Saudi Arabia runs squalid, abusive jails for women disowned by their male guardians — a forgotten chapter in its rush to champion women's rights
- Saudi Arabia passed several high-profile reforms for women in 2019, taking the first steps to relax its oppressive legal system that gives men varying controls over women.
- Progress, however, has been uneven. A largely forgotten group of Saudi women are those banished by their male "guardians" to prison-like facilities called Dar Alreaya.
- Women can be sent there for innocuous acts like disobeying a parent or talking to an unmarried man. They can stay there for life.
- Insider talked to former inmates and activists about life there. They described psychological abuse, torture, heavy surveillance, and frequent suicide attempts.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
In the second half of 2019, Saudi Arabia passed sweeping reforms for women, scrapping the need for male permission to travel and even allowing women to enlist in the country's military.
Both hint at a loosening of the guardianship system, a long-standing Islamic legal framework that gives men legal authority over women in many areas of their lives.
But Saudi Arabia's path to a more equal society is a long one, and some sectors remain firmly entrenched.
The Saudi government continues to maintain a network of detention facilities - prisons in all but name - for young women who are formally disowned by their male guardians, often for minor infractions.
The centers are called Dar Alreaya. Reasons for being sent there include oquq (disobeying parents) and khulwa (being alone with a man in a closed area). The government describes people sent there as "delinquents."
Insider talked to rights activists, Saudi academics, and former inmates of Dar Alreaya to discover what life is like inside some of the centers, of which there are 11.
Brutalised and humiliated
Each woman's guardian (usually, but not always, her father) has wide discretion over whether a woman should be sent there after doing something that displeases him. Guardians also have discretion over whether to take them back. If the guardian refuses, a woman can stay in Dar Alreaya indefinitely.
The Saudi government say the institutions are for women and girls who "stumble and deviate from the straight path" under the age of 30.
Insider contacted the Saudi Human Rights Commission and Saudi Ministry of Labour and Social Development for comment on the facilities but did not hear back. The laboyr ministry says on its website that the homes maintain "suitable social and psychological conditions."
Life inside the jails, euphemistically called "care homes" by the state, is not well-documented.
But former inmates and rights groups paint a picture of violence, psychological abuse, squalor, forced marriage, and regular suicide attempts.
One such young woman was Kholoud Bariedah, who was sent to Dar Alreaya when she was 19.
Her four-year sentence, handed down in 2006, was punishment for drinking alcohol at a party with single men to whom she was not related. As well as detention, she was sentenced to 2,000 lashes with a whip.
Bariedah, who now lives in Germany, described to Insider the conditions in which she and others lived, where she said being alone was often the most painful deprivation.
"Girls held in isolated rooms start to go weird and hurt themselves - they destroy the lamps or, in another isolated room, a window, they smash glass and they start to hurt themselves" with the shards, she said.
"I survived a lot of miracles inside Dar Alreaya," she added. "I knew that if I said any word about it in Saudi, I will go back to prison."
A former inmate, her identity protected under a niqab, told the pan-Arab TV network MBC in 2018 that she and others were abused and even forced to eat their own vomit.
"If we ate something and vomit it, they'd made us eat it back up," she said.
"They let men in to hit us. Sometimes the girls and kids face sexual harassment, but if they talk, no one listens."
Sarah al-Yahia, the founder of the Saudi feminist white-ribbon movement, which campaigns to abolish Dar Alreaya, told Insider: "Girls in that jail are not allowed to live as human beings and are punished every day for disobeying her male guardian or her parents."
al-Yahia said that, in some cases, inmates were made to use Tide laundry detergent as bodywash and shampoo.
"Most important is this: It's not a rehabilitation center," she said.
The nongovernmental organisation Human Rights Watch has also documented dire conditions in Dar Alreaya, based on interviews with former inmates.
"Guards keep a notebook of whether [inmates] are on their period, because they cannot read or pray if so," Rothna Begum, a senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Insider. "They will be checking."
Women are made to clean the compound and are expected to pray, read, and memorise the Quran. "If they do not, they can be sent to a judge, who may prescribe punishment," Begum said.
"Woman who have defied, or are deemed to have defied, their guardians fall out of the system, and as cruel as it is and as terrible as the conditions may be, society does not care about them."
Suicide attempts a 'regular phenomenon'
Suicide attempts in the facilities are common, according to a 2018 report by the human-rights group al-Qst.
Bariedah, the former detainee, recalled to Insider a time when she was awoken at 2 a.m. by a scene of mayhem inside her Dar Alreaya.
"I went outside and saw a big crowd by the toilet, it looked like they were fighting to get inside," she said. "I wanted to see, but I was afraid what was inside.
"When I went inside I saw one of my friends who tried to kill herself, tried to suffocate herself with clothes."
Shame tours for abused detainees
Some inmates at Dar Alreaya are "publicly shamed" and "toured around schools and universities" as part of a government offensive to warn girls against disobeying their guardians, the rights group al-Qst said.
While testimony from inmates paints a dire picture, the Saudi academic Hala al-Dosari, of the MIT Center for International Studies, told Insider that conditions could vary from facility to facility.
"How women are treated is very much determined by the staff," she said. "It's worse when they bring low-skilled people in to work with women left with no supervision. Because of the gender division and lack of transparency they abuse power, and there's no way for the women to address the issues."
Other facilities, on the other hand, she said, "will give inmates access to lectures and books, or let them go to malls as a group, or to Mecca for religious visit."
When they turn 30, inmates of Dar Alreaya are transferred to a similar prison called Dar Aldheyafa, where they could stay for life.
The only way out is via an arranged marriage. Begum told Insider that Dar Aldheyafa could be worse than Dar Alreaya.
"It seems to be more depressing, as some women are there for years, waiting for years, until an arranged marriage," she said.
Men come to Dar Aldheyafa with specific requests for women for arranged marriages, such as height, Begum told Agence France-Presse.
Pressure starts to build for change
As the Saudi state moves toward liberalising its society - however slowly and unevenly - the beginnings of a backlash over the Dar Alreaya system can be seen in Saudi society.
A female Saudi academic and politician is leading criticism against the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and demanding changes to the Dar Alreaya system.
Latifa al-Shaalan, a member of the Shura Council, which exists to advise the crown prince, drafted a recommendation in 2018 seeking minor changes to the system.
It asked that women sent to Dar Alreaya be permitted to leave when their sentence is done, even without the approval of their guardian.
Other Saudi officials have also spoken out. Samira al-Ghamdi, an activist and former psychologist at a care home, said the treatment of inmates was so poor it's unsurprising that some would try to escape.
"They treat them like prisoners and take away their phones. They don't even let them go out. They are not prisoners and should not be treated as such," she told the Saudi Gazette, offering a rare defense of the women there.
"Not everyone admitted in the home has committed a crime. Some of them are there temporarily until their court cases are resolved."
Though he has not publicly addressed Dar Alreaya, Crown Prince Mohammed has signaled willingness to act on abuse of women detainees in the wider Saudi justice system.
In a September interview with the CBS show "60 Minutes," the crown prince was confronted with allegations about Loujain al-Hathloul, a civil-rights campaigner known for publicly defying the ban on Saudi women driving cars.
Though the ban has been lifted, al-Hathloul is still in prison. Her family say she was sexually abused as well as given electric shocks and lashings that left her "black and blue."
When told of the claims, Crown Prince Mohammed responded: "Islam forbids torture. Saudi laws forbid torture. Human conscience forbids torture. And I will personally follow up on this matter."
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