we find lots of resistance,” she told me in a 2009 interview, while she was battling (as she continues to do) for improved education for girls. “These things aren’t given to you. If you look at history, you need to pull them out of society.”
The Family Safety Program has become a social force to be reckoned with in the kingdom, to the extent that the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia felt the need to write a letter making it clear that domestic violence is a crime and should not be considered a family matter. But this was not a fatwa, or religious edict, and even if it were, Saudi judges interpreting the sharia would not feel compelled to follow it.
Over the long run, the aim of women activists is to end a system where females of any age are treated in public and before the law as if they must be dependent children behind their veils, not seen and not heard, with few rights and little recourse.
The aim of the Family Safety Program, directed by pediatrician Maha Al Muneef, has been to get the issue of abuse out in the open, get it reported, get laws changed, and get immediate protection for those in danger. It has set up a hotline; raises awareness in communities; and helps train doctors, nurses, social workers, counselors, and cops to recognize the signs of abuse. There are now more than 40 hospital-based “child-protection centers” around the country. The result has been a dramatic statistical increase in the number of cases because, at long last, those cases are being reported. “Women are more aware of their rights and they are breaking the silence,” Al Muneef told the English-language Arab News in January. In the case of little Lama, her injuries were reported by the child-protection center in King Saud Hospital in Riyadh. “I think it was discovered because of increased awareness and knowledge among the professionals, who can differentiate between accidental injuries and abusive injuries,” Muneef told me.
Without this infrastructure, it is possible, even likely, that the horrifying case of Lama Al Ghamdi would never have been revealed. But once it was, it became the subject of coverage and debate throughout the kingdom. “Issues of child abuse or women abuse became a topic that is openly discussed in the kingdom, it is not a taboo anymore,” says historian Hatoon Al Fassi. And the fight goes on.