WHEN Saudi women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif was taken to a women’s prison in Saudi Arabia, the prisoners inside crowded around her in shock. They were not surprised to see a woman there; after all, the prison was for women. They were, however, shocked to see a Saudi woman there. By the rights activist’s account, there were very few, only eight or nine of them, in the facility.
The rest of course were the women who are thrown into Saudi prisons all the time — the Indians, Sri Lankans, Filipinas, all the lesser women who can, often just on the basis of a mere accusation, find themselves in prison for long periods of time. Sometimes they languish there for months and years before their families even find out where they are.
That was 2011 and Al Sharif, an employee of Aramco, had defied Saudi authorities by driving a car on the streets of the kingdom. In the middle of the night that followed, a horde of annoyed Saudi secret police showed up at her doorstep at the apartment she inhabited inside the Aramco compound.