Amani al-Ahmadi was barely 10 when she was ushered into an auditorium at her all-girls school in Yanbu, a Red Sea port city in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Madinah province. There, she and her classmates were told that a group of women were coming to visit them from Dar Al Reaya, a notorious system of detention facilities designed for women. The girls took their seats, not knowing what to expect. Suddenly, images of small prison-like cells holding two to four girls were projected on the wall. The next set of slides contained graphic images of people with oral herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases. Al-Ahmadi and her classmates were horrified. To avoid such a fate, the visitors advised, they should obey their families and avoid mixing with boys lest they also end up locked up and diseased.
These are the earliest memories al-Ahmadi, now a women’s rights activist living in the United States, has of the Saudi government’s role in coercing women to abide by the patriarchal guardianship system. In this system, a male relative – husband, father, or in some cases a son – has full authority to make life-changing decisions for a woman. Years later, al-Ahmadi still recalls the images and the fear they invoked. This fear reverberates through every interview I conducted over the last two years with women who sought asylum abroad after leaving Saudi Arabia.
Dar Al Reaya – the institution whose name euphemistically translates as “Home of Care” – is what they’re running from.
According to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, Dar Al Reaya holds two types of women: those who need “social correction” and “strengthening the religious faith” for “deviat[ing] from the straight path” and those under the age of 30 awaiting an investigation or trial. But that’s not the only women they hold.
What little is known about Dar Al Reaya has come from brief and scattered mentions in news reports, from those who worked at the center, and from firsthand accounts of former inmates, known as nazeelat. Although not public prisons, the system effectively functions as one and sometimes treats inmates worse than the prisons. Years of cultivated fear have led women who have never set foot inside to imagine something far worse than a prison – and according to some accounts, it is.
In one video published on YouTube, a rattled woman described how she was placed in solitary confinement and strip-searched on arrival. She said she could hear women making cat-like sounds from their cells at night. The woman – who repeatedly called on God to avenge her – said the purpose of her video was to let people know what women endure at the Home of Care.
The video was quickly taken down. Twitter accounts that claimed to reveal problems in Dar Al Reaya have been suspended. Only stories reported in news articles or documented by Saudi women’s rights activists survive online. Sometimes they find their way into Saudi media channels, especially items about runaways who eventually found refuge outside Saudi Arabia, but these are meant to act as cautionary tales about escaping the country for a more difficult life abroad.
Compounding this fear is the ease of being sent there; in some cases, just a charge of disobedience by a guardian can mean a one-way trip to the Home of Care. Some who have tried to escape abuse at home – either by reporting their abuse or being reported as trying to escape by their guardian – have found themselves at the Home of Care. In a society that institutionalized the guardianship system, the government created a problem that has spiraled out of control. If a woman needs a guardian’s permission to move, where do women who no longer have guardians end up?
Despite reports and demands for reforms, little has changed. In 2014, a number of women activists sent a letter to then-King Abdullah asking for the guardianship system not to include laws punishing disobedience and absence from home and to release women from Dar Al Reaya without a male guardian, but to no avail. These demands have been repeated years later. In January, after the case of 15-year-old Ebtehaj, who was abused by her father, came to light, scores of people demanded her release from the Home of Care.
“There’s very limited information and testimonies from those who have been to Dar Al Reaya,” Hala Al Dosari, a prominent Saudi activist and scholar, told Newlines. “Women can only tell their stories many years after their release, once they reach a safe place. What we know is there have been cases of suicide there.”
One inmate, Lamia, hanged herself inside her cell after she was left in solitary confinement for 20 days, apparently five days longer than the institutional rules allow. This prompted the then-governor of Jeddah to ask for an investigation. The manager of the facility blamed the Social Affairs Ministry, which oversees Dar Al Reaya, for not installing the correct surveillance camera in the cell. No one was held accountable. Because of the circumstances leading to a vast number of the women ending up in the Home of Care – being reported or disowned by family members – no one returns to look for them, let alone to demand accountability.
One of the rare accounts of a Dar Al Reaya inmate to have received public attention in the kingdom came from Loujain al-Hathloul.
Al-Hathloul was arrested and held for 73 days in 2014 after attempting to cross the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia to protest the kingdom’s ban on female drivers. According to a source familiar with the circumstances of her detention, al-Hathloul was taken to a facility in the Eastern Province, strip-searched (all but one piece of cloth to cover her private areas), then thrown into solitary confinement. Upon her release, an officer made al-Hathloul pledge not to speak of her detention.
According to her sister Lina, al-Hathloul, who previously tried to open a shelter for abused women, was rearrested in 2018, and was sentenced by a terrorism court to almost six years in prison in a trial widely seen as a sham based on bogus charges.
While Dar Al Reaya pens girls and women under the age of 30, another system under the same ministry, called Dar Al Theyafa, “the Home of Hospitality,” houses those who have finished their sentences and are waiting to go home. Dar Al Theyafa transitions the women’s care from the center back to a guardian – often the same guardian who sent them to prison or whom they were trying to escape.
It is rare for a woman who has been shunned and disowned by her family to be taken back after incarceration. Nevertheless, the Home of Hospitality aims to transfer younger women to the custody of a guardian within two months. If the guardian or family refuses to accept her, the institution finds her a male suitor. “There are so many stories of women coerced into marriages,” Al Dosari said.
Some women who reported their guardian for domestic violence have said that their complaints were not taken seriously. The police sometimes make a guardian sign a pledge that he will not abuse a woman, but such pledges are not enforced, and a guardian can easily violate it once he and his charge are behind closed doors again. A guardian can also file a counterclaim alleging that his charge was simply disobedient and deserved corporal punishment. A woman who’s been released from Dar Al Reaya can be reincarcerated simply on the basis of a guardian’s counterclaim.
The dilemma of either being in torturous state custody or trapped with a violent husband or father has left many women in Saudi Arabia with little choice but to take high risks, like fleeing the country. Those who have escaped said it was their only alternative.
Rahaf Mohamed locked herself in a hotel room in Bangkok airport in January 2019 after making pleas for asylum and asking for help on Twitter. She refused to be sent back to her family. Her story is one of the better-known cases of runaways from the kingdom, and she was successfully granted asylum abroad. Mohamed told me she ran away from an abusive guardian and a system that ignored her complaints against him. She confirmed the dungeon-like conditions at Dar Al Reaya but refused to go into detail.
Months following Mohamed’s escape, Maha Zayed al-Subaie, along with her sister Wafa, fled the kingdom after her father, allegedly a serial abuser, struck Maha in the presence of her son. (As a divorced woman, her guardianship shifted from her husband back to her father.) She had to leave her son behind.
“People keep asking, ‘How could you leave your son in Saudi Arabia and leave?’ But I had to,” Maha said, adding, “I cannot be a weak mom. I can only be a strong mom away from him, not with him. Later he’ll understand.”
Maha was granted asylum abroad. She said that had she stayed and filed a complaint with the police, her father would merely have had to sign a document at the station to say he would not abuse her again. He would then do so anyway or send her to Dar Al Reaya.
“There is no penal code, no clarity on what actions are deemed criminal,” Al Dosari told Newlines. “Judges are using their own interpretations of religion. That’s why there are inconsistencies in court, even in similar cases. One woman might get three months for being spotted with a man at a mall, another might get one year and 100 lashes. There isn’t even any sentencing document to explain the reasons for decisions. The law in Saudi is vague – women do not know what is or isn’t acceptable.”
Saudi women were led to believe their situation would improve.
Since Mohammed bin Salman became Crown Prince in June 2017, Saudi leadership undertook a number of steps, ostensibly, to empower women. Months into his new role, MBS promised that the kingdom, the last place on earth with a ban on female drivers, would relax gender-mixing restrictions, open movie theaters to women, and ease certain guardianship rules. MBS was soon being touted in the West as the closest thing the Saudi government had to a feminist. He famously told Norah O’Donnell on 60 Minutes that women and men were equal. The program aired hours before the crown prince began a nearly three-week public relations tour of the United States in March 2018. On this trip, MBS met with Mark Zuckerberg, Rupert Murdoch, Morgan Freeman, Oprah Winfrey, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and was praised by Thomas Friedman in The New York Times as a reformer. All this was mere weeks before he had Saudi women activists in the kingdom jailed (including al-Hathloul), and less than a year before U.S. intelligence would determine that he had Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi brutally butchered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
As to reforms such as ease of travel and gender mixing, they appear to be cosmetic changes designed to mask an ongoing system of women’s repression, one in which the state and abusive men still control the fate of all female citizens. “Society is under a monarchy,” al-Ahmadi said. “Men don’t have any power when it comes to politics, but by having power over women, they still feel like they have some sort of power. By abolishing the guardianship, these tribal men would retaliate against the government, they would take away their power. This is why feminism is tied so closely to politics in Saudi Arabia.”
It’s also why the year 2019 became known as the year of the runaways.
Often vilified by state media, these women have been purposed into anti-feminist propaganda, which insists that life in Saudi Arabia is far better than life outside. In an interview on the Saudi Ya Hala television talk show, a psychiatrist who was asked about the case of runaway girls concluded that there was a Western definition of abuse (ta’neef), that should not be the same as abuse in other societies – that there should be a different definition for Arabs, and another for Saudis. Maha told Newlines that if the kingdom had allowed her to leave her father’s guardianship and move into a separate home with her son, she never would have left.
Many of the women who ran away in recent years have avoided sharing their stories online, fearing media vilification and backlash from their families at home. Those who accumulated thousands of followers and support on Twitter, like the Zayed al-Subaie sisters, went offline after being granted asylum.
Fatima, another runaway, is scared to reveal her name in the media or appear in TV interviews. Her family disowned her. “Now they can say I am dead. But if I appear on TV, they wouldn’t be able to hide [the shame] anymore,” she told me.
“[MBS] told the world that women can drive and get a driving license without telling them that they cannot actually leave their house,” Fatima added. Since arriving in Australia, she has been helping other women who fled Saudi Arabia find a new home. “We still have a law called taghaiub [absence]. If you leave home without permission from your guardian, you are a criminal. MBS is playing with the West. They don’t know about Dar Al Reaya.”