Zahrah got out one of her many keys, walked to the door of one cell, and opened the lock. She pulled the bars behind me, and that was it. The women inside crowded around, speaking in broken Arabic. “You’re Saudi? You’re Saudi?” they asked. They were mostly housemaids and domestic workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, Somalia, and India. They were all speaking over each other. It was like being in an aviary with flocks of every type of bird, screeching and calling and beating their wings. Out of 168 inmates in the prison, only seven were Saudi, and four of these were not even prisoners, they were merely in temporary detention. There is no detention center for women, so the authorities jail them instead.
A women in a black hijab made her way toward me. She was dressed the way many Saudi women do inside their houses, and when she spoke to me, it was with a Saudi accent. “Come with me,” she said, taking my hand. We walked to a room with twelve bunk beds and white fluorescent lights flickering from the ceiling. Ropes, sagging with clothes, were strung all around. It felt like standing in a closet. The walls were covered in plastic bags, filled with partly eaten bread, plastic spoons, and more clothes. Still more clothes were stuffed under the beds. The beds themselves were draped in fabric, like a curtain, because that was the only way to sleep: no one ever turned off the harsh, faintly buzzing lights overhead. Their tubes glowed day and night. There was only one tiny window at the top of the room, closed off with tight iron bars so that only the littlest bit of light and no fresh air drifted in. The room smelled damp, like a carpet that has been flooded with water; like food; like diapers, because there was a newborn baby; like hair oil and creams; like sweat, days of sweat that had not been scrubbed off in a long time.
Manal al-Sharif will be appearing in Fighting for the Future of Saudi Women and Smashing the Patriarchy: A Practical Guide.