By Michael Jansen
11 Jan 2019
The flight from Saudi Arabia of 18-year-old
asylum seeker Rahaf al-Qunun has, once again, exposed the ultra-conservative
kingdom’s harsh treatment of girls and women. She refuses to return to Saudi
Arabia, claiming she has been psychologically and physically abused by her
family which denied her higher education and tried to force her into an
arranged marriage. She fears she could be imprisoned or killed if sent home.
Saudi male guardianship treats women as
lifelong minors requiring permission from fathers, brothers, husbands or sons
to travel, marry, divorce, access education and medical treatment, and leave
prison. Under Saudi law unrelated men and women are not permitted to mix. Women
are compelled to cover themselves from head to toe. Confinement at home or in a
prison-like facility is routine punishments for offending against the law or
Qunun has compelling reasons to be afraid.
She has fled her father’s guardianship, travelled without his permission or
presence. She has appeared in public bare-headed in a T-shirt and tight jeans
rather than an Abaya, a body-enveloping cloak.
She has renounced Islam and could face a
charge of apostasy, which, under Saudi law, is punishable by death.
She has openly met men who are not close
relatives. These prohibited contacts involve Thai officials, police, and
representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who have given
her sanctuary until her case for asylum in Australia is decided. Qunun could be
accused of sullying the honour of her family by mixing with these men and
murdered by her father, a brother or a cousin. “Honour crime” is rife in the
kingdom and perpetrators are rarely punished.
Her father, Mohammed al-Qunun, a senior
provincial official, would be under great pressure to deal severely with his
errant daughter and the Saudi authorities would normally turn a blind eye,
although in this globally publicised case they might urge restraint.
On January 5th, after arriving on a flight
from Kuwait at Bangkok’s international airport, she was prevented from boarding
an aircraft bound for Australia. Although she had an Australian tourist visa
and a ticket for Sidney, her passport was seized and the Thai authorities
attempted to deport her to Kuwait, her point of departure.
Since Thailand is not a signatory of the UN
refugee convention, she would routinely be sent home or remain until she is
accepted for settlement in a third country. The UNHCR has declared her a
legitimate refugee. Australia, which cancelled her tourist visa, is considering
issuing her a humanitarian visa.
Another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was
halted in the Philippines in transit to Australia last April when she attempted
to escape her family, and was sent home under pressure from Riyadh. Her fate is
unknown although her story was circulated on social media and elicited
widespread criticism of male guardianship. Ironically, Lasloom’s forced
repatriation preceded by two weeks the Saudi election to a four-year term on
the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Saudi Arabia is ranked 141 out of 144
countries on the Global Gender Gap Index.
While awaiting deportation Lasloom appealed
to Moudi al-Johan, a Saudi woman who slipped the grip of guardianship in
October 2016, applied for asylum in the United States and founded Sisterhood, a
magazine meant to help Muslim women seeking freedom from patriarchy.
The 2011 Arab Spring has encouraged Saudi
female activists to stir rebellion among oppressed sisters. Computer science
engineer Manal al-Sharif, founder of the women’s right-to-drive movement,
became an activist icon and was named one of the 100 most influential world
figures by Time magazine in 2012. After being detained and persecuted, she left
the kingdom, married a Brazilian without Saudi government sanction, another
restriction, and settled in Australia.
A number of Saudi women have fled the
country and settled in the West in recent years, while others have been either
prevented from leaving or forcibly repatriated. The most prominent case was of
Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist and social media personality, who
was arrested in March 2018 in Dubai, and her husband Fahad al-Butairi, a comic,
was snatched from Jordan. Hathloul and other jailed women’s rights figures have
been abused and tortured.
Qunun’s flight coincided with the kingdom’s
adoption of a regulation meant to curb widespread secret divorce by men who
declare marriages terminated without informing ex-wives. This abuse leaves them
in limbo, without alimony or support for children, and denies them the return
of the “Mehr” or financial settlement agreed in the marriage contract. Muslim
canon law, Sharia, permits men to divorce at will but this must be legalised by
The Saudi justice ministry announced:
“Women in the kingdom will be notified of any changes to their marital status
via text message”. Women will also be “able to view documents related to the
termination of their marriage contracts through the ministry’s website”. Saudi
courts have already begun to send notifications, “a step aimed at protecting
the rights of female clients.” It is not clear how women without Smartphones or
access to computers will secure information.
In Saudi Arabia extramarital affairs can be
punished with execution. The most glaring case was of 19-year-old Princess
Mishaal bint Fahd al-Saud, a grandniece of Saudi King Khaled, who, along with
her lover, Khaled al-Sha’er al-Mulhallal, nephew of the Saudi ambassador to
Lebanon, were executed in 1977 after confessing their crime. A British
documentary, Death of a Princess, was made about this case but did not bring