2019 saw the high profile case of Rahaf Mohammed's escape from her repressive home state of Saudi Arabia highlighting the new phenomenon of Saudi women fleeing the country in vast numbers. Around 1,000 women flee the country every year in order to gain autonomy over their minds and bodies. A right that sometimes in the West we forget the privilege we have. These escapes are not new, they have been occurring for numerous years, but it is through the power of social media that they are becoming publicised and reaching Western news outlets.
Rahaf Mohammed's escape was the famous case of 2019, which brought global attention to the repressive, patriarchal society that exists in Saudi Arabia. A place where women have to gain consent to simply leave the house. Under the male guardianship system, approval from a male guardian is needed to travel outside the country, to study abroad on a government scholarship and even to get married. Mohammed faced familial abuse from her mother and brother who supported the restrictive laws against women in their country. She told reporters that she was locked up for six months for simply cutting her hair because in Islam it is forbidden for a woman to dress like a man. After removing the niqab, which she was forced to wear, she was beaten and locked up again.
At eighteen years old Rahaf took the bold decision to escape the abuse from her family, which was supported by the regime of her homeland. Whilst on a trip to Kuwait with her family she took a flight to Bangkok on January 5th with the intention to make her way to Australia, as she had already obtained a visa. Unfortunately, a Saudi diplomat seized her passport when she got off the flight, leaving her stranded in Bangkok. Mohammed barricaded herself in a hotel room for six days, where she pleaded for help on Twitter, and through this, her case was taken on by Human Rights Watch and various journalists. While she was in Thailand, she renounced Islam, a decision which is punishable by death in the country. Luckily, she managed to gain asylum in Canada, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing that his country would accept her as a refugee. Now, Mohammed is safely living in Canada with the freedom to think and decide for herself, to gain an education and career of her choosing and marry if and when she chooses to do so. Rights she previously did not have living in the Saudi state.
The Saudi government responded to her case by accusing countries of inciting 'Saudi female delinquents' to rebel against their family values and seek asylum, in a statement made by the Saudi government-funded National Society for Human Rights. Calling the actions political, not humanitarian. The problem with the use of 'their family values,' is that they were not the values Rahaf believed in nor wanted for herself, and what can be derived from that is a free-thinking woman, a woman's right to choose does not fit in with Saudi's family values.
Rahaf's case is not an entirely unique one, earlier this month two sisters, Dua and Dalal al-Showaiki fled from Saudi Arabia to Turkey with the help of Saudi activist Ali Hashim. The girls fled to escape being forced into marriage with men twice their age, one of which already had two wives and Dua was to become the third. Dalal, the younger sister, had allegedly been subject to sexual harassment by her older brother and raped by a cleric. They faced systematic oppression, as Dua says the women's security at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah harrassed her because of her appearance and she has been transferred to a psychologist because of her short haircut. The controversy with this case arises when their Twitter account was suspended after two days to which they created two more accounts, which were taken down within hours. Hashim gave the sisters access to his account, which was then suspended as well. Luckily, with help from Radha Stirling's organisation Detained in Dubai, the girls have managed to get the help they need and their story is beginning to see some positives with the girls working towards an asylum application and protection from the United Nations.
The examples of these three women mirror the journey of the many who try to escape every year. The case of the al-Showaiki sisters highlights the lengths the Saudi government is willing to go to silence the women who are brave enough to escape the repressive, patriarchal society that exists in the Saudi state and the government are well aware of the problem. As Abdullah Al-Shuaibi said that he wished the Thai police took Rahaf's phone away from her instead of her passport. It is fair to infer that the Saudi government had involvement in shutting down the accounts of Dua and Dalal after The New York Times published a report detailing the government's attempts at tackling dissent across social media platforms. This involved the grooming of one of Twitter's employees Ali Alzabarah, who was convinced by the Saudi intelligence officials to spy on the accounts of dissidents. The governments attempt to silence its critics does not stop there, as of recent discovery the Saudi government has employed the use of military-grade technology to track women who have escaped the country via their phones IMEI numbers, which can be obtained through the original packaging of the device.
The stories of these women highlight the dangers of religious laws, which are aimed at controlling, limiting free choice and free thought of women, government and religious critics and LGBT citizens, who are the most heavily affected by these laws. In the current state of the world in which we live, full of all kinds of people with different religious beliefs and interpretations of religion, sexual orientations and gender identifications there is no need for a religious state, especially if it is persecuting its residents to the extent they have no choice to flee their country to gain full autonomy over themselves.