What to Know About Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the Saudi Teen Fleeing Her Family

Jessica Roy
Photo credit: THAI IMMIGRATION BUREAU HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock - Shutterstock

From Seventeen

Update: On Tuesday January 8th, the United Nations Human Rights Commission processed Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun's application and found her to be a genuine refugee, referring her case to Australia, where she hopes to resettle. The Australian government will consider her case, but is likely to grant her a humanitarian visa.

On Sunday night, while many were enjoying the Golden Globes, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was trying desperately to avoid being sent back to her homeland of Saudi Arabia, where she believes she will be killed.

The 18-year-old woman had boarded a flight to Bangkok while on vacation with her family in Kuwait. From Bangkok, she planned to catch another plane to Australia, where she wanted to seek refugee status. al-Qunun's family tracked her down, and Thai authorities and Kuwaiti Airlines were cooperating in attempting to have her sent back to Kuwait against her will, where her family could take her back to Saudi Arabia.

Here's everything you need to know about the case.

Who is Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, and why was she trying to flee Saudi Arabia?

al-Qunun is an 18-year-old student from Ha'il, Saudi Arabia, a country she describes as "like a prison." She told the New York Times in an interview that her family has abused her for her entire life, including locking her in a room for six months after she cut her hair in a way they didn't like; she also said her brother frequently beat her. "I can’t make my own decisions," she told the Times. "Even about my own hair I can’t make decisions."

al-Qunun also declared herself an atheist, which is a crime in Saudi Arabia. She fears that if she is sent back to Saudi Arabia, she will either be arrested on charges of apostasy or disobedience, or her family will kill her for dishonoring them. These fears are not unfounded—her cousin publicly threatened to kill her on Twitter.

How can her family have her sent back to Saudi Arabia against her will if she's technically an adult?

Adult women in Saudi Arabia live under a restrictive male guardianship system that requires basic activities like travel abroad, marriage, and employment to be approved by a male relative. Guardians are frequently in control of a woman's finances, making it difficult for them to rent an apartment, get a job or enroll in school without their guardian's permission. If a woman like al-Qunun travels abroad without her guardian's permission, the guardian has the right to request she is returned by the country to which she flees. This is not uncommon; in 2017, another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was deported back during a layover in the Philippines after attempting to seek refugee status in Australia. Lasloom's whereabouts remain unknown.

How did word of al-Qunun's plight spread, and why is it such a big deal?

al-Qunun used social media to raise awareness about her case, which eventually sparked international media attention. She barricaded herself in her hotel room and live-tweeted updates, including her request for asylum and United Nations intervention.

Eventually a journalist from ABC News joined her.

Though al-Qunun's case is depressingly common in Saudi Arabia, it comes at a time when the gulf nation is under intense international scrutiny for its human rights abuses following the state murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

What happens now, and what are the implications?

The case is still ongoing, with al-Qunun live-tweeting updates as they come. As of this writing, the UN has promised to help her seek asylum in a third country, and she finally received her passport back.

If the UN is indeed successful in keeping al-Qunun from being repatriated to Saudi Arabia, this could signal a shift in how these cases are handled, and perhaps give some hope to Saudi women hoping to escape abusive situations.

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