When flee­ing abuse is a crime

Male rel­a­tives rule over Saudi women, who must en­dure or break the law to run.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

RIYADH, Saudi Ara­bia — When a Saudi woman liv­ing at home with her par­ents and sib­lings asked her brother to fix some­thing in her room a few months ago, he asked what color un­der­wear she was wear­ing.

She found the com­ment chill­ing.

Her fa­ther had al­ready tried to grope her. When she hid in her room, in­stalling a lock and stock­pil­ing food, he made lewd phone calls from else­where in the house while he mas­tur­bated, she said. Up­set, she fled to fur­nished apart­ments for days at a time, but al­ways re­turned when her fa­ther — who is her guardian un­der Saudi law — phoned.

“He would threaten, ‘I’m go­ing to file a case against you that you ran away. I’m not go­ing to let you work,’ ” said Hala, 30, who works in health­care. As she spoke at a women’s cof­fee shop re­cently, she glanced around ner­vously, cov­er­ing her face with a black veil when strangers ap­proached. She asked to be iden­ti­fied only by her first name out of fear over the con­se­quences of be­ing pub­licly iden­ti­fied.

In Saudi Ara­bia, flee­ing even an abu­sive home is a crime for women. Their male rel­a­tives wield vast power un­der the king­dom’s guardian­ship sys­tem, which pro­hibits women from run­ning away from male guardians, in­clud­ing fathers and hus­bands, and gives those rel­a­tives con­trol over their abil­ity to ob­tain pass­ports and travel. If run­aways are caught, they can be jailed

un­til their guardians al­low them to be re­leased.

Guardian­ship can be par­tic­u­larly oner­ous for women who are di­vorced or wid­owed, or who de­lay mar­riage. Some moth­ers are forced to de­fer to their sons as guardians.

But Saudi women are in­creas­ingly risk­ing im­pris­on­ment to flee, not just within the coun­try, but over­seas as well. They are co­or­di­nat­ing those ef­forts with a net­work of sup­port­ers via so­cial me­dia, some­times ar­rang­ing mar­riages, va­ca­tions and study-abroad pro­grams as a cover.

A list of pro­pos­als for re­form­ing the guardian­ship sys­tem was sub­mit­ted this spring to King Sal­man, who sig­naled af­ter he took the throne in 2015 that he was open to lift­ing some of the most op­pres­sive re­stric­tions on women.

The pro­pos­als call for end­ing the re­quire­ment that women have a male rel­a­tive’s per­mis­sion to travel or do many other things con­sid­ered rou­tine for women in other parts of the world. More than 14,000 peo­ple have pe­ti­tioned the gov­ern­ment to over­turn a ban on women driv­ing.

Al­ready, the king has is­sued a de­cree or­der­ing gov­ern­ment agen­cies not to deny women ser­vices sim­ply be­cause they do not have a male guardian’s con­sent, un­less ex­ist­ing reg­u­la­tions re­quire it.

The king’s in­ter­est in the topic has given some women hope for greater free­dom.

“It might not be in my life­time,” Aisha Manie, a busi­ness­woman and rights ac­tivist who drew up rec­om­men­da­tions to the king on re­lax­ing guardian­ship, “but it’s com­ing.”

In the mean­time, some women say they have no re­course but to run.

More than 1,750 women fled their homes in 2015, the lat­est year of fig­ures re­leased by the Saudi Min­istry of La­bor and So­cial De­vel­op­ment and many were do­mes­tic vi­o­lence vic­tims. The ranks of such women are grow­ing, ac­cord­ing to Man­sour Askar, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at Imam Muham­mad ibn Saud Univer­sity in Riyadh.

Ac­tivists who aid run­away women said one rea­son more are able to flee is be­cause they have ac­cess to help through so­cial me­dia.

“Many women reach out to me every day. The num­ber is in­creas­ing,” said Taleb Ab­dul­mohsen, a Saudi ac­tivist who spoke by phone from Magde­burg, Ger­many, where he co­or­di­nates es­capes on Twit­ter. “They ask me to help them. Most of them don’t have travel per­mis­sion from their guardian.”

He knows women who have fled to Aus­tralia, Bri­tain, Canada, Ger­many, Ire­land, New Zea­land and the United States.

Two months ago, Shu­ruq Hus­sain Al­mughamisi told her fam­ily she was go­ing to Canada with her Al­ge­rian hus­band on va­ca­tion. She had en­dured years of abuse by her fa­ther, she said; he used to hit her with what­ever came to hand: a broom, gar­den hose, shoes. In­stead of go­ing to Canada, how­ever, the cou­ple deleted her so­cial me­dia ac­counts and fled to Europe, where she is­sued a video de­nounc­ing Is­lam for “in­cit­ing ha­tred, vi­o­lence [and] op­pres­sion” against women.

Al­mughamisi won’t say where they moved for fear her fam­ily might find out.

“If they knew,” said Al­mughamisi, 30, via Skype video, “they might kill me.”

No­rah Du­laym Mo­hamed, 22, fled the king­dom last month while her fa­ther, who is her guardian, was away. He had granted her a per­mit to travel the year be­fore, she said. Af­ter she ar­rived in Ger­many, she called her mother.

“I told her I was go­ing to start a new life here and I wasn’t com­ing back,” Mo­hamed re­called. “She was very up­set and cried a lot and told me to come back.”

Mo­hamed in­stead ap­plied for asy­lum.

Sev­eral Saudi women have been caught flee­ing this year, forcibly re­turned and jailed, ig­nit­ing vi­ral in­ter­na­tional on­line cam­paigns to free them.

Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, an English teacher from Riyadh, recorded a video state­ment af­ter she was stopped at the Manila air­port while in tran­sit to Aus­tralia on April 10.

Ac­cord­ing to Hu­man Rights Watch, an­other woman who was trav­el­ing that day said Lasloom asked her for help be­cause air­port of­fi­cials had con­fis­cated her pass­port and board­ing pass and de­tained her for 13 hours — some­thing Philip­pine im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials deny.

That woman, Mea­gan Khan, helped Lasloom record sev­eral cell­phone videos that were later posted on­line, in­clud­ing one in which Lasloom said, “If my fam­ily comes, they will kill me. If I go back to Saudi Ara­bia, I will be dead. Please help me.”

Khan said that be­fore she got onto her own flight, she saw two men ar­rive; Lasloom said they were her un­cles. Hu­man Rights Watch said it in­ter­viewed an uniden­ti­fied air­line se­cu­rity of­fi­cial who saw two of his col­leagues and three Mid­dle Eastern men carry a strug­gling Lasloom — bound with duct tape on her mouth, feet and hands — to a wheelchair and whisk her away.

Wit­nesses re­counted on Face­book see­ing a scream­ing Lasloom forced by her un­cles onto a Saudi Ara­bia Air­lines flight to Riyadh. A woman who tried to meet her at the air­port was tem­po­rar­ily de­tained. It’s not clear where Lasloom was taken. Sup­port­ers launched #SaveDi­naAli, a Twit­ter cam­paign to raise aware­ness and urge a royal par­don.

The same month, Maryam Otaibi, 29, was ar­rested af­ter she fled an abu­sive home north of Riyadh to the cap­i­tal, where she found work at a re­cruit­ment agency and rented an apart­ment un­til her fam­ily found her and had her jailed. Sup­port­ers are still try­ing to free her, tweet­ing #jus­tice­for-Maryam.

Given the risks, even some women’s ac­tivists said they won’t help women flee, and con­sider those who do ir­re­spon­si­ble.

“I know a lot of girls who re­gret it,” said Riyadh ac­tivist Az­iza Yousef, 58, who is help­ing Otaibi and try­ing to start a shel­ter for 40 women. She frowns on the work of Ab­dul­mohsen, the ac­tivist in Ger­many who aids women as they flee.

“I don’t think es­cap­ing is the so­lu­tion. I think the so­lu­tion is im­prov­ing things in the coun­try so they don’t have to leave,” she said.

An­other Saudi ac­tivist, re­tired univer­sity pro­fes­sor Sa­har Nasief, who lives in Jidda, said she feared for the safety of young women who es­cape abroad.

“Our girls, they’re not like Amer­i­can girls. They’re de­pen­dent on their par­ents,” she said. “What we re­ally need is a [royal] de­cree to say, ‘Women, you are set free.’ We say we’re slaves, but slaves even had it bet­ter be­cause they could buy their free­dom. We can’t.”

One woman who asked to be iden­ti­fied only by her first name, Mashael, had an ar­ranged mar­riage five years ago, di­vorced, and was fac­ing a sec­ond ar­ranged mar­riage this spring when she took off for Bri­tain on “va­ca­tion.” Her ex-hus­band had given her per­mis­sion to travel and failed to re­voke it af­ter the di­vorce. She con­cocted an es­cape that in­volved pack­ing her clothes in garbage bags “for char­ity,” then tak­ing the fam­ily driver to a mall where she se­cretly bought a suit­case, repacked and took a sec­ond driver to the air­port.

Three months later, she is still await­ing an asy­lum in­ter­view. Her fam­ily fig­ured out where she was, she said, and her brother threat­ened to kill her if she didn’t re­turn. Mashael said she re­ported the threat to po­lice.

Run­ning away, she said, had been “re­ally tough, but I think it’s worth it.”

Women who suc­cess­fully flee are more likely to help oth­ers. They make use of their new­found free­dom to speak out on Twit­ter and YouTube, say­ing more needs to be done to aid vic­tims of do­mes­tic abuse and to end male guardian­ship.

Soon af­ter Amal Aljubarah fled last year to Ger­many with her 7-year-old daugh­ter, other women started con­tact­ing her.

“So many women, they sent too much email. ‘Please, please tell me how,’ ” she re­called. She di­rected them to Ab­dul­mohsen, the ac­tivist who helped her.

“It’s not a healthy life in Saudi Ara­bia. No­body ever is like, ‘I want to go back,’ ” she said.

Af­ter Hala, the health­care pro­fes­sional, fled, she was afraid she would lose her job and bank ac­count, and re­turned home. But she now fears the abuse by her fa­ther and younger brothers is wors­en­ing. Dur­ing the in­ter­view at the cof­fee shop, Hala was wear­ing med­i­cal scrubs un­der her black abaya gown be­cause, she said, she had to pretend to go to work in or­der to leave the house.

She scrolled through cell­phone pho­to­graphs of bruises on her neck and arms from a re­cent ar­gu­ment with her brother dur­ing which she said he tried to stran­gle her. When she re­fused to do his home­work for him, he broke into her room and tore up her books, she said. She showed pho­tos of ripped vol­umes strewn across the floor. Her mother sided with the men, she said, lock­ing her out of the house when she up­set them.

A wealthy man of­fered to take her abroad if she slept with him. Hala re­fused.

“My vir­gin­ity is one of the last things I have left and he wants to take that to give me my free­dom,” she said.

She sought help from lawyers, show­ing them pho­tos of her in­juries.

“I told the lawyers I want to leave, I want them to stop be­ing my guardians,” she said of her fa­ther and brothers.

But the lawyers told her that if she didn’t have video ev­i­dence, she couldn’t file charges. She could go to a women’s shel­ter, but a shel­ter man­ager she con­tacted said she would lose ac­cess to her pos­ses­sions, the In­ter­net and tele­vi­sion.

“I don’t want to leave one prison and go to an­other,” Hala said.

‘What we re­ally need is a [royal] de­cree to say, “Women, you are set free.” ’ — Sa­har Nasief, re­tired univer­sity pro­fes­sor in Jidda, Saudi Ara­bia

AL­MUGHAMISI deleted her so­cial me­dia ac­counts and won’t dis­close pre­cisely where she moved, for fear of her fam­ily: “If they knew, they might kill me.”

AF­TER EN­DUR­ING YEARS of abuse by her fa­ther, Shu­ruq Hus­sain Al­mughamisi f led to Europe with her Al­ge­rian hus­band.

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