This weekend, 18-year old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was fleeing to Australia to seek asylum when she was stopped from boarding her connecting flight in Bangkok by Thai Police. Thai Police claim she did not have a proper return ticket from Australia, though she did have a 3-month tourist visa. According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi and Kuwaiti officials forcibly took her passport upon her arrival in Bangkok in an attempt to force her return to the Kingdom. Rahaf was visiting Kuwait with her family when she made her escape for Australia.
Rahaf shared a video on her Twitter account that she was trying to escape from her family because they had subjected her to physical and psychological abuse. Through her account, she appealed for help from Germany, Australia, Canada, and the US. In the video Rahaf spoke of a strict father and said they “locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair.” She tweeted that her life is in danger and that she will be killed upon her return to the family in Saudi Arabia.
Rahaf took refuge in a hotel room inside a transit zone in Bangkok airport and vowed not to leave the hotel room to prevent Thai officials from deporting her to Kuwait, and from there to Saudi Arabia. Sophie McNeill, a reporter with Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), stayed with Rahaf in her hotel room to make sure that she was safe and that her message was delivered to the world. McNeill kept a close eye on the story and continued to report the development on her Twitter account.
The increasing attention to Rahaf’s case has once again shed light on the status of women in Saudi Arabia. Women in the Kingdom are treated as second-class citizens, subject to the demands of their male relatives with nearly no recourse for abuse. The guardianship rules require women to have permission from their close male relatives to work, travel, and even visit a doctor. Because women are not allowed to travel freely in and out of the Kingdom, many are forced to flee in secret and seek asylum abroad.
In 2017, Dina Lasloom was similarly attempting to seek asylum in Australia when she was stopped at the airport in Manila. According to one account, members of her family and Saudi officials had arrived at Manilla and “reportedly tied her up with duct tape and wrapped her in a bed sheet to drag her onto a Riyadh-bound flight.” She was forced to return to her country and has not been heard from since.
The Kingdom was recently under major scrutiny from the global community over the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khoshoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia has increasingly widened the extent of torturing and harassing human rights activists, including prominent women. The Kingdom has repeatedly arrested women’s rights activists and influential intellectuals who are viewed as threatening to the Kingdom and dangerous to the policies of the country. The activists are often suspected of receiving support from foreign entities.
Media Resources: BBC News 1//19, 9/13/17; Human Rights Watch 4/14/17