The vast majority of Saudi women wear a long abaya with a head covering or face veil. Rafaa Al-Yami, 40, a mother of four, has broken that pattern.
Rafa Al Yami liked to wear tight yoga pants and a short-sleeved shirt accentuating her tattooed arms. The loose hair was dyed in shades of blue and green. In addition, the elevation of Yami was absolute. She left the southern port city of Jizan, heading to the more cosmopolitan Jeddah, a city known for its liberal stance.
Yami’s boldness and personal style drew followers to her Instagram and Snapchat accounts, as she guided her Saudi sisters on effective fitness exercises whose training advice quickly became popular.
But if Al-Yami is valued among Saudi women, she has met even greater opposition among those who should be closer to her: her family. They believed that it harms the family’s honor with their “released” life.
At the end of February this year, the 40-year-old was kidnapped by her four brothers against her will. Rumors spread on social media of her murder.
A few weeks later, however, a local newspaper close to the regime announced that Rafaa al-Yami had been transferred to a “nursing home.” The “home” is actually a prison-like institution called the Care Home, a place where “rebellious” girls and women are imprisoned.
Rifaa Al-Yami is a victim To the guardianship system in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A series of separate laws that collectively mean that Saudi women are equal to minor children. A woman cannot decide her own affairs, as a male guardian does.
As a rule, it concerns the woman’s father or husband. But it could also be an older brother, a cousin, or even a woman’s son.
The guardian, with the support of the law, can restrict and control a woman’s freedom of movement. If he says she is not allowed to go out, drive, travel, continue her studies, work, marry, own a cell phone, or talk and hang out with friends, then she must obey. If a woman opposes the decision, her guardian has the right to “discipline her.”
If the woman ran away from the house It became a police issue. Then the authorities intervene. Either the woman is brought home, or taken to the kind of “elderly home” that Rafaa Al Yami ended up with.
Saudi Arabia follows the religious thought of Wahhabism, which is the strictest interpretation of Islam. Something that of course affects a woman’s outlook.
DN has been in touch with 23-year-old Amjad Al-Qahtani, a young Saudi woman who talks about her experience with guardianship.
“My life is boring and bleak.” “They (men) are controlling us. We feel suffocated all the time,” she writes over a coded conversation.
It is an image like It contradicts the image that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “MBS”, wants to give to his country.
In 2017, when the 32-year-old bin Salman was appointed crown prince, he also assumed executive power in Saudi Arabia from his elderly father, King Salman.
Mohammed bin Salman implemented some reforms directed at women. The morality police, which had previously been able to reprimand women for wearing “inappropriate” clothing, had been granted limited powers. And in the summer of 2018, Saudi women were finally granted the right to drive. In addition, they can apply for a passport and travel without the company of males. Women also had access, under certain conditions, to sports grounds, concert halls, and cinemas.
These changes were Which has received international resonance and which Mohammed bin Salman loved to see was reported by foreign media. But there were also many areas where reforms had failed.
For example, the crown prince has made it clear that he does not want to change the guardianship system so that it disturbs “conservative families who want absolute power over their women.” No, Mohammed bin Salman did not want to “create problems in families who do not want to give their daughters freedom.”
That’s why the crown prince did They were chosen to keep laws enabling male family members to prevent women from taking advantage of new opportunities. Yes, women can be forcibly stopped if needed. Guardians have the support of the law.
The change that has occurred in the status of women in Saudi Arabia is important, but reforms have been implemented in a distorted manner and are still incomplete. Women’s rights activist Hala Al-Dossary, who in 2018 received an award from Human Rights Watch for her work on behalf of Saudi women, says that all the rights women have obtained are still subject to the abuse of their male guardians.
Hala Al-Dossary is now in exile in the USA and arrives at DN at her home in Boston.
The situation in Saudi Arabia is not much different from what it was before the state abolished the morality police. The difference is that it is now families that persecute women, rather than religious leaders and authorities. In most of these cases, the killers or perpetrators are pardoned by the courts.
DN sought actors For various ministries in Saudi Arabia to comment on the guardianship system’s view. The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Stockholm does not want questions answered.
A digital campaign to abolish the guardianship system was launched in Saudi Arabia a little over a year ago. One of the campaigners is 46-year-old Hanan Sahili. She has personally been hit hard by the guardianship, both in the parental home and in the three marriages she has lived in. It is absolute today.
Hanan Sahili tells DN about a Saudi friend who, after the death of her father, appointed her uncle as regent. He accused her of not being financially responsible to gain access to her inheritance. The woman was transferred to a “nursing home”. Not even her mother was able to free her, because her uncle was her guardian.
– They punish the victim and strengthen the criminal’s power, according to Hanan Sahili.
Several weeks later Riffa Al-Yami disappeared, she suddenly appeared in a video showing her usual exercises. She says in the movie that she is fine.
But this contrasts with images that show a woman with a blank look and who seems to have her thoughts elsewhere.
When she has to perform one of the most common movements – raising her arms up to show strength – strong marks appear on her forearms and wrist, such as burns or tightly clenched ropes.
Before the kidnapping, Riffa Al-Yami appeared in a video, quoting influencer Ashley Mayfield: “A strong woman never gives up (…) and always comes back stronger.”
The question is whether Riffa Al-Yami’s strength can help her come back.