Selling out Saudi women is an old-established tradition. The day Ms. Lasloom landed in Riyadh, the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, also arrived in the Saudi capital for an official visit. Was the calculation that simple to make? Apparently so, since the freedom from abuse of one Saudi woman was worth sacrificing to curry favor with a country where 760,000 Filipinos work. Indeed, Saudi Arabia — the second-largest foreign employer of Filipinos — told Mr. Duterte it needed more Filipino workers.
“As Saudi women, we are unfortunate enough to have rich and well-connected abusers in this corrupt world,” the lawyer and activist Moudi al-Johani told me. “The patriarchal and extreme Saudi mentality views women as property which belongs to the state and the family.”
Within days of Ms. Lasloom’s coerced repatriation, another Saudi woman tried to escape an abusive family, this time within Saudi Arabia. Maryam Al-Otaibi managed to flee Qassim Province and hide in Riyadh, but the authorities arrested her and sent her back home, where she was then imprisoned. Ms. Al-Otaibi had tried to report her abusive brother to the police last year, but her family countered with a complaint of disobedience, an offense for women under Saudi law, for which she was briefly jailed and then returned to her family.
Last week, Saudi activists circulated on social media a video of two young women, identified only as Ashwaq and Areej, apparently sisters, who said they were in Turkey and were in danger of being repatriated to Saudi Arabia, where they claimed they would face violence. Thanks to cases like theirs, a social media campaign by Saudi women with the hashtag #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen has gone viral.
I recently met Ms. al-Johani, the lawyer, and another Saudi woman, Danah, in New York. They are the “lucky” ones who got away from abusive families. Ms. al-Johani said her family kept her locked up for eight months when she made a visit home during her studies in America. She has begun an application for asylum in the United States. Danah has decided to try to stay in the United States, too. One Saudi sociologist estimates that more than 1,000 women flee the kingdom every year, while more escape Riyadh for Jidda, the Red Sea city, which is considered more liberal than the capital.
I was 15 when my family moved to Jidda from Britain in 1982. Living in Saudi Arabia was such a shock to my system that I like to say I was traumatized into feminism. The kingdom enforces a pervasive segregation of the sexes. It is the only country in the world that upholds a ban on women’s driving. And the country’s male guardianship system renders women perpetual minors, who need permission from a father, brother or even a son to travel, study, marry or gain access to government services. (A recent government order promises to relax such rules, but whether it is enforced effectively remains to be seen.)
It is impossible to convey the lived reality of what is essentially gender apartheid. When I first read Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it was Saudi Arabia as I knew it that came to mind, not a dystopian future United States as in the new television adaptation. The Saudi-American poet Majda Gama told me she was unable to sleep after watching the main protagonist, Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, in the opening episodes.
“It raised thoughts I literally never tell my Caucasian friends because they wouldn’t understand,” she said, “because what Offred lived as some cautionary tale felt very much like my lived reality. One woman’s dystopia is another woman’s reality.”
Ms. Atwood has famously said all the horrors she included in her 1985 book have actually happened in one place and at one time or another. As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, many of them continue to happen. There is Offred being dragged back to the re-education center after she tried to escape with her friend, Moira. Here is Ms. Lasloom dragged onto a plane to Riyadh and into detention, where, activists say, only government officials and family members can contact her.
“Most young Saudi women who are imprisoned there,” explained Hala al-Dosari, a women’s-rights campaigner, “are sentenced for morality-related charges such as being caught in the company of an unrelated male, being accused of running away from home by a male relative or being disobedient to parents.” The latter, she said, is treated as “a crime calling for immediate detention in Saudi Arabia.”
Ms. al-Dosari published a petition, which more than 14,000 Saudi women signed last year, calling on King Salman to abolish the guardianship system completely.
“Most horrific is that once a woman is locked in any state institution,” she said, “she won’t be released unless into the custody of a male relative or else she will stay in the prison or state shelter forever.”
The system has deep historical roots in the kingdom. “My grandmother’s income was controlled, invested and portioned out to her by her sons,” Ms. Gama, the poet, said. “All very creepy and disturbing when you see the Caucasian Offred experience laws that reduce her to the kept property of her sympathetic and kind husband.
“Luckily, my father was a sympathetic and kind guardian as Offred’s husband proves to be,” she recalled, “but all the kindness and laughter in the world cannot erase the fact this system is routinely abused.”
Saudi Arabia isn’t just a conservative country with different values we shouldn’t judge. It is a modern Gilead.