Inside Saudi Arabia’s Secret Detention Centers Where Women Are Disappearing


“Every Saudi girl and woman knows Dar Al Reaya – we grew up in fear of Dar Al Reaya,” says Farida, a former detainee in her twenties, who was sentenced to two years in one of the centers notorious detention cases for women in Saudi Arabia after she filed a police complaint in February 2019 alleging physical harassment from a male family member she was living with at the time. “I remember growing up, walking past these facilities – big blocks, with shutters down on every window, just down the road from us and the malls – and thinking, Who’s inside now? How many are inside? I never thought I would be one of the girls that would end up there. Never.”

Dar Al Reaya, or “Nursing Homes”, is a network of detention centers whose official purpose is to detain women under the age of 30 who need “social correction”, “reinforcement of their religious faith” or those under investigation. or a trial, according to an official with the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, which oversees Dar Al Reaya. But former inmates say they were sent to the facilities on charges of disobedience or even because of minor disagreements at home. Other women interviewed for this story say they were held in the facilities without being charged.

Farida, whose name has been changed for her protection, is one of the few former detainees to speak out about life inside Dar Al Reaya. Those released from Dar Al Reaya say they were forced to sign pledges never to speak about their detention. Social media accounts describing myriad mistreatment and physical violence in Dar Al Reaya have been suspended and there are no statistics on the number of women and children detained. The houses are in different government buildings and are not officially marked, although some are labeled “Social Welfare Unit”. Four former detainees I spoke with said they were being held in facilities located in major cities in the Kingdom, including Riyadh, Jeddah, Tabuk, Dammam and Jazan.

“After I went to the police, desperate for help, they called my attacker… There is no one you can trust.”

Farida was released after 16 months, in mid-2020. She says most of her fellow prisoners were detained for reporting abuse to authorities. “After I went to the police, desperate for help, they called my attacker to the police station to sign a recognizance, approving my detention in Dar Al Reaya,” Farida explains. “There is no one you can trust.” Women are not allowed to leave Dar Al Reaya without the authorization of their guardian, who is often their attacker, at the end of their sentence.

Some centers even take in children, according to former detainees. A former inmate at a facility in Dammam, who did not wish to share her name for her safety, told me that she and her two-year-old daughter were detained together after reporting abuse at home. “My daughter did not receive proper meals; she only ate twice a day. She was beaten by staff for crying and made to watch when I was whipped, the woman said. After more than two months, her attacker let her go out and she returned home.

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Asma, whose name was also changed for her protection, was sentenced to 20 months after raising the subject of inheritance with her male relatives. She remembers being strip searched when she arrived. She was given a loose robe with Dar al Reaya stamped on the back. Her make-up and accessories were removed and her physical condition on arrival was noted, along with the type of abaya she was wearing: was it “decent” covering her head, or “not decent”? that is, slung over his shoulders? She was then given a package containing two sanitary napkins, a toothbrush, a small towel, shampoo and a change of clothes. Initiation is carried out by female staff, but otherwise all hall guards and guards are male.

Each woman is placed in solitary confinement upon arrival, apparently for a few days, but some are left there for up to two months. In solitary confinement, “blood tests” are carried out, the purpose of which is not explained to the women. The rooms each have a bed, a Quran and a toilet, if they are lucky. Women without a toilet have to beg male staff to let them out to use the toilet; some women report getting wet rather than facing the guards.

Women are forbidden to talk to each other or show outward signs of happiness. They receive meals twice a day at 6 a.m. and 1 p.m. Both Farida and Asma told me that women are force-fed strong sedatives with their breakfast to keep them compliant throughout the day.

When the girls arrive at the centers they are told what their punishment will be, usually between 100 and 150 lashes. The lashes are spread over their time in Dar Al Reaya, allowing the women to heal before receiving the next one. “Flogging takes place in Dar Al Reaya every Thursday, says Asma. “There are minors inside and pregnant women who are victims of rape and incest and they will also be lashes.” Additional flogging or solitary confinement for at least 20 days is administered for breaking the rules, or responding to male staff or even asking about their charges, Farida says. Each whipping is administered between the neck and the lower back, and is observed by an Islamic scholar, who ensures the “religiosity” of the violence.

Suicides and incidents of self-harm in Dar Al Reaya are common, says Farida. Failed suicide attempts lead to solitary confinement and flogging, “which undoubtedly harms girls’ mental health and could further increase suicidal thoughts,” adds Farida.

Another detention center run by the Ministry of Social Affairs called Dar Al Theyafa, or “the house of hospitality”, acts largely as a detention center for women whose guardian does not allow them freedom even after the end of his “sentence” in Dar Al Reaya. “Then the prison has the option of either marrying her off or keeping her imprisoned indefinitely,” Farida explains. “There are women who have been handed over to male suitors they have never met before, who have been told their family has approved of the marriage, and end up in an arranged marriage.”

“There is an overwhelming pattern of violence, abuse, often from within the family, manipulation of justice where men face little or no legal consequences, even in the case of murder.”

A former detainee from Dar Al Theyafa, who declined to be named, says she knew a girl who tried to hang herself with her bra on and was arrested and punished. “After that, they banned us from wearing bras for a while because the law of Dar Al Theyafa is that one person’s mistake is everyone else’s. Some girls tried to kill themselves by smashing the trash cans to get a sharp edge, so the guards also took away the trash cans.

detention centers for Saudi women
When the girls arrive at the detention centers, they are told what their punishment will be, usually between 100 and 150 lashes. The eyelashes are spread, allowing women to heal before receiving the next one.

Getty / Design by Leah Romero

Bethany Alhaidari, 34, fled Saudi Arabia for the United States in 2019 to escape abuse by her husband at the time, and in January 2020 filed an emergency case asking the state court of Washington to give her custody of her now six -year-old daughter, which was granted temporarily. Alhaidari now works as a Saudi officer with the Freedom Initiative, a DC-based nonprofit human rights organization that works to free political prisoners in the Middle East, and says the organization has received hundreds of requests for help from women in Saudi Arabia, many of whom, she says, fear being sent to Dar Al Reaya. “These women face discrimination and violence in marriage, divorce and child custody. There is an overwhelming pattern of violence, abuse, often from within the family, manipulation of justice where men face little or no legal consequences, even in cases of murder” , says Alhaidari, “such situations that are more prevalent than people realize.”

Saudi Arabia claims to modernize and improve women’s rights. But, says Alhaidari, the reality is that there are no safe spaces for Saudi women to claim basic rights. “Saudi Arabia does not provide legal aid for women to turn to when fleeing abuse or defending themselves against accusations by their family or the state,” she said, adding that no independent organization human rights or women’s rights is allowed to work in the country.

Moreover, there is no penal code or clarity on what actions are criminal for women. Courts are entitled to their own interpretations of religion, leading to inconsistencies in sentencing. Alhaidari says that in Saudi courts, women’s testimony is not considered equal to men’s and even when physical evidence of abuse is presented in court, men can often simply swear to discredit it. The system is set up to fail women, says Alhaidari. “Until the male guardianship system, which makes women perpetual minors, is abolished, until we see that men who commit violent crimes against female family members are held accountable. Until a woman’s speech is considered equal to a man’s under the law and in court, Saudi Arabia is not safe for women.

Last year, on International Women’s Day, 161 European parliamentarians signed a joint statement calling on the Saudi authorities to take swift and forceful action to improve women’s rights in the kingdom. “Women are still unable to leave detention centers or state-run shelters without having to seek and receive consent from their male guardians, who may have previously abused them,” the statement said. “This can lead to situations of prolonged administrative detention if a male guardian refuses to sign a release form or to pick up a woman under his guardianship.”

Since the release of this statement, no facility at Dar Al Reaya has been shut down. Instead, Alhaidari says, new makeshift facilities are being built to house more inmates. And as long as Dar Al Reaya exists, there will always be a place where Saudi women can disappear.


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