The late Saudi King Abdullah, whose death was confirmed Thursday, has been lionized by politicians around the world. En route to the World Economic Forum in Davos, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed Abdullah as "a man of wisdom and vision" and a "revered leader." Similar statements were made by other Western leaders.
Christine Lagarde, the female head of the International Monetary Fund, even hailed the monarch as "a strong advocate for women."
That last eulogy ought to furrow brows. After all, when it comes to gender rights, Saudi Arabia's absolute monarchy is one of the most heavily criticized regimes in the world. Its draconian religious laws place limitations on everything from the clothes women can wear to the means by which they travel outside their homes. Controversially, women are still banned from driving in the country.
Lagarde did qualify her comment, saying Abdullah was a reformer "in a very discreet way," credited with initiating a number of measures aimed at it giving women a bigger stake in the country's economic and political life. But the change is very gradual, stymied by traditionalists who still hold sway in the country's courts. Abdullah's reforms, writes one commentator, have "all the substance of a Potemkin village, a flimsy structure to impress foreign opinion."
Closer to home, moreover, there are a few women related to the late monarch who may object to the praise being heaped upon him. Abdullah, like other Saudi royals, had numerous wives — at least seven, and perhaps as many as 30. He had at least 15 daughters. Four of them, according to news reports, live under house arrest.
The plight of the Princesses Jawaher, Sahar, Hala, Maha attracted attention last spring, when details emerged of their supposedly dire condition living in captivity in Saudi royal compounds in the city of Jeddah. Their mother, Alanoud Al-Fayez, has lived in the United Kingdom for the past decade and a half. She was divorced by her husband multiple times, the final instance in 1985.
Fayez claims her daughters' supposed incarceration, which has gone on for some 13 years, was both a mark of Abdullah's vindictive streak and intolerance of his daughters' modern, independent upbringing. She says the four have been locked away for more than a decade, subject to abuse and deprivation.
Last year, various news stations managed to reach Sahar, 42, and Jawaher, 38, who live in a separate compound from Maha, 41, and Hala, 39. In an interview with RT last May, the pair described how they were running out of food and water.
The British TV network Channel 4 News ran this video, which included footage allegedly taken by one of the daughters that depicted the depths of their neglect at the hands of Saudi authorities.
In another interview with an Arabic channel, the princesses described how they were being punished for championing women's rights and resisting the kingdom's strict rules mandating male guardianship over women.
Speaking to the New York Post last April, their mother claimed her daughters' continued detention was "about psychological warfare and breaking them down," and that her children "are wasting away."
There are some doubts about the extent to which the women are living in genuine captivity. When confronted with the daughters' claims, Saudi authorities have been tight-lipped, insisting that the situation "is a private matter." The women have not been formally charged with any crime.
Last June, in an email exchange with a Middle East affairs news site, Princess Sahar explained why she and her sister had been ostracized by the rest of the royal family:
We, along with our mother, have always been vocal all our lives about poverty, women’s rights and other causes that are dear to our hearts. We often discussed them with our father. It did not sit well with him and his sons Mitab and AbdelAziz and their entourage. We have been the targets ever since. We have been treated abysmally all our lives, but it got worse during the past 15 years. When Hala began to work as an intern at a hospital in Riyadh, she discovered political prisoners thrown in psychiatric wards, drugged and shamed to discredit them. She complained to her superiors and got reprimanded. She began to receive threatening messages if she didn’t back off. The situation deteriorated, and we discovered that she was also being drugged. She was kidnapped from the house, left in the desert, then thrown in Olaysha’s Women’s Jail, Riyadh. She soon became yet another victim of the system, as were the so-called patients (political prisoners) she was trying to help. Maha, Jawaher and I have all been drugged at some point... We have been told to lose all hope of ever having a normal life.
Since the spasm of media stories last year, reports on the condition of the princesses have dried up. On social media, their mother continues to call for their release, using the hashtag #Freethe4. She holds regular protests in London urging action.
As news of her ex-husband's death spread around the world, Fayez issued just one short tweet on Friday, quoting a Quranic verse: "We belong to Allah, and to Him we will return."