Inside secretive nation’s brutal reality
A SCREAMING newborn baby girl takes a breath and opens her eyes for the first time.
She's too young to understand that because of her gender, she's already been assigned a male guardian, who she will be required to answer to for life.
All of the girl's affairs will be placed in the hands of her father, brother or, in the future, her husband or son. Her male guardian will have arbitrary authority to make personal and legal decisions on her behalf.
She won't ever be allowed to step out in public with a male who isn't a relative without risking severe consequences.
Her mind and body will never entirely be her own.
She's one of countless baby girls born in Saudi Arabia under a guardianship system which effectively renders all female citizens legal minors from birth until death.
The ultra conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive countries in the world and has long been criticised for imposing some of the toughest restrictions on women.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, marry, or exit prison.
They also regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions without a male relative, from renting an apartment to filing legal claims.
In some cases, women are also required to provide guardian consent in order to work or access healthcare.
Saudi Arabia is a place where wearing a skirt can get women arrested, jailed, tortured or even killed.
In addition to facing punishment for "moral" crimes, women can also become the target of "honour killings" at the hands of their families, according to activists.
The regime is known for making threats against family members as leverage in return for silence.
In many cases, Saudi citizens and visitors - including activists and dissidents - have disappeared without explanation.
Among the most high profile cases is that of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi who was murdered when he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. The CIA believes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman oversaw the 15-member hit team that awaited Mr Khashoggi, but he has denied any involvement in the journalist's death.
The Saudi regime's silencing of opponents has significantly increased since Crown Prince Salman came to power in 2017. No one is immune but it's women who are subjected to the toughest restrictions.
In June last year, just before the world hailed the lifting of the ban on women driving as a key sign that Bin Salman was "reforming" the kingdom, over a dozen of these activists were imprisoned. More arrests followed, including that of Samar Badawi - a recipient of the US International Women of Courage award - in early August.
Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, has this week been detained in Bangkok while trying to come to Australia in a desperate attempt to flee her family.
Ms Alqunun told AFP she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived in Suvarnabhumi airport and her passport was forcibly taken from her, a claim backed by Human Rights Watch. Ms Alqunun barricaded herself in a hotel room for two days in Suvarnabhumi airport while sending out desperate pleas for help over social media.
Ms Alqunun said her male guardian had reported her for travelling "without his permission" after she tried to flee her family, who subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.
"My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair," she said, adding that she is certain she will be imprisoned if she is sent back.
"I'm sure 100 per cent they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail," she said, adding that she was "scared" and "losing hope".
She refused to board a flight to Kuwait on Monday as directed by Thai officials, fearing she will be killed by her father and brothers because she renounced Islam.
Soon after being taken into United Nations custody, she tweeted that her father had arrived at the Bangkok airport which "scared" her, but she felt "safe" under UNHCR protection.
On Tuesday, Thai authorities confirmed she's been granted temporary entry to the country.
"As of now, she does not wish to go back and we will not force her. She won't be sent anywhere tonight," Thailand's immigration police chief, Major General Surachate Hakparn, said at a news conference at the airport where is stuck.
"She fled hardship. Thailand is a land of smiles," he said.
"We will not send anyone to die. We will not do that. We will adhere to human rights under the rule of law."
But it's happened elsewhere before.
In April 2017, Dina Ali, 24, was on her way to Australia with the intention to file an asylum claim in Sydney when she was intercepted by authorities at Manila airport in The Philippines.
Ms Ali posted a desperate video message highlighting her plight from the airport at the time.
She claimed she was being "held as a criminal", and that if she was sent back to Saudi Arabia, she would be killed.
"My name is Dina Ali, I'm a Saudi woman who fled Saudi Arabia to Australia to seek asylum," she said in the clip.
"I stopped in the Philippines … They look my passport and lock me for 13 hours just because I am a Saudi woman, with the collaboration of Saudi embassy.
"If my family come, they will kill me, if I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead."
Soon after, Saudi diplomats and family members dragged her onto a plane kicking and screaming and sent her back to Saudi Arabia. She has not been heard of since.
In July of the same year, a woman was photographed walking around a conservative Saudi village wearing a short skirt and crop top, which prompted authorities to arrest her and launch an investigation into the matter. Sharia law dictates that a woman must wear loose full length robes known as abayas plus a headscarf.
Saudi questioned the woman for a few hours and the case was then closed, the ministry said in a statement.
The woman told investigators that a film posted on social media, showing her in a miniskirt as she walked in a historic Saudi village, was published "without her knowledge".
The video, which quickly went viral, sparked a backlash in the deeply conservative kingdom with many accusing her of violating the country's strict Islamic dress code.
Saudi police said the woman was detained in the capital Riyadh for wearing "immodest clothes".
"She admitted to visiting the site in question with a male guardian, and that the viral videos were published by an account attributed to her without her knowledge," a police spokesman said.
Women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly called on politicians to abolish the male guardianship system, which the government agreed to do in 2009 and again in 2013 after its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Following both hearings, Saudi Arabia took limited steps to reform certain aspects of the guardianship system. But, these changes remain insufficient, incomplete, and ineffective; today, the guardianship system remains mostly intact, according to HRW.
In April 2016, Saudi Arabia announced Vision 2030, which declares that the government will "continue to develop (women's) talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy." But according to HRW, the government "cannot achieve this vision if it does not abolish the male guardianship system, which severely restricts women's ability to participate meaningfully in Saudi society and its economy".
In recent times the Crown Prince has eased some restrictions on women, including the lifting of a ban on women driving last year. But the changes have been limited and the country still has a long way to go.
Under a new law, which came into effect on Sunday, Saudi women will be notified by text message if they are divorced under a new law designed to protect them from having their marriage ended without their knowledge.
According to the country's government, the law was implemented to end secret divorces and ensure women are fully aware of their marital status so they can protect their rights.
"Saudi courts have started to send such (divorce) notifications … a step aimed at protecting the rights of female clients," the Saudi Ministry of Justice said in a statement on their website.
It said women could check their marital status on the ministry's website or visit the relevant court to get a copy of divorce papers.
Global rights group Equality Now's Suad Abu-Dayyeh said the new law was a positive step.
"At least women will know whether they are divorced or not. It is a tiny step, but it is a step in the right direction," she said.
- With wires