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Tired of social, legal constraints, Saudi women find ways to flee

UNHCR representative Giuseppe De Vincentiis (left) at the hotel in Thailand where Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun had barricaded herself
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As desperate as she was to leave, however, the same question always stopped her short: How would she get out?

If she ran away anywhere within the country, the Saudi police would just send her home, she feared. Saudi law barred her from travelling abroad without her father’s permission.

But during a family vacation in Turkey when she was 17, Shahad al-Muhaimeed saw her chance, and bolted. While her family slept, she took a taxi across the border to Georgia and declared herself a refugee, leaving Saudi Arabia behind to start a new life.

“I now live the way I want to,” said Muhaimeed, 19, by phone from her new home in Sweden. “I live in a good place that has women’s rights.”

World attention was drawn to the status of Saudi women after another teenager, Rahaf Alqunun, was stopped in Thailand last week while trying to make it to Australia to seek refuge there. After an international social media campaign, the United Nations declared her a refugee on Wednesday. She left Thailand on Friday and was flying to Canada, where officials said she had been granted asylum. The phenomenon of women trying to flee Saudi Arabia is not new, coming to the world’s attention as early as the 1970s, when a Saudi princess was caught trying to flee the kingdom with her lover. The couple were tried for adultery and executed.

But the number of young women considering and taking the enormous risk to flee Saudi Arabia appears to have grown in recent years, rights groups say, as women frustrated by social and legal constraints at home turn to social media to help plan, and sometimes document, their efforts to escape. “All these women who 15 years ago would have never been heard from can now find a way to reach out,” said Adam Coogle, who monitors Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch.

Some who dare to leave slip out quietly, travelling to the United States or elsewhere before applying for asylum — which is never a sure thing. Since being stopped in Turkey in 2017, two sisters, Ashwaq and Areej Hamoud, 31 and 29 respectively, have been fighting a deportation order in court, saying they fear for their lives if they return to Saudi Arabia.

For other women, like Alqunun, publicity played a key role in their successful escapes, but even global attention does not guarantee that a woman will not be repatriated. In 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, begged for help in a widely viewed online video after she was stopped while transiting in the Philippines. She was held at the airport until family members arrived and took her back to Saudi Arabia, where it is unclear what happened to her.

The women who make it out must contend not only with their families’ efforts to force them home, but also with the Saudi government’s extensive and well-financed efforts to do so, often involving local diplomats pressing for repatriation. Women who are repatriated can face criminal charges of parental disobedience or harming the kingdom’s reputation.

“As Saudi women, we are still treated as property that belongs to the state,” said Moudi Aljohani, who moved to the United States as a student and has applied for asylum. “It doesn’t matter if the woman has any political views or not. They are going to go after her and forcibly return her.”

The ways women choose to flee vary, but interviews with five who succeeded showed common themes. Many had discussed their plans in private chat groups with other women who had already fled or were also considering it.

A few months before Alqunun left her family during a trip to Kuwait, for instance, a friend of hers had fled and reached Australia as a refugee and was giving her advice about escaping.

Many fled from Turkey, a popular Saudi vacation spot, to Georgia, which Saudis can enter without a visa. And many aimed for Australia because they could apply for visas online, the only option for women who could not get to a foreign embassy.

Some said they had fled because of abuse by male relatives and because they felt that the kingdom offered nowhere to turn for protection or justice.

Others wanted out of the kingdom’s strict, Islamic social codes, which limit what women can wear, which jobs they can pursue and with whom they can socialise. And all spoke of wanting to escape the kingdom’s male guardianship laws, which give men great power over the lives of female relatives.

“It is male guardianship that made us flee from Saudi Arabia,” said Muhaimeed, in Sweden. “That is the biggest reason that the girls flee.”

In Saudi Arabia, all women are required to have a male guardian, whose permission they need to get married, travel and undergo some medical procedures.

©2019 The New York Times News Service

Source: Business Standard