Case of runaway sisters highlights ongoing plight of Saudi women

After their case made international headlines this month, one of the Saudi sisters who fled abroad spoke to Al-Monitor about the kingdom’s “flawed justice system” and called on the leadership to carry through with better reforms.

al-monitor Wafa and Maha Zayed al-Subaie are shown in this undated image. Photo by Twitter.

Apr 29, 2019

Earlier this month two sisters from Saudi Arabia’s southwestern Ranya province took an early plane out of Riyadh to Turkey. Two hours after reaching Istanbul, they took a second flight to Trabzone, and from there they hired a driver to take them to neighboring Georgia, where they could enter without a travel visa. They needed to move quickly before their family would be alerted through the controversial Absher phone app, which notifies male citizens when dependents check in at airports.

The sisters, now known as the "Georgia Sisters" on social media, are the latest Saudi nationals to have made such a public plea in a new wave of women leading a vote of no confidence with their feet against the reforms of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Even though Saudi Arabia has sought to revamp the kingdom’s image abroad through lobbying, domestically women are still crippled under a guardianship system — where a male relative can make critical decisions for a woman from her birth to death, a legal system deterring them from reporting abuse, and, most recently, a nationwide crackdown on women who deviate from the norm.

When Mohammed became crown prince in 2017, there was a moment of euphoria, both domestically and internationally. Within months of his arrival, religious police were rendered less powerful, a driving ban on women was lifted and gender segregation was loosening. During a visit to the United States last year, Mohammed said in an interview with "60 Minutes" that he believed women were “absolutely” equal to men. The crown prince became a symbol of hope for women. Even prominent activists embraced him, at one point touting him as a reformer. Mohammed was seen as economically and socially open, even if he was politically conservative. But even that formula is no longer valid, according to Saudis affected by the changes, as society becomes more repressive under his rule.

Weeks before the driving ban was lifted, for example, the government rounded up women activists who campaigned for women’s right to drive. The women were not informed about their charges or the duration of imprisonment. They were given electric shocks, waterboarded and beaten in what Saudi activists say is a new trend where women are tortured and abused by authorities. 

This trend is not only unprecedented, but it is normalizing abuse of women at home. This, activists say, can explain the heightened number of escape attempts seen playing out on social media.

On April 1, the same day the sisters fled Riyadh, the US Department of Homeland Security published numbers of Saudi nationals granted asylum in the United States during Mohammed’s first year as crown prince. In 2017, 63 Saudis were granted asylum in the United States, up from 46 the year before and 39 the year before that.

“Even political dissidents well known to be aggressive against the state were never detained or tortured the way [the state] treated these women,” Hala Al Dosari, a prominent Saudi human rights activist and scholar, told Al-Monitor. She said it followed patterns seen when women first tried to defy the state by driving in the 1990s, except that physical abuse was not employed then. Previously, women were summoned, had their passports confiscated, faced travel bans, lost their jobs or were suspended at work.

In fact, matters have gone from bad to worse for women in Saudi Arabia. Women say prosecution of women activists is enabling rather than weakening the social grip on women. The state has also intentionally leaked names of those arrested to help set an example and deter other women from breaking free from a patriarchal grip, Al Dosari said.

On April 16, the “Georgia sisters," Wafa, 25, and Maha Zayed al-Subaie, 28, made the irreversible decision to go public with a plea for help from social media, knowing that by doing so their family would know where they were hiding. They released videos about abuse they faced back home and took off their niqabs. Going public meant shaming the family, and thus putting their lives at greater risk if they ever return. “If our family finds us, they will kill us,” Maha Subaie told Al-Monitor by phone.

She said she and her sister crossed every red line they were raised to fear, essentially committing social apostasy. They are now “aar,” or dishonor, to the family.

“We are now in a lot more danger than we were before. Families learn repression from the government, and the government blesses their repression of whoever is under their custody,” Maha Subaie said. “And [the government] doesn’t ensure that women gain their dignity and rights if they face abuse from their guardians. On the contrary, a woman would be jailed and her guardian would remain free, and her release from prison depends on his approval. That’s a flawed justice system and the government must ease injustice against women.”

After the sisters were unable to apply for a travel visa, they speculated that their passports had been canceled by the Saudi government. The Saudi Embassy in Georgia denied this in a tweet April 19. "We don't trust the embassy," the sisters said. The embassy did not respond to Al-Monitor's request for comment.

While the sisters had been planning their escape since 2014, one incident that pushed them over the edge was when their father beat Maha Subaie in front of her son, who was then 8 years old (she is divorced). Enraged by seeing his mother being abused, the son told her to call police. But she believed this would make matters worse in a system that begins and ends with the guardian who holds absolute power.

“In abusive cases, the police will just ask the guardian to sign a paper pledging they would stop; they would up the violence or imprison the girl at Dar El Re’aya [a notorious rehab facility for Saudi girls],” Maha Subaie said. “We do not want these solutions, we want real solutions.”

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