Saudi Arabia: Women choosing suicide over social pressures

Segregated from men, banned from driving and facing restrictions on travel, work, and even study, many Saudi women attempt suicide to escape one of the world's strictest societies.
Saudi Arabia, a conservative Islamic state where clerics demand the seclusion of females, often has an unforgiving attitude to women who find themselves victim to male violence.
A 19-year-old woman who was abducted and gang-raped by seven men was recently sentenced to 200 lashes in a case that drew international criticism and tarnished the image of Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, around the world.

King Abdullah this week issued a pardon for the woman, in what appeared to be a sharp rebuke to clerics of Saudi Arabia's hardline Wahhabi Islam who dominate the judiciary.

But the pressure of their closeted lifestyle in Saudi society forces women to live in a world of their own, often making the anxieties of adolescence or ordinary family problems harder to bear. "I was desperate back then because of family problems. My mother got divorced and I had to stay with her while my two older brothers stayed with my father," said Maha Hamad, a 23-year-old student who attempted suicide two years ago.

"I faced too much pressure from my mother in everything I do in my daily life. It was impossible for me to run my life without her dictating to me what to do and what not to do."

Suicide is strongly proscribed in Islamic law, and hospitals often register suicides as "misuse of medicine" thus allowing cases to slip through the statistical net.

Social Pressures

A rare 2006 study of suicide survivors carried out by Salwa al-Khatib, a researcher at King Saud University, found that 96 cases involved women compared to four cases involving men.

She said the hospital where she works as a counsellor receives on average 11 suicide attempts by women each month.

"Women go through severe depression due to social pressure," Khatib said. "The differentiation between males and females inside families contributes to growing pressure ... Men who are raised to be superior mostly look down on women. They develop abusive behaviour to express power over them."

Using light doses of medicine during daytime hours, many suicide attempts by women are clearly cries for help rather than serious attempts to end their lives, Khatib said. "Many teenage girls in Saudi Arabia suffer from lack of communication with their parents. No one listens to their emotional, social or even educational problems," Khatib said.

Forced marriage is a common factor behind the depression young women suffer, researchers say. Usually only women from affluent upper-class families manage to marry partners of their own choosing in Saudi Arabia.

Layla, a former administrator at Kingdom Hospital in Riyadh, recounted one case of a 20-year-old woman who tried to take her life because her parents forced her to marry a man in his 70s. "She tried slitting her wrists just after a few months of the marriage. Forced marriage is one of the most serious problems girls face," she said.

"Sometimes families do not want to force their daughters into such thing, but interference from the extended family and relatives puts pressure on them, especially if they live in areas outside the main cities," she said.

By: Ibtihal Hassan, Andrew Hammond, and Samia Nakhoul

18 December 2007