Rahaf Alqunun case could increase risks to women in repressive countries, human rights activists fear
Australia says it is considering granting the Saudi who fled from her family refugee resettlement. (AP: Immigration police)
Lawyers and activists are warning the high-profile case of Saudi Arabian teenager Rahaf Alqunun could increase the risks faced by women in repressive countries, even as it inspires more to make attempts to escape.
- Some fear Ms Alqunun’s case may lead to tighter surveillance of young women
- Activists say the case has put more pressure on repressive governments
- Saudi Arabia has recently allowed women to drive and attend sporting matches
Human rights lawyer Toby Cadman advised Rahaf Alqunun as she was trapped in Bangkok, and said her case highlighted the treatment of women in some Arab countries.
“I don’t think we should kid ourselves and think that there’s going to be an immediate revolution in the [Arabian] Gulf as to women’s rights,” he said.
“But I think it does highlight a particular problem with young women such as Rahaf, so I think this is something that is going to get increasing coverage and I think we’re probably going to see more young women in states like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain in particular seeking to flee and effectively be given the same protection as Rahaf has.”
While many people are praising Ms Alqunun, 18, for her bravery, there are fears her case may lead to tighter surveillance of young women and a crackdown on their existing freedoms.
“I think that is going to result in a crackdown and I think that’s something that the international community is going to have to grapple with, how you address increased surveillance and a tightening of women’s rights in these states,” Mr Cadman said.
Women’s rights campaigner Aisha Ali-Khan, who has helped women from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, said Ms Alqunun’s case had put more pressure on repressive governments.
“I think it’s shone a massive spotlight on the plight of Arab women,” she said.
“I think that’s going to make it very uncomfortable for the ruling families and for the governments in these countries to do something about it.
“Because the more criticism they get from western countries, the more impact it has on their business dealings.”
Rahaf Alqunun was placed under the protection of the United Nations in Bangkok. (AP: Immigration police)
‘Extremely vulnerable to abuse outside of the country’
Ms Alqunun appears to have succeeded in her escape, but similar cases have ended badly, with some women disappearing after being forcibly returned to their countries.
Others have become destitute or trapped in legal limbo, and some have been found dead.
Among the examples is the case of Saudi sisters Rotana and Tala Farea, who are suspected of taking their own lives in the United States after fleeing from their family.
Associated Press correspondent Aya Batrawy, who covers Saudi Arabia, said experienced campaigners actually do not recommend women leave without detailed plans and support.
“Women who try to flee are often young and inexperienced,” she said.
“They don’t have access to make their own decisions so when they flee without a really strong plan in place, a support system of people who are going to help them, of lawyers they can contact, of places they can stay, they’re vulnerable, extremely vulnerable to abuse outside of the country.”
Saudi Arabia’s Government has recently allowed women to drive and attend sporting matches and has broadened what they can study and do for work.
But Ms Batrawy said the country’s restrictive guardianship laws, which place control over a woman’s life in the hands of a husband or male relative, can still stop women from enjoying those new freedoms.
“The bottom line is, if you’re a Saudi woman whose father or husband is supporting you, your life will be smooth,” she said.
“But if you’re in the hands of a man who doesn’t support your decisions and doesn’t give you freedoms to make your own choices, no matter what the government does, you’re at the end of the day under the whims of that man.”
Ms Alqunun’s story has sparked a debate in Saudi Arabia about the guardianship laws.
Islamic law scholar Ahmad Al Ghamidy told the Arabian channel Khaleeja TV the laws are wrong.
“Restricting the freedom of travelling alone for women and also preventing women from getting inheritance is against the Sharia [Islamic] law,” he said.
“Also not allowing women to work in appropriate jobs is against the Sharia law.”