A 37-year-old American businesswoman and married mother of three is seeking justice after she was thrown in jail by Saudi Arabia’s religious police for sitting with a male colleague at a Starbucks coffee shop in Riyadh.
Yara, who does not want her last name published for fear of retribution, was bruised and crying when she was freed from a day in prison after she was strip-searched, threatened and forced to sign false confessions by the Kingdom’s “Mutaween” police.
Her story offers a rare first-hand glimpse of the discrimination faced by women living in Saudi Arabia. In her first interview with the foreign press, Yara told The Times that she would remain in Saudi Arabia to challenge its harsh enforcement of conservative Islam rather than return to America.
“If I want to make a difference I have to stick around. If I leave they win. I can’t just surrender to the terrorist acts of these people,” said Yara, who moved to Jeddah eight years ago with her husband, a prominent businessman.
Her ordeal began with a routine visit to the new Riyadh offices of her finance company, where she is a managing partner.
The electricity temporarily cut out, so Yara and her colleagues — who are all men — went to a nearby Starbucks to use its wireless internet.
She sat in a curtained booth with her business partner in the café’s “family” area, the only seats where men and women are allowed to mix.
For Yara, it was a matter of convenience. But in Saudi Arabia, public contact between unrelated men and women is strictly prohibited.
“Some men came up to us with very long beards and white dresses. They asked ‘Why are you here together?’. I explained about the power being out in our office. They got very angry and told me what I was doing was a great sin,” recalled Yara, who wears an abaya and headscarf, like most Saudi women.
The men were from Saudi Arabia’s Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a police force of several thousand men charged with enforcing dress codes, sex segregation and the observance of prayers.
Yara, whose parents are Jordanian and grew up in Salt Lake City, once believed that life in Saudi Arabia was becoming more liberal. But on Monday the religious police took her mobile phone, pushed her into a cab and drove her to Malaz prison in Riyadh. She was interrogated, strip-searched and forced to sign and fingerprint a series of confessions pleading guilty to her “crime”.
“They took me into a filthy bathroom, full of water and dirt. They made me take off my clothes and squat and they threw my clothes in this slush and made me put them back on,” she said. Eventually she was taken before a judge.
“He said ‘You are sinful and you are going to burn in hell’. I told him I was sorry. I was very submissive. I had given up. I felt hopeless,” she said.
Yara’s husband, Hatim, used his political contacts in Jeddah to track her whereabouts. He was able to secure her release.
“I was lucky. I met other women in that prison who don’t have the connections I did,” she said. Her story has received rare coverage in Saudi Arabia, where the press has been sharply critical of the police.
Yara was visited yesterday by officials from the American Embassy, who promised they would file a report.
An embassy official told The Times that it was being treated as “an internal Saudi matter” and refused to comment on her case.
— Saudi Arabia’s Mutaween has 10,000 members in almost 500 offices
— Ahmad al-Bluwi, 50, died in custody in 2007 in the city of Tabuk after he invited a woman outside his immediate family into his car
— In 2007 the victim of a gang rape was sentenced to 200 lashes and six years in jail for having been in an unrelated man’s car at the time. She was pardoned by King Abdullah, although he maintained the sentence had been fair