Women across Saudi Arabia, inspired by a teenager who fled the country to seek asylum in Australia amid fears that she would be killed by her family, are demanding further reforms — including an end to the male-dominated guardianship system — or else they will leave the country, they say.
The emigration threats began trending on social media in the days since 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was detained in Thailand on Saturday after escaping her relatives in Kuwait. Stripped of her passport and told she would be deported, Rahaf barricaded herself in a hotel at Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and broadcast her fears to the world. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) intervened, and on Wednesday recommended her for asylum in Australia.
The impact of Rahaf’s shrewd use of social media—and the international support she was able to muster—was underscored by a Saudi diplomat’s lament, captured on video and shared by the teenager as she awaited news of her fate. “I wish they could have taken her phone, rather than her passport,” he could be heard saying.
In the days since, an Arabic language hashtag that roughly translates as “remove the guardianship system or we’ll all migrate” has trended on social media in Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for cracking down on dissent. “Mark my words, [Rahaf] is going to start a revolution in Saudi Arabia,” Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy said on a video posted to Twitter on Jan. 7, adding that the guardianship system is “the foundation of patriarchy in Saudi Arabia.” Like many other users, Eltahawy appended some of her tweets with the migration threat hashtag.
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, known as MBS, has eased some restrictions on women’s behaviors, including allowing women to drive legally for the first time. But Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, which treats women as legal minors and requires them to get male guardians’ permission to travel, marry and more, remains intact. Human Rights Watch in 2017 called Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system the most “significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.”
Rahaf’s case is only the latest to provoke outcry against Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system. In 2017, authorities detained 24-year-old Dina Ali Lasloom in the Philippines en-route to Australia, where she intended to seek asylum. Like Rahaf, Lasloom said her Saudi family had threatened her life and posted a plea for help on social media. Unlike Rahaf, local authorities forced Lasloom back to Riyadh. In June 2017, she was believed to have been moved to a women’s shelter in the Kingdom, the BBC reported. Amnesty International says a shelter center set up in 2016 for women fleeing domestic abuse also serves as detention center, and those who want to leave may need a male relative to agree to their release.
But Rahaf’s asylum plea follows the murder of journalist James Khashoggi, who had been critical of MBS’ regime. While several factors—including Rahaf’s public renunciation of Islam, a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia—might have influenced the UNHCR’s expedited ruling of her case, “the more skeptical public relations context for Saudi Arabia post-Khashoggi killing certainly shifted the calculations of a Thai government weighing costs of returning the fleeing teen, as well as the Saudi government’s insistence on her return,” says Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW).
Since becoming Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler, MBS has undertaken several social reforms, including a gradual blunting of the authority of the religious police, or muttawas, an easing of restrictions on gender mixing and, last June, the end to the driving ban. The lattermost change led some to believe that Riyadh was taking major steps towards modernization, but some Saudi feminists dismissed the move as a PR stunt driven mostly by economic necessity. Khashoggi’s murder in Istanbul last year—which U.S. Senators say was ordered by the crown—largely put an end to Bin Salman’ efforts to cast himself as a reformer. “Rahaf will not be celebrated in the Kingdom,” says Smith Diwan. But she adds that Rahaf’s case might prompt state-sanctioned discussion about the application of some guardianship laws to move forward.
Saudi women who call for reforms online certainly face risks. “Social media is really a double-edged sword here,” says Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East research director. “In many cases, Amnesty International has documented individuals have been charged and in some cases, handed down harsh sentences for simply expressing their opinion on social media.” Despite the danger, an online campaign called “I Am My Own Guardian” has since 2016 given voice to a new generation of young Saudi women, and helped push the passage of a law in April 2017 that ended the requirement for women to obtain male approval before accessing government services, according to writer Nora Doaiji.
As of midweek, as Rahaf urged women to “fight and get your rights,” that campaign was resurgent. A physician wrote of her embarrassment at being able to make life and death decisions for patients while society still considered her a minor. “We have been attacked, jailed, tortured, and shamed,” another woman wrote. “But with every passing day we grow stronger, braver, and smarter.”