West News Wire: A woman or a girl may find themselves in a government-run shelter in Saudi Arabia for a number of different reasons. They might be escaping domestic abuse. They can be facing charges because they are allegedly guilty of a crime.
However, girls might also have “disobeyed” their male guardians, attempted to flee their homes, or even been abandoned, like Aisha, according to Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa.
She speculated that they may have disobeyed the driving ban or protested in order to spend some time there. It’s possible that their family has abandoned them at a police station because they don’t want to deal with them, and the police will take care of them.
Once inside, they are locked up until a male guardian, often the same person abusing them, agrees that they can leave; or until a woman agrees to marry and has a new guardian.
The shelters where girls and women have committed suicide, rioted for better conditions, tried to escape, and were killed by relatives shortly after their release in the past few years, according to Saudi activists, human rights researchers, and women who have stayed in the shelters, continue to operate without any reforms.
These government-run shelters continue to operate unaltered as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s modernization initiative progresses, and according to them, the situation for the most vulnerable women in the country has gotten much worse since the prominent arrest of women’s rights activists in 2018.
A number of the activists who were detained were among those who presented King Abdullah with a well-known petition in 2014 that included, among other things, demands for women to have access to shelters whenever they needed them without being subject to state investigation and to be free to leave whenever they desired without being held in the care of a male relative.
They attempted to establish a nonprofit alternative to the government-run shelters named Aminah, which means “safe” in Arabic, but were unsuccessful. With the aid of a benefactor, they were able to obtain a piece of land, and Ministry of Social Affairs representatives informed the organisers that their application was set to be approved. The activists were taken into custody two months later.
One of the accusations made against the activists was that they attempted to form an unnamed association in violation of Saudi law. Among those detained was Loujain al-Hathloul, whose brother Waleed al-Hathloul claimed his sister’s work on Aminah “was one of the main reasons” she was detained.
The arrests had an effect on Saudi girls and women who were seeking to escape abuse in more ways than one, advocates told MEE. A network of wealthy and influential Saudi women that had been quietly assisting girls and women caught between abusive boyfriends and abusive shelters had unexpectedly stopped doing so. And questions on former off-the-books assistance for women from state agency employees were requested.
The number of Saudis requesting asylum increased dramatically in 2015, the year King Salman assumed power, according to UN statistics. 395 Saudis left the country that year, but except from 2020 and 2021 during the Covid epidemic, that number has remained high every year afterwards.
“It’s a sad thing that we, as Saudi women, the first step we take to protect ourselves is to run away from our country and lose our citizenship,” said journalist and activist Khulud al-Harithi of Saudi Arabia. “We come from a place where there are no conflicts or humanitarian problems that would compel a woman to apply for refuge. Why then must we forfeit our citizenship? What position does the government take when one citizen is harmed?