On Sunday, the story of a Saudi teen seeking asylum broke. Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun had travelled to Thailand from Kuwait, where she had been holidaying with her family. She planned her escape, by flying to Australia via Thailand and then applying for asylum from the Australian authorities. Sadly, her plan went awry when she got to Thailand. Rahaf’s travel documents, including her passport and return ticket, were seized by Saudi officials leaving her without any means to travel to on to Australia, and which saw her barricading herself in her transit hotel room until the UNHCR was able to reach her. After a worldwide appeal, which saw the hashtag #SaveRahaf trending across cyberspace, UNHCR representatives granted refugee status to Rahaf after being allowed access to her by the Thai authorities. We are still waiting to find out if Rahaf’s asylum application will be accepted once she reaches Australia.
This story marks a trend that I have been witnessing since 2016; that of young Arab women and girls increasingly trying to leave their families and homes, and seek asylum in Western countries such as France, UK and, now, Australia. Some are escaping forced marriages, others have renounced their faith and now face the death penalty – apostasy is punished by death under sharia law. Quite simply, some have had enough and just want to be free to be able to make their own decisions without family interference or falling foul of strict guardianship laws. Saudi Arabia has some of the strictest guardianship laws in the world, which rob women and girls entirely of their individual identity and freedoms. They have to seek permission for every aspect of their lives from leaving the home, always with a chaperone or guardian, to opening bank accounts and being allowed to work. Movements such as Musawah have tried to rectify and readdress the often very narrow interpretation of religious edicts set 1,400 years ago, especially around guardianship and family laws, but there is still a great deal of hard work to do in order for countries such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran and Egypt to establish true parity between the genders.
In 2016, I was approached via twitter for help in supporting a young Saudi teen who had escaped from her family while they were holidaying in Turkey, and had travelled to neighbouring Georgia. Her aim had been to travel to a Western European country and seek asylum. While I was in the process of somehow securing asylum for her in Israel, she disappeared. Her phone went dead. She was no longer contactable. I had told her not to tell me her real name in case her phone was being tapped, and now I had no way of checking where she was or what had happened to her.
Shortly after that, I was contacted by another Arab teen, this time from the UAE, who claimed she was being abused by her family. She had tried to escape before but had failed and her family were now extra vigilant, monitoring her every move, removing all her electronic devices so she could not communicate with the outside the world. The snatched conversations we had were conducted on a secret mobile phone smuggled to her by her younger sister and then hidden. She would sound upbeat and tell me about her plans to escape “once her brother travelled abroad”, or when the family visited France on holiday. Of course, nothing would ever come of the plans, which sounded more like an imprisoned person’s daydream than anything else. She was afraid of what her family were planning; “I am assuming that they are going to force me into marriage sooner or later...”“I have been threatened multiple times and my brother has checked my room five times now...” “I assume it is because of their honour and not bringing shame to family.”
Often weeks, months would go by without any communication from her. I was afraid for her, and of the route she was planning. On one of her family trips to France, she had befriended a Frenchman whom she had shared her plight with. He encouraged her to leave and promised to take care of her once she somehow managed to arrive in France. I was loathe to counsel her against the possible intentions of this man; who could have been entirely genuine, and therefore prove me as the cynic that I most definitely am, or he could be seizing this as an opportunity to exploit an already vulnerable young woman who would be entirely at his mercy once, and if, she managed to escape.
The situation with her family, especially her brother, was slowly becoming untenable; he had been threatening to beat her and chain her. As her father was a police man, she felt entirely helpless, knowing that, even if she ran away, she would be found immediately and returned to her family. She had been planning an escape during a family trip to India, but her brother had become suspicious and threatened to go with her and her sister and “wouldn’t let (us) out at all...and tie (us) up.”
We spoke as much as we could in the next few days; she begged me to meet her in India and help her escape as I was fluent in Hindi. Being of Pakistani decent, I knew I could not arrange my travel documents so quickly, which left her devastated. We did not communicate for two weeks, I had no idea where she was or what had happened to her. Then one day she sent me a text: “Hi Aisha, I have booked my ticket and my flight is in a few hours now.”
She live texted me until she reached the departure gate. She was too afraid to call in case family had discovered her flight and managed to pinpoint her location. I had advised her to destroy her sim card as soon as she boarded her flight, even though I knew I would not have any means of communicating her. I was both terrified for her, yet proud too. The wait to hear from her was unbearable.
She made contact via text a week later, once she arrived in the country she had travelled to. She had secured an appointment in September at the asylum office, and was asked to provide full details of why she was claiming asylum. I offered to travel to the country she was in and accompany her to the asylum hearing and advocate on her behalf if necessary. I next heard from her in October giving me an update about her asylum application.
Sadly, that was the last I heard from her.
Shortly afterwards, both her numbers and Skype went off. I rang and left messages but heard nothing back. To date, I have no idea where she is, what happened to her and whether she is safe or not. Because I did not get her full details, her name or her date of birth or any other information, I have no way of finding out what has happened to her.
Over the past couple of years, I have spoken with journalist friends to see if we could write about the phenomena but Saudi, the UAE and other Arab countries seem to have been given a pass by Western democracies where human rights abuses, especially against women, were concerned.
However, high profile cases such as Princess Latifa’s or well publicised atrocities such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi seem to have lifted the enforced veils from the eyes of many.
The tide seems to be turning. I hope many powerful people across the Arab world are starting to realise they can’t hide behind their power much longer.