Prove your humanity

“I was expecting them to enter the room and kidnap me. That’s why I wrote a goodbye letter. I decided I would end my life, before I was forced back to Saudi Arabia.”

Escaping family violence and the terrifying, life-threatening consequences of her escape, 18-year-old Rahaf Alqunun made worldwide news earlier this month. She tells the ABC about the fear she felt in the moment she locked herself inside a Bangkok airport hotel room after fleeing her family in Kuwait. She had renounced Islam and feared that this would lead her family to kill her.

The story of the Saudi teen has certainly placed a spotlight on Saudi Arabia and women’s rights issues there. Barricading herself inside her hotel room in Bangkok, Alqunun’s tweets calling for help from countries such as Australia and Canada spread quickly across social media, as she expressed just how much danger her life was in.

As a free, independent woman living in Australia, comparing my life to other young women in Saudi Arabia, like Alqunun, leaves me horrified that some countries can treat women so despicably and give them so few rights, and treat them as children, no matter their age or situation.

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship laws prevent women from making decisions for themselves and deprive them of complete freedom. Under Saudi law, women must ask permission from their male guardian, whether it be their husband, brother, uncle or son, to do just about anything. Leaving the house, obtaining a passport and travelling abroad are just some basic activities that these women are unable to partake in autonomously.

In a 2018 BBC report, journalist Megha Mohan explains Saudi women are not allowed to open a bank account or marry who they want. Even grabbing a coffee with a male friend is a no-no, as families and single males have separate seating areas in restaurants, with all women having to sit in the family section; otherwise they risk being arrested.

However, in some good news, women are now allowed to go to the cinema and watch football games in stadiums. These amendments are part of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s program to modernise society in Saudi Arabia. In 2018, the ban that prevented women from driving a car was lifted; but, what’s the point in driving to the airport without being allowed to travel anywhere independently?

The most recent update in Alqunun’s story has been her official acceptance by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as having refugee status, and she has now been resettled in Canada, making a new life for herself away from the danger of her family.

Grok spoke to Dr Tamara Wood who works at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, at the University of New South Wales. Dr Wood is the author of the article, “Are women escaping family violence overseas considered refugees”, published on The Conversation, where she discusses Alqunun’s case, whom she considers to be a refugee, and the hardships some women experience trying to escape countries like Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights are tightly restricted.

Dr Wood thinks Alqunun’s case is a good example of how the international regime is supposed to work.

“It has certainly gained more attention than most refugee cases and has been dealt with more quickly, but other than that, nothing is unique about her case.”

Sadly, Alqunun is not alone. It’s quite common to hear stories of other young women escaping from Saudi Arabia and restrictive countries alike, who either find refuge in another country like Alqunun, or are forcibly returned to horrible circumstances.

Take the mysterious case of Dina Ali Lasloom for example. As told by BBC News in 2017, the 24-year-old Saudi woman was found travelling alone, intending to seek asylum in Australia. With a very similar story to Rahaf, she was attempting to escape her family whom she feared would kill her, but was stopped and confronted mid-journey by her uncles, who dragged her, kicking and screaming, onto a plane back to Saudi Arabia. She hasn’t been heard from publicly since. Stories like this have ignited intense debate about what happens to women like Ali after their return, and why male guardianship laws must end.

“I think there has been a lot of discussion about how quick Rahaf’s case was processed and if it was special treatment, but it was certainly much quicker than most refugees looking for resettlement.”

A key reason for Alqunun finding refuge more quickly than considered normal was because of the global publicity her story raised. Twitter exploded with her story, after many people shared her story, hoping she would receive the help she needed.

“The publicity her case generated certainly drew attention, but it also increased the risk to her, so a quick resettlement in a case like this would be appropriate,” Dr Wood said.

According to Dr Wood, it’s only a very small proportion of the refugees who have access to resettlement that achieve this outcome.

“It’s probably less than one per cent of all refugees who have that opportunity. It really depends on how urgent the need for protection is.”

Australia and Canada were two countries that offered Alqunun resettlement. According to SBS News, UNHCR withdrew its referral for Alqunun to be resettled in Australia because Canberra was too slow at processing her case. Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has called for more efforts to be made to protect women from violence and is relieved that Alqunun has found a safe place to call home. Meanwhile, Australia faces strong criticism for being too slow on processing Alqunun’s case.

UNHCR must accept a person as a refugee before they can be referred to another country, where they are able to start rebuilding their life. In Dr Wood’s article, she notes that an estimated 35 per cent of women worldwide experience family or domestic violence. However, in some countries the violence is worse, with 70 per cent of women at risk. Dr Wood explains that not everyone is entitled to international refugee protection—it is only those who meet the definition of a refugee who can make a claim for asylum.

“The 1951 International Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person outside their own country who fears persecution because of their race, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Many countries around the world have signed an agreement according to this definition, but according to Dr Wood, one of the important things about qualifying is that the risk of harm must be one of those five reasons listed above.

“Refugee protection is mainly about protecting people from harm either inflicted, tolerated or supported by a government. Even though Rahaf was at risk from family members, she was unlikely to get protection under her government, and that is quite important to claim as a refugee,” she said.

With the refugee definition written 68 years ago and the conditions of World War II in mind, the refugee convention must be considered in our current context. Dr Wood said that it is now increasingly recognised in many countries that women are at more risk of violence than men, and are therefore in need of more protection.

“We live in a different world with different expectations. The refugee definition is quite capable of changing over time and it’s quite right that it does so.

We are getting better at understanding how women’s experiences fit within that definition, but we are still limited,” she said.

Since the late 20th and early 21st centuries, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have been limited in comparison to surrounding countries due to its strict interpretation of Sharia law, which is the moral, legal and religious law of Islam.

While Australia has its own uphill battle to face in breaking down violence against women (with reports of one woman a week being murdered here by a current or former partner), the nation still compares favourably when it comes to the laws of Saudi Arabia. Hearing the news of Rahaf’s story may come as a bit of a shock for some Australians, as this domestic violence case is more severe than most cases that are happening in our own backyard. This is because Alqunun isn’t just fleeing her family; she is fleeing the lawful violence of her government, which has previously called to use the death penalty against female political activists.

To think that a young girl should be made to fear for her life while barricaded in a foreign country and fleeing her own family is awful, but it certainly shows just how determined and brave Alqunun is. Hopefully, her actions will encourage other trapped women to stay strong and stand up for their independence.

Alqunun told ABC reporter Sophie McNeill that she hopes to use her newfound freedom to campaign for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and end the male guardianship system.

“I’m sure there will be a lot more women running away. I hope my story encourages other women to be brave and free,” Alqunun said.

Although revisions have been made to Saudi society, there is still a long way to go. With the help of Alqunun and women’s rights activists, the ladies of Saudi can perhaps one day see the light at the end of this long tunnel; but for now, Saudi Arabia is still very much a mans world.