When Home Is a Prison, More Saudi Women Are Choosing to Flee

The latest refugees from the kingdom fled to Tbilisi, Georgia, and spoke to Foreign Policy before seeking asylum in the West.

Asylum Seeker Rahaf al-Qanun smiles as she is introduced to the media at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Jan. 12, alongside Canadian minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland.
Asylum Seeker Rahaf al-Qanun smiles as she is introduced to the media at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Jan. 12, alongside Canadian minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland. Cole Burston/Getty Images

TBILISI, Georgia—The sequence of events that led to Wafa and Maha al-Subaie’s dramatic escape from Saudi Arabia has the makings of a Hollywood tale. Wafa, 25, and Maha, 28, misled their family in order to travel from their isolated hometown in western Saudi Arabia, Ranyah, to the capital, Riyadh, to live with their brother.

They managed to obtain passports in Riyadh without their family’s knowledge, buy plane tickets, and fly from the Saudi capital to Istanbul. On April 1, at the airport in Riyadh, they broke their SIM cards to avoid surveillance. They removed their niqabs, or face veils, to give off the impression that they came from a liberal family to avoid suspicion as to why they were traveling alone. They snapped a selfie. This was the first time the sisters had ever traveled by airplane.

Their goal was to reach the Turkish border with Georgia. Due to rumors of Georgia being conduit to the outside world, and because Saudi citizens don’t need visas to enter Georgia, Maha and Wafa decided to flee there.

From Istanbul, the sisters immediately flew east across Turkey to Trabzon, praying their flight wouldn’t be delayed. It was only a matter of time until their brother would go to pick up the sisters and realize they weren’t where they were supposed to be—Wafa was meant to be teaching at an elementary school, and Maha was to be at an English academy.

In Trabzon, they hired a taxi to drive them 113 miles to the border with Georgia. Once in Batumi, a resort town on the Black Sea coast, they found a cafe with only women inside and asked for help. A Georgian woman put them up in her apartment and drove them 230 miles to Tbilisi the next day.

“When I am thinking about all of this, I lose my mind. Like, it’s me who does that? It’s like a dream,” Wafa said of their escape. The sisters recounted their story in a mixture of English and Arabic on April 28 from inside a small room at a refugee shelter near Tbilisi.

They claimed they were fleeing abuse, as well as lack of freedoms due to Saudi Arabia’s guardianship and customary law that requires women to have permission from a male relative for basic decisions. They only escaped by secretly using their father’s account on Absher, a Saudi mobile application that allows guardians to mark when women have permission to travel.

The sisters’ extraordinary story follows a trend of women fleeing Saudi Arabia even as the government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tout progress in women’s rights, such as lifting the ban on women driving in June 2018.

In January, Rahaf al-Qanun (now Rahaf Mohammed), a Saudi 18-year-old who escaped from her family during a holiday in Kuwait, flew to Thailand and immediately was threatened with deportation. Mohammed locked herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room and took to social media pleading for help. Six days later, she was resettled in Canada. Other women run away secretly. The Subaie sisters follow these stories on Twitter and in secret WhatsApp groups for Saudi women.

“The cases of Saudi women fleeing the country is indicative of the situation of women in Saudi Arabia,” said Amnesty International’s Dana Ahmed. “Despite some limited reforms, women are inadequately protected against domestic violence and abuse and more generally are discriminated against in large part as a result of the male guardianship system.”

For example, the guardianship system still leaves room for families to decide and control what women take part in. If families prevent women from leaving the home, there is little recourse to fight this; custom still dictates that women need permission from their guardians for employment outside the home. Shelters for women fleeing domestic violence also function as detention centers, according to human rights activists, because women sometimes need permission from a family member in order to leave the shelters where they have taken refuge.

Ahmed said that while it’s difficult to know exactly how many women are fleeing Saudi Arabia, the number of asylum-seekers from the kingdom has tripled between 2012 and 2017, to 800 cases worldwide.

Maha and Wafa’s story also raises the question of whether domestic abuse can qualify someone for international asylum. This issue has been under review by the Trump administration in the United States, which has sought to stem the flow of asylum-seekers from Central America. Since 2014, after a landmark case involving a Guatemalan woman who was granted asylum in the United States after fleeing her husband’s violent attacks, domestic violence has been an accepted criterion for refugee status in the United States. Prior to 2014, immigration judges’ decisions on the matter were inconsistent, according to a press release from the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies that year.

Gender was not explicitly one of the original categories in the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention under which someone could claim asylum fearing persecution, nor was domestic abuse mentioned. However, interpretations of the refugee definition have evolved over the years, explains Parastou Hassouri, who teaches refugee law at the American University in Cairo. “Fear of domestic violence has become a legitimate ground for seeking asylum in cases when the state is unwilling or unable to provide protection,” she said.

“The mere fact that the Saudi authorities give assurances that these women will not be harmed is not enough if there is evidence on the record that victims of domestic violence will be unable to obtain effective state protection,” Hassouri argued. Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi teenager who was offered asylum in Canada, is one such example of refugee law evolving to cover gender-based persecution.

Saudi Arabia criminalized domestic abuse in 2013, but activists have complained that the law isn’t implemented fully. The Subaie sisters said they never went to the police for help because they thought it would only make their situation worse. They believed that the police wouldn’t assist them and their family might retaliate against them physically for speaking out.

“If you call police, the police don’t even come in the house. If the police come, they will need your guardian to come out and speak with them. What the hell? They won’t help us,” Maha said.

Maha and Wafa documented bruises from beatings on a secret phone and showed Foreign Policy two such photos, one of each sister. They are two of 10 children from a middle-class family and said they were the most outspoken of their siblings, which provoked the ire of their parents. The sisters seemed to have grown used to a life without familial love except between the two of them.

“My mother hates us because we said no. She said, why are we like this? Why aren’t we like the other sisters? ‘Just do what you have to do. Just be silent,’” Wafa recounted. The sisters said their family members have reached out to them via direct messages on Twitter using fake accounts. Some messages threaten deadly violence and imply that they are from relatives. Others beg the sisters to return home, seemingly using pseudonyms out of hope that the sisters will be less likely to ignore a message if they don’t think it’s from family.

Maha and Wafa were hoping to leave Georgia for a Western country as soon as possible after they arrived. They read talk online of runaway Saudi women who came through Georgia and were secretly flown to France, though the French Embassy in Georgia declined to confirm this and wrote in an email response that the embassy “does not comment on individual cases.” After two weeks, with no positive responses from Western embassies, they took to Twitter with their situation. “Before we are kidnapped and before we are killed, the world must know that we are real,” Maha said of their decision to use Twitter to spread their story.

When Maha and Wafa first arrived in Georgia, they explored Tbilisi by foot and sampled Georgian food. By the time I met them after a month in the country, they had grown increasingly concerned for their safety and rarely left the shelter. Georgia is a small country of 3.7 million people and a popular destination for Saudi vacationers. They feared that their family could easily find them and would take revenge on them for running away.

The Saudi Embassy in Tbilisi, housed in an Emirati-owned five-star hotel and difficult to access, did not respond to phone calls about the Subaie sisters. Fahad Nazer, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, told Foreign Policy that Saudi “leadership is committed to providing women with every opportunity to succeed at the workplace as well as at home. A number of measures have already been enacted that have allowed women more freedom of movement, more career opportunities as well as more leisurely activities.” He added that the Saudi “leadership will continue to evaluate the efficacy of Saudi Arabia’s laws and regulations to ensure that the kingdom continues to make strides towards greater gender equality.”

Back at the shelter outside Tbilisi, Wafa shared her imagined future, a life that would have been difficult in Saudi Arabia given her conservative family. “I want to be able to go jogging in the morning, meet some people, and drink coffee in a public place,” she said wistfully. “I want to see so many things.”

Then, on May 7, with no public notice, the sisters posted to their Twitter account that they had left Georgia. They also wrote that they were not going to mention where they had traveled to, implying that it was for security reasons. “While many states may be interested in helping Saudi women in distress, they don’t then want to provoke a slew of hundreds or thousands of Saudi women seeking to do the same, hence the motivation to keep cases quiet,” said Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher, explaining why the sisters may have been told to keep their new location under wraps.

Yasmine Farouk, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that Saudi influence on the global scene is stopping governments that accept asylum-seekers from publicizing the help they offer. “Recent social and economic reforms inside Saudi Arabia also make it a fertile ground for considerable Western investments. So some countries don’t publicize the cases of Saudi women because they don’t want to sabotage their relations with Saudi Arabia and lose all this,” Farouk said.

Still, the obstacles Saudi women from conservative families face to escape, along with the fear of what would happen to them if they were caught in the process, make it nearly impossible to gain freedom. Maha and Wafa believed they might be harmed if relatives caught wind of their plans to flee. They took the risk anyway, their desperation evidence of their hopelessness when they imagined their futures in the kingdom.

If new reforms open up even more opportunities for Saudi women on paper, society at large will also need to adapt to keep up with the changes. In that meantime, there likely will be more runaway Saudi women who are counting on a world ready to help them.

Update, May 20, 2019: This article was updated to clarify the source of comments from the Saudi Embassy.

Laura Kasinof is a journalist and author of Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen. She was the New York Times correspondent in Yemen during the Arab Spring. Twitter: @kasinof

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