When Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun fled her family with plans to seek asylum in Australia, she ran into an obstacle along the way: a layover in Thailand.
Upon her arrival in Bangkok, officials seized her passport and threatened to deport her back to her family. So the 18-year-old, who had traveled from Kuwait, locked herself in a hotel room at the airport and began to tell her story on social media, claiming she had to escape her abusive family and feared they would kill her. When she heard news that her father had landed in Thailand to try to bring her home, she tweeted that it “worried and scared” her.
Her demands to meet with the U.N. refugee agency worked, and her plight went viral. On Friday, Surachate Hakparn, who heads Thailand’s immigration bureau, said “the story ends today.”
“Ms. Rahaf is going to Canada as she wishes,” he said. As The Washington Post reported, she left Thailand to be resettled in Canada, and Hakparn said that when she departed, she had a “smiling face.”
Alqunun’s struggle to leave her family, even as an adult, drew attention to Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male guardianship laws. As a woman, even though she is 18, it remains illegal in Saudi Arabia for Alqunun to travel without permission from a male guardian. Despite some reforms by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, such as lifting a ban on female drivers, the guardianship law remains firmly in place in Saudi Arabia, and a number of female activists who led the calls for changes to the driving law remain in detention.
Human rights groups have long criticized the Saudi guardianship law, which requires women to seek permission from male guardians — which could be a husband, brother or son — to do certain tasks. In its 2017-2018 report on Saudi Arabia, Amnesty International said that in addition to travel restrictions, women in Saudi Arabia still needed permission to marry, enroll in higher education or seek employment. “They also remained inadequately protected against sexual and other forms of violence,” the watchdog group said.
Madawi Al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, told The Post that the while the guardianship laws have been somewhat loosened recently, they remain in place in part because they help the Saudi regime maintain men’s loyalty by billing themselves as protectors of women. But Alqunun’s case proves, she said, that the state “has actually failed to protect women from this private patriarchy.”
Women who are abused in their homes may feel “the only way out to end their trauma is to leave the country,” she said.
Alqunun is one of a number of Saudi women and girls who have fled home in hopes of seeking asylum abroad. Not all of them have been successful.
In 2017, a Saudi woman who publicized her plans to seek asylum was returned to Saudi Arabia after Philippine authorities detained her at the airport. Saudi Arabia called the incident a “family matter,” and at the time, passengers told Reuters that they witnessed a screaming woman being carried onto a flight from Manila to Riyadh.
Alqunun’s case, which was likely helped by the attention it garnered on social media, has raised questions over whether it will inspire other women to push back against the guardianship law, which Al-Rasheed called “the last power these men have over women.” Although Mohammed was initially billed as a reformer, Saudi Arabia has struggled with its public image in recent months, after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
On Thursday, Faisal Abbas, editor in chief of Arab News, published an op-ed saying that the male guardianship law should be abolished, claiming that Saudi Arabia has made significant progress for women’s rights in recent years and that guardianship is discriminatory.
“If there is any guardianship system that should be imposed in the Kingdom,” he wrote, “it should be imposed by the ministry on what its diplomats say and do not say — particularly the Saudi charge d’affaires in Thailand.”
He was referring to comments made by the Saudi charge d’affaires in Thailand, who came under scrutiny this week after a video circulated featuring him saying authorities should have confiscated Alqunun’s phone instead of her passport. Those comments were “the ultimate faux-pas,” Abbas wrote.