I first learned about Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun in early January, a few days after news arose of the asylum seeker’s flight from Saudi Arabia. I heard her name mentioned briefly in my policy class, and then more recently a few days ago while watching a video special about the 18-year-old’s harrowing experiences.
In the span of almost an hour, I was educated on the realities that plague many Saudi Arabian women seeking escape from the guardianship laws that regulate their lives. In Saudi Arabia, women are subjected to legal codes based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law in addition to traditional cultural perspectives of different sexes. Under the guardianship laws, a woman is legally dependent on a designated male guardian — either a father, uncle, husband, son or brother — to consent to different daily and basic needs and practices.
According to a New York Times article, a Saudi woman must receive legal permission from her guardian to enroll in school, attend a university outside their hometown, depart the country, travel, receive paid employment outside the home, open a savings account, apply for a loan or credit card and until recently, achieve the right to open a business in their own name and driver’s licenses.
Rahaf was subject to these strict regulations and barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to avoid deportation status after fleeing from her family. She said that her family was abusive — a plight experienced by many other Saudi women — and turned to social media to plea with the public for help.
“They will kill me,” she said.