Rahma Diaa

Rahma Diaa

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Shura council rallies behind rehabilitation of female ex-prisoners

Latifa Al-Shaalan, a member of the Saudi Shura council (the consultative assembly of Saudi Arabia), has drafted a recommendation to support the rehabilitation and faster release of female ex-prisoners in the Kingdom. The recommendation would allow female prisoners who have served their jail time and been released to immediately leave the premises of Dawr Al Diyafa centers – typically, centers housing them after their release – without the approval of their guardians or parents to receive them at home.

In Saudi Arabia, Dawr Al Diyafa is a center that receives Saudi female prisoners detainees once they’ve served their jail time, in the event that their families refuse to receive them upon their release. Under sociocultural pressure, many families have disowned female members who have been in prison. To this end, centers have alleviated a great deal of pressure on and extended support to female ex-prisoners who, in the absence of a home, have had limited recourse for rehabilitation.

In her recommendation, Al-Shaalan’s plea comes in the wider context and objective of gender equality and human rights protection in the Kingdom – as unlike female prisons, men who have served their sentence in Saudi Arabia are eligible for immediate release.

The Dawr Al Diyafa centers play a critical role for women who had been rejected by both society and family for having been in jail.

Inversely, many critics believe them be more like detention centers for Saudi women, impeding them from starting over or leading their lives after jail independently from their families by extending their sentences. One key pain point voiced by Al-Shaalan around these centers is the fact that they detain all female ex-convicts indiscriminately of the gravity of their crimes; an environment that is both socially and psychologically unhealthy for rehabilitation.

Saudi Dawr Al-Diyafa centers have received 68 female ex-prisoners in 2016 who have been rejected by their families after serving time – a number that has decreased from 103 female ex-prisoners in 2015, and from 74 in 2014.  The ex-convicts remain detained at the centers until guardians accept to take them back under their wing – a very rare and unlikely event, despite numerous efforts by concerned authorities to convince parents to welcome their daughters back and give them a chance at a new life.

According to statistics, recidivism rates stand at 36% among female prisoners who have served their time, primarily owing to social and familial rejection.

Legally right

Human rights activists have been demanding that female ex-prisoners be released immediately upon the expiry of their sentence. They base their case on legal books and texts; among which Article 7 of the Saudi prison and detention system states that "the prisoner or detainee may not remain in prison or places of detention after the expiry of the period specified by the order of their detention".

Article 21 of the same system stipulates that administrative management should not delay the release of detainees or prisoners beyond the specified time period, and Article 24 entails that prisoners or detainees be released before noon the day after their sentence expires or the detention period concludes – except for in cases where pardons are issued for the full or part of crime sentences, in which case prisoners and detainees are released upon the date specified by the pardon.

Despite their absolute legitimacy, these texts conflict with Saudi Arabia’s enduring guardianship system, which entails guardian consent for female ex-prisoners to, effectively, leave prison. The guardianship system is, in effect, a legal power transferred to the male head of the family – be it the father, the son or the husband – to make decisions on behalf of female members in all aspects of their lives, from studies, to marriage, to travel, among others.

In May 2017, a royal order was issued to allow women to process paperwork at governmental authorities without the consent of a guardian. However, the order was limited by design, excluding key processes like the issuance of passports – which still require the consent of a guardian for female holders.

In recent press statements to international media, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged to revise male guardianship laws to the benefit and agreement of the collective good and community.

Marital problems

Many female ex-prisoners held at the Dawr Al Diyafa centers find an outlet in marriage, but are often met with resistance from their guardians – after which their case is referred to the administrative governor and, from there on, to the judiciary, which usually judges in favor of the former prisoner’s right to marry.

Marriage has become such common practice among Dawr Al Diyafa detainees that the centers themselves open doors for male contenders that are eligible – with eligibility criteria including a stable monthly income, and screening processes including personal interview, and mayor attestations and recommendations. Marriage ceremonies are then held at the center, in the presence of its president and of social experts. They very rarely see the attendance of the guardians.

Conflict of opinion

The living conditions of Dawr Al Diyafa ex-prisoners are widely debated, as many had voiced complaints about abuse and violence that often push them to escape the centers. Official authorities, on the other hand, maintain that girls are well received and are provided with protection, social and psychological rehabilitation programs, and skill development that enable them to lead a productive life after their release.

Saleh Sarhan, director of the National Association for Human Rights’ Jeddah branch, said that complaints raised by guests at the Jeddah Dawr Al Diyafa were followed closely with an on-site visit by an all-women team from the association. The complaints ranged from the space itself to the treatment women received at the center – from coercion to violence; women guests claimed that they were deprived from both entertainment and educational time, that they were not allowed outside on fears that they would escape, and that they were not provided with the right nutrition or healthcare, as previously reported by Saudi newspaper Okaz.

Centers of controversy

Last year, a Twitter account under the name “حقيقة دار الرعاية” (“the truth About Dar Al Reaya”) was launched to, as stated in a tweet, “raise awareness among the society around the truth of Dar Al Reaya/Al Himaya/Al Diyafa, and expose the many crimes and violations of women’s rights taking place [at these centers]”.

Since its launch, the account has shared the complaints and stories of female guests, from malnutrition to abuse, repeatedly calling to end the guardianship system allowing for such centers to detain female ex-prisoners. One story that particularly highlighted the gravity of the situation was that of a guest who remained at one of the Dawr Al Diyafa centers for three years. Her misdemeanor was crossing a red light, typically warranting a few days’ sentence had it not been for her father refusing to take her back.

In an op-ed in Okaz, writer Haila Al Mashouh wrote that some male ex-prisoners went on to “commit massacres upon leaving jail, while female ex-prisoners go to care and accommodation centers, get rejected by their parents, and get sentenced for life, only because of their gender”.

She pleads Saudi authorities to “revise these systems and enforce parents’ obligations toward their children, under the supervision of specialized protection committees”, and to alleviate the conditions of women and girls who had “struggled with a troubled past, and are on the way to a future with no hope or ambition”.

Immediate measures

The last year saw a number of reformative decisions aimed at improving and elevating Saudi women’s status, in line with the National Vision 2030. The vision has had a laser focus on improving the conditions of Saudi women, and empowering them with more leeway and freedom. It translated into steadfast progress on the ground, from the recent decree allowing them to obtain driver’s licenses as of mid-2018, to equal access to sports fields and events, to, more recently, permission set up their own commercial projects without guardian consent.

Saudi women are hoping these reforms extend to more critical issues, such as the amendment of the guardianship system to a minimum of allowing women to travel abroad, marry and leave prison without guardian consent.

Women in this article

Dr. Latifa Al-Shaalan is a Saudi university professor, writer, and member of the Saudi Shura Council since 2013.

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