Sunday, October 31, 2004

Jailed for visiting a friend

The treatment of women in this country has continued to baffle me. We (women travelling alone) were side stepped time after time because we were travelling alone (and because I am Asian as well.) They probably thought that I was a maid coming to work as unfortunately for me, my flight coincided with a batch of Sri Lankan and Indonesian maids.

Just after having my passport checked, I had to go through another check point before collecting my passport. The man asked where I worked which I found very amusing indeed as only a small fraction of local women work. So why is it so unexpected that I don't work?

Anyways, I named my Sponsor and told them that my husband works with them. And the officer asked if my husband is waiting outside. I replied yes. To which he replied, "Are you sure?"

Am I sure? Why does he think I come? To enjoy the exorbitant social life? The endless parties?

So I replied with, "Do you want me to call him?" He then proceeded to check with another uniformed officer who told him that I could be waived in.

To be a single woman travelling alone in this country, one is either harassed or side stepped. So much for morality and the preservation of virtue.

Below is an excerpt from the Arab News. Again this is an illustration of how a woman is treated in this country, how she has absolutely no rights and how she is regarded as a man's property.

Female Prisoners: Victims of Abuse by Husbands, Housewives

Halah Al-Nasser of Sayidaty, a sister publication of Arab News, recently met with women being held at the Riyadh jail and filed this report.

Years ago we paid a visit to the women’s jail, but this time it seemed different. During this visit, things seemed more organized with improvements evident throughout the facility. When we entered the prison, the women inmates were waiting in groups outside the warden’s room after news spread about who had been pardoned. Anxiety and nervousness dominated the atmosphere.

We visited warden Amal Abu Uraj in her office to share the much anticipated release of the list and get her impressions about pardons in general and the procedures involved in selecting those who would be pardoned.

“This is an annual chance for women inmates to change their paths and their lives and revive their psychological and social balance,” Uraj said. “Especially during such times as Ramadan so that they can fast the month with their families.”

This year, royal pardons were granted to 12 inmates — one Saudi woman, and 11 of other nationalities. As Uraj was talking, the names of those pardoned arrived. The chief immediately announced the names, and those pardoned lived a few moments of utter elation. As for the rest, the absence of their names on the list of pardons took different forms. Some cried and some stood composed while some went to comfort themselves by calling their families.

After the noise had calmed down the prison chief took us to meet Inmate C — the only Saudi woman who received a royal pardon. Uraj told us that Inmate C was in jail for the first time. The chief congratulated her on being pardoned and then asked her about her son, who is in the men’s prison and did not receive a pardon.

When we asked her about her feelings in being pardoned she said that she felt joy, but it was clouded by confusion. “The social worker came to me while I was taking my Qur’an lesson and told me the news,” Inmate C said. “I was happy at the beginning; however, I cried and was anxious the whole night. I was afraid that they’d leave me in prison because my ex-husband has the original family card, and he may refuse to give it to my son-in-law. He hates me and that is the reason I’m here in the first place,” she said. “He ruined my reputation.”

Then she explained how she wound up in prison. “I’m 30, and I have eight daughters and three sons,” she said. “I was put in jail for an accusation of immorality and was sentenced to 10 months and 400 lashes. For her, an innocent visit turned out to be the start of a devastating experience.

“One afternoon, a friend of mine and I went to visit another friend to congratulate her on the birth of her new baby. We arrived about 5 p.m., and her husband opened the door for us. He said his wife was at another neighbor’s house and asked us to wait while he went to get her. He was gone a long time, and I started feeling uncomfortable. “Although he was a relative of my friend, I suggested that we leave as it was our first visit to their house, and we really didn’t know them very well. As Maghreb neared we were still waiting. Then the man returned with the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and we were arrested for immoral conduct. My friend was released after 20 days, but my husband refused to receive me and accused me of being a no-good, disobedient wife, so I was sentenced,” she said.

“He divorced me while I was in prison, but that wasn’t strange or surprising to me. He was never a good husband, but I never expected him to marry my elder sister. I was glad to be rid of him because of the way he abused the children and me. He was never a good provider and stayed away from home a lot and was married to another woman,” she said. “I was struck, though, that he’d married my sister. I never imagined that she would marry him, but I know now why she would always advise me to leave him.”

The consequences of the failed marriage still baffle her. “I honestly don’t know what to say. The harsh circumstances under which we lived drove my older son, Muhammad, to steal,” she said. “For we were living on charity.”

With her parents living outside the Kingdom, and a husband content with his new choice, the time in prison was lonely as her children even had difficulty in seeing their mother. “My older daughter and some of her sisters came to visit me after they stole the family card from their father,” she said. “He refused to give it to them because one of the visitation conditions was that they must have the original family card. When he found out, he beat them.”

Despite the pardon, her ex-husband can prevent her from getting her freedom. Her only hope lies with her children. “My son-in-law is a very kind man,” she said. “He’s been married to my daughter for six months, but even he won’t be able to get me out of prison without the original family card. My daughter has told me that her father doesn’t want me to leave the prison, and he says that my sentence wasn’t long enough. He’s trying to create some problem — find some new way to keep me in prison.

“My son was sentenced three years ago for theft when he was 15. My poor son,” she said. “I pity him for the state he’s in. He’s like me — in need of affection and compassion.”

She points an accusing finger at her ex-husband for her son’s plight. “I was surprised when I heard that he’d stolen. He was so good in school and earned high grades, and his teachers favored him. He was in 8th Grade when he was arrested. His father was the reason he went astray,” she said. “He would always beat him and degrade him.”

When she gets out of prison it will be only the first step toward getting her life back together. “God-willing, these are my last moments in this place,” she said. “After I get out, I will get my children together and find a job. That’s the most important thing for me to do so that I can provide them with stable lives. When I was married to their father, I had found a job at one of the schools, but he would refuse to let me work. He’d threaten to torture me in different ways if I didn’t agree to his wishes.”

Her ex-husband and his new wife (her older sister) are looking after the children. It is possible that had Inmate C gone to the police to report her then-husband’s negligence and violent treatment of his family, her story might have been different. But he was secure in the knowledge of the power he held over them. “I was afraid of him,” Inmate C said, as she wondered how many more nights she would spend in prison before the royal pardon was honored.

We met with four Asian women who also were pardoned and had been sentenced for immoral conduct. Each one had been sentenced to two years in prison. Due to the fact that the warden was busy finalizing the procedures for their departure to their country, we were unable to meet with them.

Another inmate who had been pardoned sat with us. She was telling us of the joy of being pardoned and went around hugging everyone and anyone and kissing them. It was hard communicating with her because she could not speak Arabic. Through sign language, we learned that she was a 26-year-old widow with two sons. She worked at one of the residential compounds until she was arrested at one of the commercial markets and sentenced to a year and 400 lashes. She’s been in prison for five months. She complained to us about her bad financial situation and that she had paid so much to buy a visa and to come to the Kingdom.

Another 25-year-old Asian inmate told us with tears of joy that she has a daughter in the care of her mother. She said she’d come to the Kingdom to work as a maid, but the abuse of her sponsor’s wife got her into prison. “I was a maid in a Saudi family of 10,” the young woman said. “They all treated me well except for the woman. She was harsh, and she didn’t allow me to eat or even supply me with soap for myself or my clothes.”

In a way, the woman was a prisoner before ever seeing the Riyadh jail. “She wouldn’t mail my letters to my family or let me send money to them,” the former maid said. “I would work from the early morning hours until the very late hours of the night — up until 3 a.m.” The safeguards put in place to protect foreign workers didn’t seem able to protect her. “I asked them to take me to my embassy, and they refused,” she said. “So I ran away and went to the embassy only to find it locked.”

Ironically, she found release — and peace — in a prison cell. “I stood in the street and took a ride with a stranger,” the former maid said. “He took me home where I was arrested. I spent six months in prison. I converted to Islam in prison when I saw my fellow inmates praying, which intrigued me. I’m so happy that I’ve converted.”

Perhaps her final thought is shared by all the women who watch the days and months go by at Riyadh jail, disgraced and shunned and haunted by loneliness. “Now, all I hope to do is to go home safely,” she said.

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