Saudi teen runaway spotlights need for major reforms: UN

  • James Reinl
  • 11 Jan 2019

An advisor to UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres told TRT World that the Saudi teenager's case is yet another reminder of the need for reforms in the realm of women's rights.

This handout picture taken and released by the Thai Immigration Bureau on January 7, 2019 shows 18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed Alqanun (C) being escorted by a Thai immigration officer (R) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials at Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok. ( AFP )

UNITED NATIONS – The case of a Saudi teenager who fled to Thailand fearing for her life highlights the need for big reforms in the realm of women’s rights, top UN gender expert Nahla Valji told TRT World.

Valji, an advisor to UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, said the plight of Rahaf al-Qunun, 18, who ran away from her family over a forced marriage, religion and opportunities for Saudi women, spotlighted a bigger problem.

Too many women in Saudi Arabia and around the world are unsafe and discriminated against because of their gender, and too few of them know that they can claim asylum overseas on the basis of those threats, said Valji.

“It’s great that this case is highlighting this issue. It speaks to some of the broader issues of the fact that, for women, often the private oppression is within a broader context of inequality within society, of unequal rights generally,” Valji told TRT World.

On Friday, Canada granted her asylum, which was confirmed by Canadian prime ministerJustin Trudeau. A day earlier, Australia said it was assessing al-Qunun’s asylum application after a referral from the UN’s agency for refugees, UNHCR, which is currently looking after the teenager in a Bangkok hotel.

She arrived in Thailand on Saturday, intending to fly on to Australia to seek asylum, and was initially denied entry.

She began posting messages on Twitter from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport saying she had “escaped Kuwait”, which she was visiting with her family, and would be murdered if forced back to Saudi Arabia.

Within hours, a campaign sprang up, spread by a loose network of online activists using the hashtag #SaveRahaf, and the world watched as she refused to board a flight to Saudi Arabia and barricade herself in a transit lounge hotel room.

Thai officials let her enter the country on Monday.

Her case has drawn attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women get permission from a male “guardian” to travel, which campaigners say trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

According to al-Qunun, her family had threatened to kill her “for the most trivial things”.

She told reporters she has endured “physical, emotional and verbal abuse”, had been imprisoned at home, denied the right to drive or travel and was told that she would not be allowed to continue her education.

It is not an isolated incident. In November, two Saudi sisters, Rotana Farea, 23, and Tala Farea, 16, were found dead along the banks of New York’s Hudson River after running away from their family, based in the US, amid reports of abuse.

In April 2017, Saudi woman Dina Ali Lasloom was stopped in transit in the Philippines while fleeing her family. She was seen "screaming and begging for help" as men carried her "with duct tape on her mouth, feet and hands" at the airport, an official said.

It also comes as Riyadh faces a global backlash over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

According to Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, a watchdog, Saudi Arabia ranks 99th out of 153 countries in measures of women’s wellbeing, scoring particularly badly on legal discrimination.

According to UNHCR, some 1,256 people from Saudi claimed asylum in 2017, though this figure includes men and women.

For Valji, governments around the world need to change policies so that women and girls are not forced to flee in the first place. Al-Qunun’s case highlights the need for “better protections, better rights, gender equality”, she said.

“That needs to be and is the responsibility of every national government and those should be the issues that are addressed at home so there are equal protections for women and so that asylum is not something that [women] need to seek,” Valji told TRT World.

Valji also pointed to problems in the global legal architecture for asylum claims.

The 1951 Refugee Convention says applicants must face a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

While women can qualify for asylum as members of a “particular social group”, this is not recognised across the board, said Valji.