JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Shattered, burned and bruised, Azza went to the police four times before the authorities allowed her to leave her abusive husband and move into a shelter.
In their 12 years together, her Saudi husband had beaten her with metal rods, chained her up and poured boiling water on her.
But police usually sent her back home after her husband signed a pledge to stop mistreating his wife, standard practice in a country where women need consent for anything from getting a job to renting an apartment.
“When I went back home the beatings gradually got worse,” said Azza, now divorced and living in the recently-opened Abdulaziz Shelter in Jeddah. “The violence escalated even more and he started chaining me so that I could not run away. He blocked all the windows.”
She finally escaped four years ago through the bathroom window, though she broke bones in her pelvis in the process. She obtained a divorce on grounds her husband was schizophrenic.
Domestic violence came dramatically into the media spotlight in 2004 when TV presenter Rania al-Baz went public over a savage beating from her husband in which she suffered 13 facial fractures, leading to divorce at her instigation.
The deeply conservative country, ruled by an austere version of Islamic law, has opened up since the September 11 attacks of 2001, where 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis.
Partly as a result of pressure from Western governments, an official human rights body was set up in 2004 to deal with the country’s poor reputation for respecting human rights.
A total of 978 reports have been sent to the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) since then concerning physical and mental abuse, divorce and inheritance rights and even the right to education, which male guardians sometimes object to.
A number of shelters have been set up by volunteers with Ministry of Social Affairs approval.
Yet women’s legal position remains precarious because of the male “guardianship” system sanctioned by Saudi clerics.
Fathers, brothers or husbands have the right to impose their will on a woman through claiming “disobedience” and a woman can face three years in jail and lashed if found guilty.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report this year that the system of guardianship in Saudi Arabia effectively reduces women to the status of “legal minors” — children.
“There are no laws to protect the women,” said family doctor Sara Abbar. “The laws are against the women and social affairs officers fail to help the women properly. In the end the girl ends up with her guardian even if he is the one abusing her.”
As a result the girls in the shelters are often on nothing more than a “vacation from abuse,” said Aljohara al-Angari of the NSHR. Saudi newspapers have reported that there are currently around 3,000 Saudi women officially registered as runaways.
The rise in runaways has led to fears of the breakdown of the Saudi family and the inroads of Western values that seem to put more emphasis on individual desires than family duty.
“We used to be a closed society and now we are opening up,” said Enaam Al-Raboei, head of the Family Protection Committee which thinks the spread of the internet and satellite television has Westernised Saudi youth attitudes.
Raboei said that girls who report abuse are often in fact rebelling against social tradition and refusing their parent’s right to discipline their children.
“We try to explain to them that what they are going through is not abuse,” she said, referring to some cases where no physical violence is involved.
Social worker Sameera Al-Ghamdi said there was a compromise to be reached that included the idea of basic rights for women.
“When we are confronted with a society that assigns a certain sacred status to its culture and specific traditions, we start by demanding basic rights,” she said.
“People in this society have grown up to believe it is the father’s right to strike his wife and children and prevent them from certain liberties if he wants to.”
Editing by Andrew Hammond and Dominic Evans