By Alison Tahmizian
January 9, 2019
القنون البالغة من العمر 18 عام تصافح ضابط هجرة تايلاندي بمطار بانكوك. صورة: مكتب
A Saudi woman’s ongoing bid to flee her
country via Thailand this week threw the kingdom’s male guardianship system
into the international limelight, setting in motion a showdown between Saudi
Arabia’s restrictions on women and the United Nations’ asylum process.
Australian authorities on Wednesday said
they were considering a request by the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees to resettle 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qanun. The agency has yet to comment
on the status of her asylum request.
Qanun on Saturday launched a call for help
via Twitter from a Bangkok airport where her passport was initially
confiscated. She is now staying at an undisclosed location in the Thai capital
Bangkok while the UNHCR processes her request.
Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affaires in
Bangkok, Abdalelah al-Sheaibi, was stone-faced as he discussed his government’s
displeasure with the limelight in a meeting with Thai officials.
opened a Twitter account and her followers grew to 45 (thousand) within a day,”
he complained, his comments filmed and published to Twitter on Tuesday by local
would have hoped that you’d have confiscated her cell phone – it would have
been preferable to taking her passport,” Sheaibi said, eliciting timid laughter
from the translator.
The presumption of authority over an adult
is indicative of Saudi laws and social attitudes that govern the lives of
women, regardless of age or whether they are no longer considered a minor by
the United Nations, which classifies people adults from age 18.
While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin
Salman has been steadily easing restrictions on women, notably granting them
the right to open their own businesses and to drive cars, the guardianship
system remains in place and authorities remain sensitive to social codes.
Qanun fired off a defiant Tweet on
Saturday, stating: “I can live alone, free, and independent from anyone who has
not respected my dignity and has not respected me as a woman.”
To ease any doubt about her online
identity, Qanun posted her first of a string of videos from the airport with
the caption: “I’m a real person and still breathing, but I’m not sure I’ll
survive if the Saudi Embassy doesn’t stop pursuing me.”
Long Arm of Authority
Qanun hails from the province of Al-Sulaimi
in the Saudi interior, where she told Asia Times that her father, Mohammed
al-Qanun, is the governor.
In Saudi Arabia, she would not be able to
travel abroad without the permission of a male guardian, so Qanun took the
opportunity during a family visit to Kuwait and boarded a flight to Bangkok
with the intention of reaching Australia.
Upon landing, she says her passport was
taken by a man whose business card she posted to Twitter, which identified him
as Ali Alanazi, the local security supervisor for Kuwait Airways. Alanazi,
reached by Asia Times, said that it was the Thai border control that took the
young woman’s passport and that the airline was only cooperating with the
process after her visa was rejected.
was the Thai authorities that took her passport for processing and booked her
the hotel. I only gave her my business card in case she needed anything or had
any questions,” he said. Alanazi noted that a representative from the Saudi
embassy had arrived to the airport to accompany the young woman back as she was
considered a youth.
The Saudi embassy in Bangkok has rejected
any role in the seizure of Qanun’s passport. In a statement, Saudi authorities
said the young woman was being sent back by the Thai government due to the lack
of a local hotel reservation and return ticket as per immigration laws.
The young woman claims she was passing
through Bangkok in transit. “I have a ticket from Thailand to Melbourne,
Australia,” she told Asia Times via direct message. “I think my email has been
hacked because I can’t access the ticket.”
Thai immigration officials also said there
was no record of an airline ticket onward, which should have allowed her to
pass through Bangkok.
After being informed by immigration that
she would be placed on a flight back to Kuwait, the young woman barricaded
herself in her airport hotel room and began launching a barrage of appeals to
the Twitter sphere. She claimed her life would be in danger if she was returned
to her family.
From her makeshift bunker, Qanun insisted
her case was an urgent asylum matter and her tweets garnered the attention of
prominent activists, human rights groups and Bangkok-based diplomats, with the
German ambassador voicing his concern to Thai authorities.
On Monday, the head of Thai immigration,
Lieutenant General Surachate Hakparn, told the press he would not force a
deportation if the woman’s life was found to be in danger.
Thailand is the ‘Land of Smiles,’ of course we won’t send someone to their
death,” he said.
The UNHCR was granted access to Qanun “in
order to assess her need for international refugee protection,” and is expected
to reach a decision by next week.
A String of Forced Returns
Qanun is not the first woman to be impacted
by the long arm of the Saudi guardianship system.
has a pattern of forcibly returning women trying to flee to Saudi Arabia, with
the collusion of foreign governments. Rahaf is not the first case. Recall –
adult women [are] not free to travel without [a] guardian’s permission,”
tweeted Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.
In Turkey, two Saudi sisters have been held
in police custody since May 2017 after fleeing the kingdom in February that
year. Ashwaq Hamoud, 31, and her sister Areej, 29, say they fled abusive male
family members. Both had attempted to apply for Turkish residency, but are now
facing deportation in an ongoing appeals process.
Another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was
in April 2017 returned to Saudi Arabia from the Philippines – also against her
will as she faced a forced marriage, according to a report by HRW. An airline
security official told the rights watchdog that he witnessed three Middle
Eastern-looking men go to the room where Lasloom was being held at an airport
He then “heard her screaming and begging
for help from her room, after which he saw them carry her out with duct tape on
her mouth, feet and hands.”
The Saudi embassy at the time issued a
statement referring to the case as a “family” matter.
Then in March 2018, the prominent driving
activist Loujain al-Hathloul was detained in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the
closely allied United Arab Emirates, and forced on a plane back to the kingdom,
according to fellow activists.
Hathloul was placed under a travel ban,
warned to stay off social media and finally rounded up as part of a crackdown
on women’s rights advocates last summer.
While such operations often rely on
cooperative governments, Saudi authorities have also pursued dissidents in more
risky scenarios – most notably Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who
was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, sparking a
tense public reckoning with Turkish authorities.
While Khashoggi left his phone outside the
consulate, Qanun held onto hers, using it to launch a now-viral asylum appeal
via social media.
of Rahaf’s quick thinking, this shift in media attention and popular support for
her case seem to have won out so far because the male guardianship system is so
indefensible,” HRW deputy Middle East director Michael Page told Asia Times.
Should Qanun gain asylum in Australia, it
could spark a new wave of challenges to the Saudi guardianship system abroad
and impact gradual changes at home.