Sahar and her three sisters Jawaher, Maha, and Hala have been held under effective house arrest by their father, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for nearly 13 years. For years, their mother, Alanoud Al Fayez, has been advocating for their release from her home in London. In an unedited interview conducted via email, I asked Sahar, the eldest of the four sisters, about the reasons for her confinement and her thoughts on women’s rights in the Kingdom.
Firstly, can you describe the situation you are facing?
It’s a battle for survival…we’re literally facing a vicious army: the Saudi National Guard, headed by our half-brother Mitab. He along with our half-brother AbdulAziz, Deputy Foreign Minister, have been issuing orders to abuse us along the years. Both men are in the government and should not be allowed to evade justice simply because they occupy such positions. Civilised countries should not allow them to continue their crimes without holding them to account. The silence of the world is deafening, as they issued orders to starve us. We were prevented from going out to buy food and water on March 17th, our heavily guarded bimonthly outing. They prohibited home delivery as well; the person trying to deliver food and water was threatened to be jailed should he attempt to return. Food will soon run out. We are on one meal a day, surviving on some expired food and distilled seawater.
My sister Jawaher suffers from asthma and is denied her medication. I cannot watch her health deteriorating. She needs medical help, in fact we all do. We suffer excruciating headaches and backaches. We have been calling on the Red Cross and they are trying to communicate with the Red Crescent, but seems that they are under Saudi control, so we haven’t received a reply yet. We have the right to choose where to seek medical help. We will never seek the help of the Royal Clinic since they have played a big role in our abuse, nor will we ever ask our captors for food and water since they have been drugging it. We also need to save our pets, our two dogs Gala and Gracia as well as Jade the cat. The situation is getting worse, while Saudis continue their crimes with impunity.
Why do you think you have been placed under effective house arrest?
We, along with our mother, have always been vocal all our lives about poverty, women’s rights and other causes that are dear to our hearts. We often discussed them with our father. It did not sit well with him and his sons Mitab and AbdelAziz and their entourage. We have been the targets ever since. We have been treated abysmally all our lives, but it got worse during the past 15 years. When Hala began to work as an intern at a hospital in Riyadh, she discovered political prisoners thrown in psychiatric wards, drugged and shamed to discredit them. She complained to her superiors and got reprimanded. She began to receive threatening messages if she didn’t back off. The situation deteriorated, and we discovered that she was also being drugged. She was kidnapped from the house, left in the desert, then thrown in Olaysha’s Women’s Jail, Riyadh. She soon became yet another victim of the system, as were the so-called patients (political prisoners) she was trying to help. Maha, Jawaher and I have all been drugged at some point. Jawaher and I have resisted and we were able to protect ourselves.
We have been told to lose all hope of ever having a normal life. A chance to study, work, and raise a family have been denied us. They wanted us to be hopeless and helpless, to give up like many have in this country. After years of hopelessness, forced sedation, physical and psychological abuse, we managed Jawaher and I to fight back, thanks to our mum who has raised us to be independent, to fight for what we believe and stand for our rights. She left to London in 2003. She did not flee as some media has been saying, fabricating lies for sensationalism. In fact, they had tried to push her away to separate us, and to prevent her from supervising my sisters’ treatment. She decided to leave so that she could fight for our freedom. We have been saved from a worst fate thanks to her leaving. Alas, many human rights organisations, journalists, and lawyers have not helped. Some have even hindered her efforts, while others ignored our plight altogether. Her attempts throughout the past 10 years have failed despite her constant fight to free us from captivity and seek medical help for my sisters Maha and Hala. Our mother means everything to us. She is the light that shines through all this darkness.
Have you and your sisters ever been physically abused or threatened?
Yes, my sisters Maha and Hala were physically restrained by members of the Saudi National guard – note that psychiatric nurses were not allowed near them. This would happen after nurses from the Royal Clinic injected them with substances, which would agitate them. We discovered the abuse while trying to call the Royal Clinic doctors for help, but they would either ignore our call or refuse to treat them. A certain doctor before resigning told me that he was given orders by AbdelAziz not to treat my sisters and that his conscience could not allow him to continue, as this would mean breaking his oath as a doctor trained to serve people and treat them. He stated, ‘God help you, you are living with monsters.’ Jawaher and I have been threatened and there were attempted attacks. However, we have been taking mixed martial arts lessons at home training for self-defense, and this had deterred their attempts when they confronted us. Jawaher and I have managed to resist. Yet, systematic drugging and abuse are ongoing and we fear for Maha and Hala’s life. Mum would receive messages, cries for help, but they wouldn’t pick up the phone later. We have no current news about them.
Why do you think your access to the Internet has not been cut off, even after going public about your situation?
This is to clearly sow seeds of doubt and to discredit us somehow. They seem to spread lies about their so-called ‘freedom of speech’. Meanwhile people cannot verify that we are indeed being starved since March 17th with little food left, eating expired food on occasion and distilling sea water to survive. We are calling on the Red Cross to provide immediate assistance especially that my sister Jawaher suffers from asthma and ran out of her inhaler. She finds it hard to breathe and we don’t know for how long we can endure such barbaric treatment. We have pets to feed as well, two dogs, Gala the Labrador and Gracia the German Shepherd and Jade the cat. We cannot allow them to starve to death, so we try to provide food, cutting down our own meals to once a day. Lack of nutrition and medical care is taking a toll on us. Yet we are hanging on, resisting such horrendous treatment while the world is silent. We are calling on the UN to investigate immediately. Saudi should not be able to get away with it, especially after having ratified numerous conventions against torture, not to mention CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).
What is the current state of women’s rights in Saudi society?
Women suffer under a brutal ‘guardianship’ system, akin to slavery. Women cannot move an inch without the approval of male guardians, a clear violation of human rights. Women are treated as minors and second class citizens, with no hope of ever growing up or reaching a better position in society as long as such an un-Islamic law is imposed. Male guardianship should be abolished like slavery. It is an abomination, which no civilised country should accept. The international community should not tolerate Saudi’s flagrant dismissal of human rights, indeed women’s rights.
What do you mean by the term ‘gender apartheid’, which you have used in interviews?
Women are segregated. There are signs that clearly state ‘Women are not allowed in.’ This is also true of men; signs prohibiting ‘single’ men from entering stores and restaurants. It seems that such segregation is also selective: the King himself, his sons, our half-brothers and half-sisters meet the opposite sex on several occasions, whether in private or public. Why should such restrictions be imposed on the populace, while the elite enjoy normal interactions with people regardless of gender. Such hypocritical behaviour and double standards are typical of the Saudi regime, which imposes its own version of Islam to subjugate women as well as the people. Confining them and restricting their thoughts and actions according to whim in the name of religion.
What do you think about the Right To Drive campaign and the work of Saudi women’s rights activists like Manal Al-Sharif, Waheja Al-Huwaider and Fawzi Al-Oyouni? (Manal was arrested for defying the ban on women driving in 2011, while Wajeha and Fawzia were jailed for 10 months in 2013 for the crime of ‘inciting a woman to defy her husband’s authority’)
I have a lot of respect for all these women and their fight for rights. I am however not selective in choosing a topic, such as driving, which only serves to limit our rights as women, indeed as a people. We deserve – women deserve – full rights. The right to drive becomes a given.
How do you think full rights can be achieved?
I call out to all women, especially activists in Arabia to unite and call for their human rights, enshrined in the Universal declaration of Human Rights. As the late, great, Madiba (Nelson Mandela) said, ‘There is no such thing as part freedom.’ There is definitely no such thing as part human rights.
We need collective work, unity, and a clear understanding of our own rights and freedoms. People around the world are coming together to fight injustice. We as a people deserve the same rights. Women throughout the world can join hands and support women in this country so they may finally be able to achieve their rights. Global support is needed; public opinion matters and people around the world could help by pressuring their own governments to stop tolerating Saudi flagrant violations of human rights, holding them to account.
What do you say to Western governments like Britain and the United States which support the Kingdom?
No Western country tolerates a family holding their daughters captive. News is rife with such stories and the consequences of these criminal acts are harsh jail sentences. Holding grown women captive and starving them is a flagrant crime that should not be tolerated by any civilised nation claiming to champion human rights. The Saudis have responded with their usual absurdities: “this is a private matter”. Can the West call this crime a private matter? If they can, then they have no right demanding certain countries to implement human rights while excluding Saudi, their own included. Laws in the West do not tolerate such crimes. We are as human as others, and as such deserve the same rights. We are resisting them, and we hope more people come out to express their opposition to the grave and flagrant Saudi human rights violations. Saudi is mocking the whole world, and it should not be allowed to do so.
Western governments cannot keep dismissing the rights of our women and our people. Safeguarding their own narrow interests at the expense of our people will backfire. This is a policy doomed to fail as history teaches us that people inevitably revolt when injustice becomes rampant. They need to reassess their stance. Standing against human rights will not serve their interests. On the contrary, it will harm them eventually. Everyone can win, if everyone decides to respect the rights of others. Nations that respect the wishes of their own people and those of the people in other nations can build mutual respect and understanding, serving the interests of all. We demand respect. It’s simple.