Babies born out of wedlock are abandoned on the streets in Saudi Arabia as women fear retribution and punishment for having a child outside of marriage, campaigners have warned.
Abortion is illegal in the Middle Eastern country unless a woman’s health is at risk and sexual relations outside of marriage are criminalised – with unmarried women faced with prosecution and even jail if they are found to be pregnant.
Under the kingdom’s restrictive guardianship system, women are legal minors and cannot marry, divorce, travel, get a job, be released from prison or have elective surgery without permission from their male guardians. Women are also forbidden from mixing freely with members of the opposite sex.
Dana Almayouf, a Saudi woman living in New York, said: “Babies are abandoned on the streets. It is not safe on the streets. Mostly our newspapers in Saudi Arabia do not shed light on the subject because it is a taboo.
“Even with premarital sex, they get rid of the baby by putting them on the street,” she claimed.
“No matter how open minded your family is, you can’t keep the baby if you are not married.
“Sometimes they kill the girl if she has been raped – if your family is crazy conservative they will kill their own relatives. On the other hand, the men can have as much sex as they want as long as they do not speak about it.
Women in Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty’s latest human rights report, face “systematic discrimination in law and practice and were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence.”
“Families often blame the girl if her father or brother raped her,” said Ms Almayouf. “It would be her own fault. The woman gets the blame most of the time. If you are raped they look for the reason you got raped. But it is taboo to talk about rape.”
Ms Almayouf, who left Saudi Arabia in 2012, said she was too scared to return. She has renounced Islam which is punishable by death under the Saudi system of Islamic law.
She said sometimes people place infants outside of mosques, orphanages or hospitals due to not being able to hand them in themselves due to fear of other people asking about where the baby came from. But she said that in some cases nobody takes the baby.
Ms Almayouf, who is a photographer, said occasionally Saudi women find furtive ways to illegally have abortions but this is generally only accessible to those who are rich or well-connected.
“Some of the families who abandon the baby kill the girl and tell everyone she killed herself,” she added. “Or they will lock her in the house because they are never going to trust her anymore. She is basically in prison in the home. It is rare cases when they would not be killed or locked inside.”
Ms Almayouf, who has recently been granted a work permit by the US government but is applying for US citizenship, said that women who get pregnant outside of marriage will likely be forced to give birth inside the house because it is illegal to go to hospital to give birth to a baby who is being born outside of wedlock.
Campaigners argue Saudi Arabia profoundly discriminates against women – with women’s marital rights being effectively non-existent and marital rape not explicitly defined as a crime.
The guardianship system makes it almost impossible for victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse to seek justice or protection because the police often insist that women and girls obtain their guardian’s authorisation to file complaints even if the complaint concerns the guardian.
Saudi Arabia imposes a very strict interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism.
Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “It is a widely known issue that babies are left on the street. It is a crime to have children outside of wedlock. If you have managed to escape the authorities noticing you are pregnant, women may choose to abandon babies to avoid crime and punishment, and the stigma and shame of being excluded from their families.
“The sad thing is the babies would not have been abandoned if it had not been a crime. Having these laws is allowing for people to abandon babies. You have got a situation where they prosecute them for having the babies and then vilify them for abandoning them.”
Ms Begum, who specialises in the Middle East and North Africa and has extensive research on Saudi Arabia in particular, noted some babies are not abandoned and will end up in orphanages, adding that there are some charities who look after abandoned children.
The campaigner noted that even though sexual relations outside of marriage are criminalised for men and women, the crime disproportionately applies to women because they are the ones who become pregnant so display visible evidence of the crime. She also argued moral standards of behaviour are more readily applied to women than men and that women are more likely to be deemed to be transgressing them.
Women in the country find themselves in prison for having sex outside of marriage, she added.
“If you are pregnant you could end up in prison regardless of whether it was rape,” she said. “You can be sentenced while pregnant and detained in prison during your pregnancy but you will only be subject to lashes after you have your baby.”
“You can say ‘I was raped by a person driving that car’ and they can say ‘Why were you in that car and why did you voluntarily enter a place with a man who is not related to you or is your husband?”
Saudi women and migrant domestic workers who report abuse, including rape, sometimes face counter-accusations, leaving them open to criminal prosecution, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Women may be charged with moral crimes, like khilwa (which means mixing with unrelated members of the opposite sex) or with fleeing from their homes.
Ms Begum said it is possible to get an abortion in the country if you have the “right connections” – noting that “backstreet abortions happen like in any country where abortion is criminalised”.
The male guardianship system is another factor which prevents women from being able to travel abroad for an abortion as their male guardian may not allow them to go.
A spokesperson for UK abortion provider Marie Stopes said: “We had a woman come over from Saudi Arabia who was pregnant out of wedlock. She was 20 and she said her family would kill her if they found out she was pregnant. She managed to get on a plane to visit friends here. We booked her an appointment that suited her travel plans.”
Saudi Arabia has faced extensive scrutiny and criticism over its human rights record in the wake of its detainment of women’s rights activists. It has also been criticised for its role in the war in Yemen and over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October.
A representative for the Saudi government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.