An 18-year-old Saudi woman seeks international asylum to escape the harsh laws concerning women in her country
On January 7, the news came out in the media all around the world: Rahaf al-Qunun, an 18-year-old Saudi girl, had locked herself in a Bangkok (Thailand) hotel room to avoid being deported to her country.
Rahaf had travelled to Thailand to get to Australia, where she intended to seek asylum from the government. The young woman wanted to escape from her family, who made her wear a hijab and tried to force her into an arranged marriage.
“They won’t let me drive or travel. I’m oppressed. I love life and work and I am very ambitious, but my family stops me from living,” Rahaf told Reuters, an international news agency.
However, upon arrival at the Bangkok airport, the Saudi Arabian government had already alerted the Thai police to arrest Rahaf and put her on a plane back to her country.
It was then that she locked herself in the hotel room where she was being detained and began to tell her story through social networks.
Rahaf’s video went viral. With the hashtag #SaveRahaf, thousands of internet users asked international organisations to intervene and stop Rahaf from being taken back to Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, Rahaf received many threats through social networks, so she ended up closing her Twitter account.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) intervened to guarantee her safety and prevent her from being forced to return to Saudi Arabia, where her life would be in danger.
Rafah se reunió con #ACNUR huyó por maltrato, de un matrimonio
Está en calidad de refugiada, están estudiando las razones por las que huyó y si puede continuar viajando, es posible que mañana confirmen el asilo en Australia#SaveRafah pic.twitter.com/taeYhvViN1
— Letra Escarlata✍ TD (@letra_escarlata) January 10, 2019
Finally, Canada granted the young woman asylum.
Women without rights
In Saudi Arabia, women are subject to male guardianship and need the permission of a man (father, husband or brother) to drive, travel abroad or study at a university, for example.
Saudi laws are governed by a very strict interpretation of ‘Sharia’, or Islamic law, which stops women from being independent and making their own decisions. Therefore, if she returned to her country, Rahaf could be tried and condemned for disobeying the laws.
Many girls and women try to escape from Saudi Arabia and the control of their families, but only a few cases come to light. And they do not always get international help.
In April 2017, another 24-year-old Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, flew from Kuwait to the Philippines on her way to Australia. Her family managed to get to the Manila airport before she could catch the connecting flight: Dina was taken back to Saudi Arabia and has never again appeared in public.
Saudi Arabia is a country that is very rich in oil, which translates into great influence in global politics. Through economic and commercial agreements, Saudi leaders get the support of other countries and prevent cases like this one from spreading internationally.
Rahaf’s story serves to give visibility to the situation of women in Saudi Arabia and other places where women have fewer rights than men.