Runaway Saudi girls on the rise

Number of young women fleeing domestic violence increased tenfold.

May 2, 2010 11:27
4 minute read.
Muslim women.

muslim women indonesia 311. (photo credit: AP [illustrative])


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The number of young Saudi women running away from their homes is on the rise, a local aid organization has claimed. The International Muslim Organization for Women and Family in Jeddah told the Saudi-based Arab News that the organization is receiving a growing number of runaway girls and young women.

“We used to receive one case a month and now we are receiving more than 10 a month,” Dr. Khalid Bahaziq, a psychologist with the organization, told the paper, adding that neither the Saudi government nor local police provide statistics on runaway girls. “We had to depend on individual cases that we have received since 2005.”

Unofficial Saudi estimates as to the number of female runaways range from 850 to 3,000 a year.

“There are some reports that about 3,000 girls or women run away from their family homes each year for various reasons,” said Dr. Khalil al-Khalil, a former Saudi parliamentarian who sat on the committee of Islamic and humanity affairs. “The Ministry of the Interior has statistics about this issue but I have never seen an official report.”

Under Saudi Arabia’s women’s guardianship laws, adult women found to have run away from their male guardians officially have two options – to go to a shelter as wards of the state or return home.

“There are so many aspects to the problem: social and economic changes, family violence, poor treatment of women, family conflict,” Dr. Khalil said. “The government has not taken the responsibility to resolve some of these critically important issues. For example, if a woman calls the police, they will not be listened to. The police will say, ‘Let me speak to your guardian,’ so someone has to call on the woman’s behalf. This is silly and easily resolved.”

Saudi women’s groups say that with few options for independent women in Saudi society, most runaway women and girls are socially stigmatized as psychologically unstable and end up on the street, often in prostitution or drug dealing.

“It’s not like women can go to university and easily find a job, it’s completely different here,” Dr. Fawzia al-Bakr, a women’s rights advocate and professor of education at King Saud University, said. “If you go out of the door, there is nowhere to go. Even if you do, there will be no future for you. In fact, just walking down the street is dangerous because it’s very rare to see women on the street. The religious police will pick up such a woman and she will be scandalized for the rest of her life.”

“So running away is very rare; and if there is a rise, it’s still limited in the bigger picture,” she said. “Most women think it over and over before making such a decision, and end up just accepting whatever situation they find themselves in.”

But Dr. Bakr said that while while running away is rare, there were small signs of change.

“Younger women see domestic violence, or even verbal violence, differently than they did a generation ago, [when they] would just accept it as part of their lives,” she said. “The new generation sees rights as more a part of their lives, and they know that there is a different kind of life, so social change is making its way.”

Rima al-Mukhtar, the Saudi journalist who broke the story, said the phenomenon of runaway women and girls points to a structural conundrum in Saudi society.

“The problem is that the psychiatrists that meet these girls never speak to the families, because the police don’t give them access,” she said. “When these girls run away, the father or husband files a missing persons report and the police just bring the girls back.”

“But avoidance is not a solution,” Mukhtar said. “These girls obviously run away for a reason, so they have to fix that problem, not just try convince them not to run away again.”

Eman al-Nafjan, a Saudi female blogger, said the rise in runaway young women appealing to nonprofit organizations did not necessarily indicate a rise in the number of young women running away.

“If there is a rise in numbers, it’s probably because women are more aware that these kinds of organizations exist. It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon,” she said. “I’ve been hearing about runaway girls for decades.”

“The problem is that when girls run away they usually go to a relative or a friend, not to an organization,” Nafjan said. “In the worst cases, girls are manipulated into leaving their houses and going with random men who end up abusing them. So it happens, but people don’t talk about it.”

If the girls run away to the hospitals, the social services try to fix whatever it is that led the girl to run away,” she said. “But it never goes beyond talk. If there is no physical abuse, the social services will never act upon anything. Even if she was forced into marriage or being psychologically abused, they still give her back.”

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