An eighteen-year-old Saudi Arabian woman locks herself in a hotel room in a foreign country. She fears for her life, after fleeing to Bangkok from a family holiday in Kuwait.
She shares her ordeal in real-time over Twitter, demanding access to the UN and pleading with the outside world for support. Her passport has been taken. Her family is abusive, she says, and she is at risk of being killed for renouncing Islam if she is forced to return to Saudi Arabia.
Her tweets go viral. The broader media gets involved. The woman’s plight becomes a major talking point all over the world. We see her face, hear and read her words.
And what happened next may have saved her life.
استناداً إلى اتفاقية 1951 وبروتوكول عام 1967 ، أنا رهف محمد ، أطلب رسمياً من الأمم المتحده تمنحني وضع لاجئ لأي دولة تحميني من التعرض للضرر أو القتل بسبب ترك الدين والتعذيب من عائلتي. https://t.co/dym3rDB1jz
— Rahaf Mohammed رهف محمد (@rahaf84427714) January 6, 2019
Rahaf Mohammed – who dropped her surname after being publicly disowned by her family for running away – now has a new home in Canada after being granted asylum, but Egyptian feminist and activist, Mona Eltahawy says Mohammed’s actions will be a catalyst for change back home:
“Rahaf Alqunun, mark my words, is going to start a revolution in Saudi Arabia. Go on social media now and watch the accounts of so many young Saudis saying ‘Rahaf, you’ve shown us that we can do this!’,” she shared in a video posted on Twitter.
A dark past
Saudi Arabia has a notoriously bad human rights record, the most well-known recent example being the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, whose death has been linked to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman by the CIA.
Less publicly, however, women have continued to be the victims of a profoundly patriarchal regime, from strict laws that restrict their autonomy, to jailing or killing women that break the rules. Guardianship laws and customs entitle male relatives to control a woman’s life, in which she requires permission to receive an education, get a passport, travel, seek employment or rent property. These guardianship laws were cited by Mohammed as her primary reason for seeking asylum.
While there has been some headway for women’s rights in recent years, it has been at the cost of many women’s personal freedoms, while countless others have paid with their lives.
When the Saudi government announced that a 61-year ban on women driving would be lifted in June 2018, several well-known activists were jailed in the lead up for their role in the Women2Drive campaign that launched in 2011.
In 2015, women were given the right to vote and run for local council but were still so hamstrung by guardianship laws they could not open a bank account without permission.
For every Saudi woman who is granted asylum, there are numerous more who are unsuccessful in their attempts to flee. Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman who made it as far as Manila en route to Australia to seek asylum, was forcibly returned home by two of her uncles in April 2017. She has not been heard from since, but is believed to have been moved from a women’s detention to a shelter back in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi embassy in the Philippines dismissed Lasloom’s case as a ‘family matter’. It was the same kind of rhetoric employed by the Saudi government and their embassy in Thailand that nearly cost Mohammed her bid for freedom.
‘There is No Honour in Killing’
Mohammed’s fear of being murdered by her family as retribution for fleeing and renouncing Islam is perhaps telling of a more widespread issue, where women are at risk of being killed by their own families for disobeying guardianship laws.
While little is known about the scale of honour killings in Saudi Arabia, the practice is believed to have a long history in parts of Asia and the Middle East. Two sisters were shot and killed by their brother after being released from a women’s shelter where they were detained for ‘allegedly mixing with unrelated men’. Another woman was killed by her father for exchanging messages with an unrelated man on Facebook.
What Can be Done?
In Saudi Arabia, as Mona Eltahawy says, the patriarchal roots run so deep that women are ‘infantilized beyond belief’. For those who flee to seek asylum, it is a dangerous road and there is a grave risk of being returned and imprisoned or killed.
Here in Australia, we must demand that our government take more swift and humane action for all the refugees who make it to our shores after fleeing violence and other atrocities. Human Rights Watch Australia was rightfully critical of Peter Dutton’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards processing Mohammed’s asylum claim ‘the usual way’.
Human Rights Watch encourages people to take action on human rights violations around the world by sharing information and lobbying on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp or email. You can ‘act now’ to end Saudi Arabian guardianship laws here.
Meanwhile, in her first public statement since arriving in Canada, Mohammed has promised to work for the freedom of women all over the world. “The same freedom I experienced from the day I arrived in Canada.”