Radha Stirling talks Gulf policy on women’s rights after prominent escapes
Updated: Jul 17
Radha Stirling talks Gulf policy on women’s rights after prominent Sheikha Latifa & Rahaf Alqunun escapes
During the last few years there has been news about improvements in the situation of women in Saudi-Arabia, for example granting women the right to drive. However, the recent escape of young Saudi woman Rahaf al-Qunun and the escape attempt of Princess Latifa from Dubai have attracted extensive press attention. Radha Stirling, founder of Detained in Dubai and representative of HRH Sheikha Latifa, was asked the below questions.
Interview with Radha Stirling - 16 January 2019
How much has the situation of women has really changed in the conservative arab countries during the last few years? Is it changing for the better or does your organization Detained in Dubai see some worrying developments?
First it is important to understand that the male guardianship system is largely not codified in law but is a prevailing social attitude which is then reinforced by legal and administrative decisions in both the public and private sector. So, while there have been some regulatory improvements, such as the allowance of women to enter the workforce without the permission of a male guardian; the society still accepts for a male relative to prohibit a woman from working, and there is no law preventing him from doing so. This deeply ingrained patriarchal attitude has not moved an inch over the past several years.
While Saudi Arabia is certainly the most legally restrictive of the rights of women, it would be a mistake to think that the same attitude does not permeate every country in the Gulf. Even though leaders like Mohammed bin Salman have promised incremental reforms, without confronting the patriarchal perspective itself, any freedoms legally granted to women can still be overruled by male relatives, and the state will not intervene. The governments in the Gulf are going to have to take an unequivocal stance on women’s equality and freedoms equivalent to men, and institute legislation that explicitly prohibits their forced subordination to a male relative.
Obviously this is a sensitive issue because the family structure in the Arab world is patriarchal, and the government does not want to appear hostile to the traditional family; but as a matter of law, the state must assert its sovereignty in the endowment and protections of the rights of all citizens equally, and no individual family patriarch should be allowed veto power over the law.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and they are legally obligated to comply, but there has been very little demonstrated effort made to do so.
The escape attempt of princess Mishaal bint Fahd al Saud and her execution were in the news already in the 1970’s. How common have the escape attempts of women from their family been?
It is impossible to estimate how often women have attempted and failed to escape. Consider the fact that Saudi Arabia granted thousands of scholarships to women to study abroad, but with the stipulation that they would be accompanied by a male relative for the duration of their stay. In other words, they are seldom, if ever, alone. Women need the permission of a male guardian to apply for a passport, and permission to use it. Under these circumstances, women have almost no opportunities to escape if their families are strict. If a woman is abused in Saudi Arabia, she can be admitted into a shelter, but the only way she can leave the shelter is with either her guardian or male relative. A guardian has the authority to literally stipulate that a woman should not set foot outside the home without his permission. In many ways, escaping these conditions is akin to known dissidents trying to defect from the old Soviet Union; it is nearly impossible to escape, and impossible to know how many failed attempts there may have been.
Have they increased during the last few years or has only the publicity increased? If they have increased, why?
The number of women escaping has increased in recent years, and their success is usually due to their increased ability to interact with other women outside the region who have safely made their way to freedom; as well as their access to communicate with human rights and legal assistance organisations. Because of the internet and social media, women are able to find support and make viable plans for how to execute an escape.
We have received dozens of queries over the years from women in the Gulf, including expat women who have married local men and found themselves subject to the same restrictions as Gulf women. Similarly, we have dealt with cases involving child custody where Western mothers are completely deprived of access to their children and cannot risk visiting them in Saudi Arabia or the UAE, for fear that they will become virtual or literal prisoners.
So, women are now more able to find and communicate with organisations like ours, and join message boards and group chats where they can find information and advice; this has undoubtedly helped more escape. But it should be said here that, of course, most of these women would prefer to stay in their own countries and would much rather see their governments reform and change and grant them their rights, than to become refugees. This illustrates just how dire the situation is for women in the Gulf.
What is the role of social media both in encouraging women and helping them? Is there an imbalance between women’s understanding of the world and attitudes and the conservatism of society?
Social media encourages and helps women in a practical way; through it they can find support and information that enables them to escape; but social media is not a causal factor in their desire to escape. Exposure to social media has not influenced their thinking and made women suddenly become dissatisfied with the guardianship system. Women (and many men, too) have been opposed to gender repression in the Gulf, and the hardline Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law for a long time. You have elderly women complaining about being under the guardianship of their grandsons, for instance, and they have had no exposure to social media. Women do not have to learn through Facebook that freedom is better than repression. Women with more liberal views, of course, will tend to face even greater perils, from their families and from society, in traditionally conservative countries in the Gulf, and are perhaps more likely to try to escape. But it would be a mistake to assume that any woman who either tries to flee or else who opposes the guardianship system is necessarily more Westernised and liberal; they simply want their rights and freedom. We should take note of the fact that socioeconomic class often determines the extent to which women suffer under patriarchal oppression in the Gulf. Wealthier, better educated women from high status families enjoy greater freedoms, while women with a lower income status often find themselves treated like property, and feel the guardianship system severely hinders their opportunities to advance; and thus they tend to be more opposed to it. That being said, there is also a correlation between wealth and Westernisation; in other words, upper class Gulf women, who are the least affected by patriarchal oppression, tend to be more liberal; and lower class women tend to be more conservative, but simultaneously, more opposed to the guardianship system. However, for obvious reasons, wealthier women have more opportunities to escape, and their liberal values may help motivate them to do so, while lower class women often can find no way out.
Why do women want to escape from their families? How are the women punished if they get caught?
Sometimes they want to escape from their families because of physical and psychological abuse. There is a permissive attitude throughout the Gulf towards domestic abuse against women, which is viewed as a sort of penal right of her guardians. They may also want to escape because the male relatives who exercise authority over them refuse to allow the women to pursue educational or professional opportunities; or they may be forced to pay their guardians in exchange for their permission. For instance, I am aware of cases in which women were granted permission to work on the condition that a percentage of their salary would be paid to the guardian. Women’s families also may force them into arranged marriages against their will. There are as many reasons a woman in the Gulf might attempt to flee her family as there are ways her family might restrict her freedom.
If a woman attempts to escape, and is caught, she will be at the mercy of her guardian. They might pursue criminal charges against her and have her jailed, for instance; and when a woman is jailed in Saudi Arabia, she is not allowed to leave the prison upon completion of her sentence until her guardian picks her up. In other words, when a woman in Saudi Arabia is jailed, it is always an indefinite detention. The family may opt to punish the woman themselves without taking the matter to the police; in which case, she may be subjected to physical abuse, possibly even death; and she would likely face even stricter controls and harsher limits on her freedom for years to come.
There has been also news about women activism in for example Saudi Arabia. How common is that? How are they treated by authorities?
There are currently around 10 women’s rights activists in prison in Saudi Arabia for protesting the guardianship system. These are the same activists who openly opposed the ban on women driving. Activism inside Saudi Arabia is not widespread, for the obvious reason that there is a zero tolerance policy by the government against all forms of dissent. The number of women’s rights activists in the kingdom is less important than the number of women affected by the issues these activists raise; which of course comprises half the entire population of the country. This is perhaps one reason why the response to this type of activism is so severe; Amnesty International reports that the imprisoned activists have been subjected to various forms of torture, including electrocution. Women’s issues do not have narrow repercussions for the society, and women are not a marginal minority group. The regime views women’s activism as dangerously disruptive with potentially sweeping and destabilising ramifications. Because of this, activists in the Diaspora have become more important to the reform movement; but the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi has shown that it is not even safe to criticise the regime from abroad.
How big differences there are between Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf Arab countries? Are there some positive examples?
There are differences in the severity of discrimination against women between Gulf States, and in terms of laws that overtly oppress women, the absence of laws to protect women, or the absence of laws to prevent discrimination and abuse. For instance, it is almost universal throughout the GCC countries that domestic violence is legal and that no laws exist to ensure gender equality in any realm of the society. Women can be married without their consent and are given very little say over divorce proceedings. And, of course, the ingrained patriarchal attitudes are pervasive throughout the region, creating restrictions of women’s freedom that may be informal, but are nonetheless present.
Qatar is certainly the most advanced of the Gulf States on the issue of women’s rights. Women make up 51% of the workforce in the country; which is the highest percentage in the GCC, and above the global average. Qatar has appointed at least one female judge, and was the first Gulf country to allow women to vote in municipal elections The country has also enacted a law prohibiting husbands from “hurting their wives physically or morally”, which is the closest any GCC county has come to criminalising domestic violence. But guardianship is still a major issue for women in Qatar, both formally and informally.
What does Detained in Dubai do for the situation of women in these countries? How do you work for princesss Latifa? What are the recent developments? Do you have any information about her situation? How would you comment the recent visit of Ms Robinson in Dubai?
As an organisation we are primarily concerned with the extent to which foreign visitors and residents in these countries may be victimised by repressive laws and discriminatory practices. Our advocacy for reforms are part of our effort to ensure that expats, tourists, investors and businesspeople in the Gulf are safe; and that these countries comply with their international legal obligations to protect human rights, provide due process, conduct fair trials, and respect the treaties and charters to which they are signatories. As long as oppressive, discriminatory laws remain, including those against women, the environment in Gulf countries is highly risky for foreigners. We play a role in helping to bring GCC nations in line with international standards of justice, and highlighting those areas which need development; this naturally includes addressing the plight of women.
Sheikha Latifa contacted us during her escape attempt and appealed for our assistance. The situation was unfolding rapidly at that time, and we pledged to help in any way we could. She soon called me in a panic to say that the boat she was on was under attack, and all communication abruptly ceased. We immediately filed missing persons reports for Latifa and all onboard, liaised with Latifa’s lawyer, and pushed for her story to be published. Subsequently, we submitted an application with the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances which then launched an enquiry into Latifa’s abduction. We also filed a report with the FBI over the raid on the American registered yacht Latifa was using to flee the UAE. These investigations are ongoing.
There is no satisfactory update on Latifa’s condition. We are relieved to know she is alive, though cognizant of the fact that she herself said she would rather die than be returned to the UAE. Mary Robinson’s visit did nothing to assuage fears about Latifa’s welfare, and Ms Robinson would have been better advised to decline the invitation to visit, and instead encourage the government to respond to the United Nations enquiry.