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Saudi women launch campaign highlighting stifling 'house detention'

Women's rights activists use Twitter campaign to express their concerns over the heavy restrictions on their movements imposed by the kingdom's patriarchal norms
Saudi women have started a Twitter campaign to testify about their plight as 'at-home prisoners' under the hashtag #HouseDetention (AFP)

Saudi women's rights activists have launched an online campaign to allow women to share their experiences of being "prisoners" in their own homes and highlight the social restrictions many still face in the conservative kingdom.

On Twitter, activists used the hashtag #HomeDetainees to raise awareness about "women who languish at home", a place that is both a "woman's grave and a man's paradise". 

'Male guardianship effectively relegates adult women to the status of legal minors incapable of making critical decisions for themselves' 

Human Rights Watch

Activists in Saudi Arabia used the hashtag to demand the abolition of the "male guardianship system", a structure that essentially gives a woman's father, brother, or husband the right to decide her fate in terms of "education, work, and healthcare". 

Conjointly, the campaign demanded Saudi women to be granted the right to "movement, independence, and decision-making", stating that any woman or girl who feels "trapped in her home" should draw strength from the campaign's experiences.

Women used the platform to express their frustration at their constrained state, with one stating that being trapped at home had "a draining effect on my soul and psyche". 

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"My prison suffocates my passions and aspirations. It chokes off my desires, capabilities, ambitions, as well as my character. It rendered me severely depressed and obsessive, as well as afflicted me with thousands of psychological ailments," wrote the user, who did not use her real name.

Another described life as a woman in Saudi Arabia as akin to being "assaulted with all forms of violence on the psychological, physical, and material level". 

Translation: We spend all our lives inside these prisons where the freedom of women is violated in every sense

Translation: Women are closely monitored in homes, with them not having the privacy of closing the door of the room with a key at times and without any chance to go out and explore and live the life they want. What is the point of life if I do not have the chance to go out and try something new without the watchful eyes of people. 

Translation: My home detention has changed me radically, and has become a prisoner's solitary cell. It has destroyed my ability to communicate with humans and made me disappear from the world, making me look like I am in my nineties. My jailers don't think it's time for me to live a 'normal' life. 

Another testimony likened the feeling of home detention to being an “immobile piece of furniture in a living room”, stating that one “sees their age and youth passing while they are trapped between four walls”. 

Several tweets also noted the role the state played in supporting the patriarchal status quo:

Translation: The same family that has imprisoned me at home for 24 years is now trying to take me to the government's prison, giving me away to another set of men. Our freedom is a political matter, and if you try to take hold of it, you will face the state before your father. The state is within reach in the hands of  the abuser, and the one who heads it is a criminal himself. 

Translation: Even if you live in a separate house, you are still under the watchful eyes of the men on the street, the owners of the house and the government. 

Translation: The government itself treats women as detainees in homes, and if any woman tries to escape this detention centre, a report is submitted to return her to it. Homes are prisons for women, and are designed to make them disappear from the world. 

Saudi women's rights activists have long campaigned against the restrictive male guardianship system that "controls a woman's life from birth to death". 

According to Human Rights Watch, such laws are the country's most significant "barrier to achieving women's rights".

"It effectively relegates adult women to the status of legal minors incapable of making critical decisions for themselves." 

Despite reforms by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that have aimed to expand the participation of women in society, HRW and Saudi rights groups maintain that women's freedom remains "inadequate" and that a woman cannot be independent without her relatives "tracking her down and threatening her with placement in notorious care and hospitality homes". 

“There is deeply entrenched discrimination within the legal system, and courts recognise legal claims brought by guardians against female dependents that restrict women’s movement or enforce a guardian’s authority over them," HRW wrote in 2016.

The campaign comes on the heels of the abrupt release of two members of the Saudi royal family after nearly three years in custody. Princess Basmah and her daughter Souhoud Al Sharif were arrested in March 2019 and were being held in Riyadh's maximum-security Al Ha'ir prison.

While neither woman faced formal charges, Basmah's lawyer Henri Estramant asserted that the Princess's "outspokenness about the kingdom's treatment of women and its rigid guardianship laws", combined with her opposition to the kingdom's war in Yemen "likely prompted her arrest".

Nonetheless, the #HouseDetention campaign managed to reach beyond Saudi Arabia's borders, as Arab women across the region used the hashtag to recount their own experiences and emphasise that such cases were not limited to the kingdom.

Translation: I am a Kuwaiti woman. Despite the distances and differences in gender and race, we share the same pain and suffering and the same prisons set by the patriarchal terrorist regime.

Other tweeters used the campaign to envisage their lives if they were not facing house detention, with one stating, "If I had not been arrested, I would go out every morning when the day dawned."


If I had not been 'arrested', I would visit a new neighbourhood every day

If I had not been 'arrested', I would have a chair on my doorstep, watching the sunset and looking at those who pass by 

If I wasn't 'arrested', I'd take a picture of everything and name it.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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