Monday 26 January 2015

Princesses in the tower

When I was about 11 years old, I wrote a story about an Arab princess who escaped her home country by driving over the border to a new life. My family was living in the Middle East at the time and as a child I watched the local women, wrapped in their black abayas, with growing fascination. They would waft about Abu Dhabi's shopping malls with haughty disdain, leaving a cloud of perfume in their wake. Perhaps it was just my Western sensibilities, but I liked to imagine that one or two of them were desperate to break free from the swathes of black material.

A fort in Oman
New frontiers for women of the Middle East?
With the death last week of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, stories are re-emerging of real Saudi princesses locked up in palaces, unable to enjoy a normal life. According to various reports, Princesses Sahar and Jawaher have been held under house arrest in Jeddah for the last 10 years by their father, the late king. Their sisters Maha and Hala are also believed to be held at separate complexes nearby. 

The apparent crime of these young women was to speak out about human rights abuses and restrictions placed upon women in the secretive kingdom. Last March, Princess Sahar reportedly told Channel 4 News in an email, "We suffer on a daily basis... Our father said that we had no way out and that after his death our brothers will continue detaining us." The women claim that they have been starved and drugged by the regime. Princess Sahar's mother, a former wife of King Abdullah who fled to London, is campaigning for their release.

Back in 2002, when I was working for BBC News Online, I wrote a positive piece about opportunities opening up for women in the Arab world. "Now it is very politically correct to address women's issues," the chair of the Arab International Women's Forum in London, Haifa Fahoum Al Kaylani, told me at the time. "It is like a competition between Arab governments to encourage women to enter business and the political process."

I am not sure such optimism has been borne out. At the end of last year two women, Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi, were detained after driving over the Saudi border from the UAE to defy a ban on female drivers in the kingdom. As Saudi women are wholly reliant upon male relatives to go out, the ban in effect gives men complete control over their women's lives. The BBC reported in December that the cases of Hathloul and Amoudi were being transferred to a court in Riyadh set up to deal with terrorist offences. Sources close to the two women said they were being charged for comments made on social media, rather than the driving stunt itself.

As leaders around the world paid tribute to King Abdullah last week, the former Conservative MP, Louise Mensch, exploded with indignation on Twitter.

However economically reliant we are upon Saudi's oil reserves, there is something repugnant about having to pay lip service to a country that treats its women so poorly. The princess in my story found her freedom. Will the women of Saudi ever enjoy the civil liberties that we in the West take for granted? At the moment, with a new conservative king in charge, such a prospect feels like fantasy.


La Prisonniere by Malika Oufkir and Michele Fitoussi
In this true story, Malika was a prisoner for 20 years after her father, a Moroccan general, fell out of favour with the king. She went from living at the royal court as a companion to the king's daughter to incarceration with her family in a desert jail.

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