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Saudi women tracked after flight of suspected convert to Christianity

Country/Region: Saudi Arabia, Middle East and North Africa

Saudi Arabia has introduced a tracking system that monitors any cross-border movements by female citizens following the case of a woman who apparently converted to Christianity and fled the country.

Women face many restrictions in Saudi Arabia
Women face many restrictions
in Saudi Arabia
Retlaw Snellac / CC BY 2.0

The measure, which uses SMS technology, came into force last week. It alerts a woman’s male guardian (father, husband, or other male relative) by text message when she leaves the country, even if they are travelling together.

In the ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, women are not permitted to leave the country without the permission of their male guardian, who must sign a consent form at the airport or border.

The latest move to further restrict their freedom was condemned by Saudi writer Badriya al-Bishr, who said that women are held under a “state of slavery” in the kingdom.

It has been reported by Saudi media that the introduction of the tracking system was triggered by the escape earlier this year of a woman from Al-Khobar who had apparently converted to Christianity.  

Two male colleagues have been accused of helping the woman, who went to Lebanon and is now in Sweden. Her expatriate Lebanese boss, Henna Sarkees (51), a Christian, has been charged with abusing his position to coerce her to convert, and an un-named Saudi national has been charged with helping her to leave the country.

They were due to stand trial in September, but the case has been repeatedly deferred.

It has also been alleged that an official from the passport office in Al-Kharj was complicit in her escape by providing falsified authorisation for travel.

The woman’s family have been trying to secure her return to Saudi Arabia; the Saudi Embassy in Sweden has been asked to find a diplomatic means of repatriating her.

But she may face serious repercussions: conversion to Christianity is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, where an extreme and puritanical version of Islam, Wahhabism, is strictly enforced.

Women are severely restricted: they are obliged to wear the full veil, cannot leave their homes without a male companion and are not allowed to drive.

There has been some reform; King Faysal introduced compulsory education for girls in the 1960s, and today female graduates outnumber their male counterparts. But unemployment among women is high, exceeding 30%.

In October, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote in the 2015 municipal elections and reduced the powers of the religious police, who enforce compliance with sharia. 

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