By running away, Saudi women seek to rebel against male-dominated culture
After Rahaf al-Qunun made headlines last week for escaping her strict Saudi family and seeking asylum through the internet, another Saudi woman has called out for help via Twitter, this time from within Saudi Arabia.
| Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Another Saudi woman has turned to social media for protection from her father, just days after Canada granted refuge to Rahaf al-Qunun, the 18-year-old Saudi who fled her family.
Identified only as Nojoud al-Mandeel on Twitter, her case differs from that of Ms. Qunun. She has not fled the kingdom, has not revealed her face, and has only made her pleas for help on Twitter in Arabic.
While their circumstances are different, the claims of abuse by the two women mirror those of other female Saudi runaways who have used social media to publicize their escapes.
There has been speculation that Qunun's successful getaway will inspire others to copy her. However, powerful deterrents remain in place. If caught, runaways face possible death at the hands of relatives for purportedly shaming the family.
Saudi women fleeing their families challenge a system that grants men guardianship over women's lives. This guardianship system starts in the home, where women must obey fathers, husbands, and brothers. Outside the home, it is applied to citizens, often referred to as sons and daughters by Saudi rulers who demand obedience.
Hala Aldosari, a Saudi scholar and activist, said the male guardianship system replicates the ruling family's model of governance, which demands full obedience to the king, who holds absolute power in decisionmaking.
"This is why the state is keen to maintain the authority of male citizens over women to ensure their allegiance," she said, adding that this "hierarchical system of domination" necessitates "keeping women in line."
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who's introduced social reforms loosening restrictions on women, told The Atlantic that doing away with guardianship laws has to be done in a way that does not harm families and the culture. He said abolishing these laws would create problems for families that don't want to give freedom to their daughters.
The issue of guardianship is extremely sensitive in the kingdom, where conservative families view what they consider the protection of women as a man's duty.
More than a dozen women's rights activists have been detained, many since May, after they campaigned against the guardianship system. Some had also wanted to create alternative shelters for women runaways.
Regardless of their age, women in Saudi Arabia must have the consent of a male relative to obtain a passport, travel, or marry. In the past, a travel permit was a paper document issued by the Interior Ministry and signed by a male relative.
Today, Saudi men download a government mobile app that notifies them of a woman's travel. Through the app, men can grant or deny a woman permission to travel. Some young women who have fled the country had managed to access their father's phone, change the setting, and disable its notifications.
In a statement read to reporters in Canada on Tuesday, Qunun said she wants to be independent, travel, and make her own decisions.
"I am one of the lucky ones," she said. "I know there are unlucky women who disappeared after trying to escape or who could not change their reality."
That's especially true for women from conservative tribal families, like Qunun's.
Qunun, one of 10 children, posted online that her father, Mohammed Mutliq al-Qunun, is the governor of the city of al-Sulaimi in the hilly hinterland of Ha'il – a province where nearly all women cover their face in black veils and wear loose black robes, or abayas, in public. The family belongs to the influential Shammar tribe, which extends to Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Her father has considerable clout as a prominent town official and member of a powerful tribe.
Qunun, who barricaded herself in an airport hotel room in Thailand last week to avoid deportation, said she was abused by a brother and locked in her room for months for cutting her hair short. She said she would have been killed if sent back to her family.
According to government statistics, at least 577 Saudi women tried to flee their homes inside the country in 2015, though the actual number is likely higher. There are no statistics on attempted or successful escapes abroad.
Shahad al-Mohaimeed, who fled abuse and an ultraconservative family in Saudi Arabia two years ago, said fear is a powerful deterrent.
"When a Saudi girl decides to flee, it means she's decided to put her life on the line and take a very, very risky step," said Ms. Mohaimeed, who now lives in Sweden.
Qunun's plight on social media drew international attention, helping her short-circuit the typically complex path to asylum. A little more than a week after fleeing Saudi Arabia, she was in Canada, building a new life, posting pictures of wine, bacon, and donning a dress above the knees.
Back in Saudi Arabia, the woman identified as Nojoud al-Mandeel posted audio on Twitter on Monday alleging her father had beaten and burnt her "over something trivial." She posted a video looking onto a neighbor's gated pool, where she says she jumped from her bedroom window before a friend picked her up and they escaped.
"Don't tell me to report to police," she said, explaining that in a previous attempt, police just had her father sign a pledge saying he would not beat her again.
After her story gained some traction online, she was promised attention by a protection hotline in Saudi Arabia for domestic abuse victims. Prosecutors also reportedly began looking into her allegations of abuse, according to Saudi news sites.
She was placed in a domestic abuse shelter, but on Tuesday complained on Twitter about the shelter's restrictions over her movements.
Mohaimeed said Twitter is where Saudi women can share stories and be heard. She and two other Saudi women took over Qunun's Twitter account, writing messages on her behalf during the height of her pleas last week to avoid deportation.
"I was not born in this world to serve a man," Mohaimeed said. "I was born in this world to fulfill my dreams, achieve my dreams, grow, learn, and be independent – to taste life as I hold it in my hands."
This story was reported by The Associated Press.