April 9, 2008 Special Dispatch No. 1832

Saudi Businesswoman Lands in Riyadh Jail – For Having Coffee with Male Colleague at Starbucks

April 9, 2008
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 1832

In his February 5, 2008 column in the Saudi English-language daily Arab News, Saudi journalist Raid Qusti relates what happens when a woman has a cup of coffee with a male colleague at a Starbucks. [1]

Qusti has written numerous columns in favor of expanding women's rights, educational reform, and modernization, and is often critical of Islamism. [2]

The following is Qusti's column, titled "Coffee with Colleague Lands Woman in Trouble."

An Electricity Outage in the Office

"A Saudi mother of three, who works as a business partner and financial consultant for a reputable company in Jeddah, didn't expect a trip to the capital to open the company's new branch office to get her thrown behind bars by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

"Yara, a petite 40-year-old woman, was in tears yesterday after she narrated to Arab News her encounter with a commission member that ended in high drama.

"Yara, who has been married for 27 years, said she spent several hours in the women's section of Riyadh's Malaz Prison, was strip-searched, ordered to sign a confession that she was in a state of khulwa (a state of seclusion with an unrelated man) and for hours prevented from contacting her husband in Jeddah.

"Her crime? Having a cup of coffee with a colleague in a Starbucks.

"Yara said she arrived in the capital yesterday morning from Jeddah to check on the company's new office.

"'The minute I came into the office my colleagues told me that we have an issue with the electricity company and that we do not have power but that it would be back on in half an hour,' she said."

In Trouble with the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice

"As they were waiting, they decided to go to the ground floor of the building to have a cup of coffee in the family section of Starbucks. Family sections are the only places where men and women can sit together in establishments in Saudi Arabia. Officially, these sections are for families only, but in practical terms these sections - usually in international chains like Starbucks - become the only places where unrelated men and women can be comfortable that they won't be harassed by commission members.

"But yesterday Yara and her colleague found themselves in trouble with the commission. One moment they were sitting together discussing brand equity and sovereign wealth funds; the next moment she found herself in commission custody.

"Shortly after they took their coffee and Yara opened her laptop, a member of the commission approached the two and demanded the man step outside.

"Then (the commission member) came to me and said: 'You need to come with us. This man is not a relative,' she said."

"I Am the Government" - You Must Come With Us

"When she told the commission member that she wanted to contact her husband by phone, he refused.

"'I am the government,' Yara quoted him as saying. He then ordered her to come with him.

"Yara described how the commission member had to wave a taxi down to begin the hours-long process of punishing the woman for having a cup of coffee in a public place with a colleague. When she hesitated about entering the taxi, she said the commission member threatened her.

"'I am the government and you have to get in,' she said, recounting the words of the commission member.

"Inside the taxi, Yara said the commission member snatched her phone from her as she tried to call her husband. She told Arab News that even the cab driver felt uneasy but, knowing the power of the commission in Riyadh, refrained from interfering.

"Eventually the cab approached a GMC Suburban, the vehicle of choice for the commission members, parked in front of one of the commission centers. Yara pleaded with the cab driver not to leave her.

"'I was begging him to stay with me,' she said. But the taxi driver was ordered to move on and Yara found herself locked in the back of the GMC.

"Time passed, she said. Commission members came and went. She said they preached to her about the grave sin she had committed.

"'Your husband is no good,'" she said, recounting the words of the commission members. "He should not have let you do this."

"She said she was admonished for traveling alone. The commission members told her that her colleague admitted that they always went out together. (Later, she learned that her colleague, a Syrian national, was also arrested. He still remains in detention.)

"'I told (the commission member) that I am a good Muslim, a mother of three, and a God-fearing person who would never do shameful things,' she told Arab News in tears."

The Sign Said "Malaz Prison"

"Last year, the Interior Ministry issued a ruling that the commission cannot detain people and must hand them over to the police.

"Yara said that she was handed a confession.

"'He told me I needed to fingerprint this paper stating that I got my mobile phone and bag back,' she said. 'When I told him my phone was still confiscated, he threatened me: 'Just do it!'"

"She said that she fingerprinted the paper under duress.

"'I had no other choice... I was scared for my life... I was afraid that they would abuse me or do something to me,'" she said, as she broke down in tears again.

"Then another person got into the GMC and switched on the engine.

"'The next thing I saw from the window was that we were approaching a place with a sign written on the outside: Malaz Prison,' she said.

"Inside the prison, Yara recounts being taken to a cell with a one-way mirror. On the other side was a sheikh.

The Sheikh Started Writing a Report

"'I could not see him because there was a dark window,' she said, adding that each time she paused he would reprimand her, telling her what she did was wrong.' He kept on telling me this is not allowed.'

"Yara told the sheikh that her husband knew where she was and what she was doing. He then started writing a report. Another pre-written confession was fingerprinted, she said. She pleaded with prison authorities to contact her husband."

Husband Pulls Strings for Her Release

"'They would not let me contact my husband,' she said. 'I told them... please... my husband will have a heart attack if he does not know what has happened to me.'

"She was not given a phone to call her husband. She was not given access to a lawyer. 'They stripped me,' she said. 'They checked that I had nothing with me and threw me in the cell with all the others.'

Meanwhile, Yara's husband Hatim, an executive director of a prominent company, was in Jeddah when he received a phone call. 'My friend contacted me and told me that the commission had captured my wife," he said.

He booked the next flight to Riyadh and, after some strings were pulled, Yara was out of jail.

"'I look at this as if she had been kidnapped by thugs,' said Hatim. 'There's really nothing else to it... I know this has nothing to do with the country, but these [people] are thugs. Unfortunately, they told her that they are "the government" so she could not resist.'

"[Yara's] Syrian colleague was still in custody when Arab News went to press. He is a senior financial analyst, who is described by acquaintances as a devout Muslim whose mother teaches Koran recitation to children."


[1] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), February 5, 2008. The text has been lightly edited for style.

[2] For more by Qusti, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 183, "A Saudi National Dialogue on Women's Rights and Obligations," June 23, 2004, A Saudi National Dialogue on Women's Rights and Obligations ; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 720, "Recent Articles by Saudi Liberal Writer Raid Qusti on the Need to Reevaluate Saudi Education and Religious Restrictions on Saudi Women," May 21, 2004, Recent Articles by Saudi Liberal Writer Raid Qusti on the Need to Reevaluate Saudi Education and Religious Restrictions on Saudi Women ; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 665, "The Writings of Liberal Saudi Journalist Raid Qusti," February 20, 2004, The Writings of Liberal Saudi Journalist Raid Qusti ; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 505, "Saudi Press: Initial Reactions to the Riyadh Bombings," May 165, 2003, Saudi Press: Initial Reactions to the Riyadh Bombings.

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