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The women fleeing oppression in Saudi Arabia for the West

“I tried to leave my whole life,” she says. “From a really young age I felt that this place is a time bomb. I was counting the days, feeling in constant danger, feeling a constant threat over my life. And when I was 15, I decided I’m going to make a plan to leave.”

This is the story of Robyn’s escape — the story of what it takes for a woman in Saudi Arabia to be free.

Her plan would take years to enact — involving an escape plot that would culminate in an altercation in the street, being choked and dragged by her hijab, in a final attempt by her family to bundle her back to Saudi Arabia. Above all, to flee would mean chiselling away at the guardianship system, a structure of laws and customs embedded within Saudi Arabia which enable men to exert power over almost any decision a woman can make.

She asks to be called Robyn. She says she cannot bear to hear the name she was born with because that was the name her father used when he was beating her, burning her, dictating her every movement. He was Robyn’s guardian, but he was not the only man, nor even the only family member, who controlled her.

Headlines across the Western media in recent years suggest that the guardianship system’s patriarchal web is being unpicked due to relaxations in these laws: that women can now drive in the Gulf state, that they can access public services, a passport, or even travel without a male guardian’s permissions. The reality isn’t only much more complex; it’s being concealed.

A woman’s guardian can be her husband, her father or even her son. Fathers are by default guardians of their daughters. And one overarching law continues to obscure any glimmers of sunlight: the crime of disobedience.

“As the disobedience law is a vague right that the male guardian has, everything can be considered disobedience,” says Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and advocacy at ALQST, the Saudi human rights NGO. A woman might believe she’s free to do something, including travel, but “the male can complain about her as being disobedient, and she can get arrested”.

Lina al-Hathloul from ALQST, the Saudi human rights NGO

Al-Hathoul’s sister, Loujain al-Hathloul, 34, a leading figure in the fight for driving rights, was arrested, detained, imprisoned and, according to her family, tortured before being released in 2021 with a travel ban. Detention, arbitrary arrest, lashings, electric shocks, solitary confinement, sexual violence and travel bans have been deployed against women who speak out, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Guardianship – a recent history

After the driving ban and travel restrictions were seemingly lifted, a 2020 report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom described the guardianship system as “uniquely repressive” while “key restrictive elements [of it] remain in place”.

On International Women’s Day (8 March) last year, Saudi Arabia formerly introduced new legislation — the Personal Status Law — which the Kingdom framed as progress, as it emphasised the right of women to have custody of their children. But as Human Rights Watch highlighted, it “simply enshrined discrimination against women into the legal code”.

This included guardianship and obedience laws, with provisions prohibiting married couples from refusing sex without their spouse’s permission — regarded by some as a law protecting the marital rape of women. 

Saudi Arabia’s attempts to promote a new image, however, have been bolstered by its advances within international sport — most recently, being named as the only bidder for the 2034 World Cup. Last month, The Times revealed that the vast oil company Aramco — owned by the Saudi regime — is in late-stage talks to become FIFA’s biggest sponsor, in a deal reportedly worth up to £84m a year until 2034. FIFA has declined to comment. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, also hopes to secure the bid to host the 2035 Women’s World Cup.

Today, i can reveal testimony from Saudi women of the continuing harm unleashed by the guardianship system — accounts that challenge the country’s public relations strategy.

Robyn, 26, sits in a refugee hostel in Ireland, unable to remain still for long, tilting her head, leaning over to the side, fiddling with her hair, as if the propulsion to escape still vibrates through her. She wears bright red lipstick, highlights in her hair, and a necklace sailing above the neckline of her green dress.

Small ripples of laughter emanate from her so frequently that from a distance she could look like the happiest, most carefree of women. Up close, each laugh correlates so closely with memories of dissent as to invoke a soundtrack of nervousness; the thrill and terror of rebellion.

Robyn was raised in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia (to protect her identity i is not disclosing the exact location), in a middle-class home. “My family is very strict and very religious,” she says. It was a Shia Muslim household — a minority in the largely Sunni country. She remembers one of her father’s favourite phrases: “You have to follow my rules by the millimetre.” Friends of Robyn’s were not allowed to come to the house, nor was she allowed to visit theirs. Her father’s control spread to every part of her life growing up.

“He bought me my clothes. He bought me men’s T shirts. And he made me wear two abayas on top of each other. He was trying to de-feminise me. He criticised everything about me: my clothes if they showed I had a female figure… my breasts. It’s humiliating. I was just a child.”

She describes her father as an omnipresence: always there, watching, judging, waiting to strike. “The psychological torture was the worst,” she says. “But the physical abuse is linked to the psychological abuse.” One day as a teenager, Robyn was performing wudu — the Islamic washing ritual before prayers — when her father suddenly appeared. “He screamed at me, ‘You didn’t wash properly, I saw you.’” She had only cleaned to a centimetre above her elbow, not the three centimetres he required. “He pressed hard on my elbow and said, ‘This is dry.’ He grabbed my arm aggressively, threw me to the sink and said, ‘wash again’.”

When he was really angry, however, he would simply instruct her to come to his majlis — sitting room — at 8pm.

“He would dim the light. He had tools for beating and would choose his tool. He did not always beat with the same tool because his hand would get tired. There were all kinds of things: a belt, hangers, long rulers, sticks, shoes. It depends on what he believed the appropriate punishment was.”

Lina and her sister Loujain al-Hathloul

Aged 3 or 4, she isn’t sure which, she says he beat her for using the male rather than female toilet in their house. As a teenager, she remembers watching television when he came home from work. “He was holding a long wooden stick with nails sticking out of it. I said, ‘What is that for?’ He laughed and said, ‘What do you think it is for?’” Other times, she claims he would come to her bedroom while she was in bed and slap her without explanation or would tell her glowing stories of a man he knew who killed his own son for the crime of apostasy.

“I constantly felt like I’m going to lose my life, that this is the day he’s actually going to kill me,” she says. One of her elder brothers, she says, used to beat her too. “He raped me when I was child. I didn’t talk to him for five years.”

Robyn only had romantic and sexual feelings for women growing up (now she is pansexual) and didn’t ever think she would be attracted to men. “Maybe I’m just not attracted to misogyny,” she says wryly. She would exchange clandestine messages with other girls, with no hope that her father would ever allow her to meet them outside of school.

His beatings became almost a relief, she says, because it was better than what she was fearing. But the incessant expectation of violence corroded her psychologically. She would hide her writing, her poetry, in case words could be misconstrued. For years on end, she locked herself in her room as often as she could.

It wasn’t just to protect herself. It was to formulate her escape. Within a family like hers, there was only one route out — not just away from her father, but beyond the whole system.

“The only possible choice was through education,” says Robyn, and in particular, a government sponsored scholarship programme to universities outside of Saudi Arabia. It was only available to the very best, so it would mean studying obsessively for three years. After graduating high school with the top grades, Robyn won a scholarship in 2016 to study medicine in Ireland. She had no particular interest in medicine. Her interest was liberation.

“I thought, ‘The plan has worked!’” she says. “But no. That was just the beginning.” Because of the guardianship system, her father insisted on coming to Ireland with her. His presence in her life, even physically, did not abate. He lived with her, escorted her to lectures, collected her from lectures, watched her, controlled her. Male guardianship was in full operation even outside of Saudi Arabia.

“He wouldn’t let me do anything,” she says. “I had to wear my hijab and not wear make-up and look really, really shy. I had to be hidden all the time.” One day, after several months, she convinced him to allow her travel to university on her own.

Robyn began walking to college, crossing the road far from the traffic lights just to feel the breath of choice and impulsion upon her. She started talking on her phone to a man she had been secretly messaging online. Smiling, she turned round unexpectedly, only to see her father there, following her. “He started screaming at me, ‘Why are you smiling? Who are you talking to?’ And he immediately did that to me…”

At this, she drags her index finger down her forehead to recreate his gesture. “That means you’re showing too much forehead — to pull your hijab down.”

By her second year, her mental health had deteriorated into panic attacks, insomnia and depression, unable to cope after years of being controlled. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Dublin.

Her father wept when he came to see her. “He was accusing me of abusing him, because I had made him feel like a failure as a father. He told me, ‘You have to go back to Saudi’. All this time I had told myself to never go back.” But her mother was ill, and her father spent days persuading her, promising her he would change.

Hoping to simply see her sick mother, Robyn agreed to return for Saudi Arabia for one week. That is not what happened. It was, she says, “four months of extremism — of me going nowhere. Every day I was telling him, ‘Can you renew my visa? Can you renew my passport?’” He did not. His treatment of her during that time became a metaphor for Saudi Arabia’s current approach to women’s rights: he would take her to fancy restaurants, or the gym, or buy her jewellery, but still have complete control.

“He told me directly, ‘I’d be the most stupid person in the world if I let you go back to Ireland.’” Again, there was nowhere for Robyn to turn.

As Lina al-Hathloul explains, women can be reported to the police for disobedience for almost anything. Upon arrest, she can be placed in what is known as a ‘care home’. “This ‘care home’ is basically a prison,” she says. “A woman cannot leave a care home without the consent of the male guardian. If you’re born in a family where the male guardian is repressive, he can still imprison you and have all the power over you.”

After years of being manipulated, Robyn was going to have to turn those techniques back on her father, to have any chance of returning to Ireland.

“I told him, ‘I’m not going to live if you take away this chance that I worked my whole life for’. I made it all about medicine. My tears were real, but it was about my freedom.” He eventually agreed on the condition that not only would he return with her, but that her uncles would come too, taking turns to ensure she obeyed his every rule, and when her mother was better, she would join them.

Back in Ireland, Robyn began sneaking out, attempting a double life, having a quasi-romantic relationship with an Irish man, who i is referring to as Daniel. One day, they snuck into a common room and were laying on different sofas, during which two male Saudi students walked in and spotted Robyn without her hijab. Soon after, university officials said there had been reports of her having sex in a common room.

Robyn denied it but the Saudi Embassy, her sponsors, found out about the allegations. Her sponsorship — the only thing keeping her away from Saudi Arabia — was suspended. There was only one thing left to do, she says: “I had to run away.”

But this required planning. She told her family nothing, instead leaving every day for university, while discussing with Daniel how to escape and stay in Ireland. Unbeknown to Robyn, however, her family discovered that her sponsorship had been suspended — she doesn’t know how — and they made their own plans to bring her back, aware of the risk of her refusing.

It was the end of semester in 2018. She claims her family drained her bank account, gave her landlord notice on her flat, and told Robyn they would all be returning to Saudi Arabia in the break between semesters. She pretended to comply to avoid suspicion, packed her bags, and took a photo of them, sending it to Daniel so he knew which was hers and which were her parents’, who were both there to return her to Saudi Arabia.

She created an excuse to get her parents out of the flat, just long enough for Daniel to let himself in and take Robyn’s suitcases to the railway station. While her father went off with an uncle elsewhere, Robyn remained in the street with her mother, waiting for news from Daniel that he was safely at the station with the suitcases. But her mother became suspicious.

“She was panicking,” says Robyn. “She grabbed me. And I tried to run away. She ran behind me, dragged me from the hijab that was on my head, and she beat me and pinned me to a wall. She took my hijab off my head – my hair was showing – and she was choking me with it.”

A passer-by became concerned and tried to intervene. “I said, ‘Help me, they’re trying to send me back to Saudi Arabia, I’m going to be killed.’” The man threatened to call the police, held her mother back, giving Robyn just enough time to dart away and rush to the station to find Daniel.

She was free.

Robyn stayed with a series of friends but was homeless for months. In March 2019, she applied for asylum as an apostate, a woman, and a sexual minority. Earlier this year, Robyn was granted refugee status, but is still living in the refugee centre, awaiting housing, while working as an interpreter.

Due to the remaining guardianship and disobedience laws, everything that happened to her can continue to happen to other Saudi women, she says. “They’re changing the rules a bit, but Saudi women are still being abused, still being put in prison.”

She mentions some of the famous examples of women who have spoken out and been punished. All Robyn wanted growing up were the basics. “Being able to dip my feet in the sea without being shouted at,” she says. “To write poetry, to go to school, to listen to music, to wear make-up sometimes, and wear the clothes I wanted to wear.”

She stops for a moment and looks away. “A child should have bigger dreams.”

Far from the apparent reforms in the last 5 years ushering in liberation, a murkiness of confusion now prevails, according to Lina al-Hathloul, who has left Saudi Arabia. “Now there’s been some changes, the red lines are not as clear as before. Women knew what was forbidden before, but now?”

Loujain al-Hathloul

She cites the example of Manahel al-Otaibi, a Saudi fitness instructor, who five years ago gave an interview expressing her happiness about reforms to women’s rights which appeared to provide more choice for how women dress. “Last year she was arrested because she was not wearing the abaya and because of her feminist tweets,” says al-Hathloul.

Al-Otaibi currently faces trial on four charges for opposing the guardianship system and posting pictures and videos on her social media in which she is not wearing the abaya.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia continues to prepare for the World Cups alongside other international events. “People say that with such events Saudi Arabia can be pushed into reforming the country,” says al-Hathloul. “But what we’ve seen recently is only whitewashing. No one used the leverage they have to really push for reform.”

Instead, she says, “there’s more cover up, more whitewash, Saudi Arabia is doubling down on repression. So it’s not creating bridges; it’s making the facade even more robust. Saudi Arabia is creating two Saudi Arabias: one for the West to see and one that the Saudis live.”

The World Cups in 2034 and 2035, therefore, will be a gift to this absolute monarchy, says al-Hathloul: “The Saudi regime will be able to brag about it.” Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, “will be able to say that he is accepted by the international community, that the country is opening up and will also understand it as a green light to his policies. So the West has a moral responsibility to condemn the abuses”.

For women’s rights, the reality remains stark for women like Robyn, far beyond the famous cases. “There are a lot of at-home prisoners — women not being able to leave their houses,” says al-Hathloul. “Because if a man wants you to stay at home, you have nowhere to complain to. And complaining can be considered disobedience. This is the hell women can live in, if they’re unlucky in the family they’re born in.”

Although laws against domestic violence were introduced a decade ago, there are no domestic abuse shelters, only the so-called ‘care homes’, “where they put disobedient women.” The first shelter was being planned by al-Hathloul’s sister, Loujain, alongside a group of other women. “They’ve never been granted the license to open this independent shelter.”

Being able to go for a coffee without a male guardian is all very well, says al-Hathloul, “but women are muzzled and they can’t demand their rights. When they complain about their situation they get imprisoned, when they tweet in solidarity with other women they get imprisoned. Women can drive now, but they are still imprisoned and tortured and sexually harassed. Women have to shut their mouths.”

It’s possible for a woman to live alone now too, but again, she says, “if the male guardian refuses and complains of disobedience, then you get imprisoned. If the government truly wanted to reform, then they would remove the very essence of the male guardianship system, which is the disobedience law.”

For her sister, who was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, nothing has changed either. Although released from jail in 2021, she is subject to a travel ban and probation conditions, which prevent her leaving Saudi Arabia, talking to journalists, or even contacting human rights organisations. Disobedience will mean re-imprisonment. Her family were told that the travel ban would be lifted on 13 September this year. It wasn’t.

Lina al-Hathloul begins to describe how her sister is coping. “Loujain is a very strong woman. They tried to break her. But she’s resilient. She’s hopeful she’ll be able to live her life. But there’s this constant surveillance — she was targeted with Pegasus, the spyware, meaning that anything she says to anyone will be known, will be watched.”

The woman who fought for women’s liberation, therefore, is now an embodiment, an emblem, of their continued struggle. “She is living,” says her sister, “under constant fear”.

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