News World The case of Rahaf Al-Qunun returns attention to Saudi Arabian women

The case of Rahaf Al-Qunun returns attention to Saudi Arabian women

Saudi teen Thai airport
Ms Alqunun says she feels safe in the hands of the UNHCR. Photo: Thailand Immigration Bureau
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As the federal government considers Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun’s bid for asylum in Australia, the Saudi teen’s dramatic stand-off in Bangkok  has turned the international spotlight on the treatment of women in the kingdom.

The 18-year-old Ms Alqunun was deemed a refugee on Wednesday and the Australian Department of Home Affairs is considering a referral for resettlement from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

It comes after she barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to avoid being deported to her family in Saudi Arabia, who she claimed  would harm her.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said it was good news the UNHCR had worked to quickly process her claim.

“It is now time for Australia to welcome her, where she can live as a young woman with the freedom to study and work and be treated as an equal without fear,” Senator Hanson-Young said on Twitter.

Australian director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said she hoped the government would move quickly to offer her a humanitarian visa and bring her to Australia.

It a series of tweets from her hotel room this week, Ms Alqunun said she was fleeing domestic abuse, including beatings and death threats.

She denounced Islam, but said she was forced to practice, and had been kept in her room for six months for cutting her hair.

Sadly, Ms Alqunun story is all to familiar for many Saudi women.

After some small but encouraging signs for women under the rule of new monarch, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who assumed the throne in mid-2017, the plight of Saudi women remains dire in many cases.

Women dissidents were detained in a crackdown last year and advocates allege they have been tortured and sexually harassed, while one woman was arrested for wearing a mini skirt and crop top in 2017.

Women must observe a strict dress code, which requires them to wear an abaya, a loose-fitting dress that covers their hair, and generally goes down to the ankles.

A driving ban was also in place until 2018, following a long-running campaign from activists.

But the biggest impediment for women’s rights is arguably the country’s system of male guardianship laws, believed to originate from the Saudi interpretation of a verse from the Koran: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means.”

Under those laws, women are not allowed to travel, marry, enrol in higher education or obtain a passport without permission from a male guardian. The guardian could be their father, husband, brother or their son.

Stories abound about women arrested for trying to flee their parental homes, citing abuse or forced marriages as their reasons for leaving, with some even tracked down to, and repatriated from, foreign countries.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) considers guardianship the biggest obstacle to women’s rights in the country.

“We all have to live in the borders of the boxes our dads or husbands draw for us,” Zahra, a 25-year-old Saudi woman said in an HRW report in 2016.

Ms Al-Qunun said she was able to board a plane and escape while her family was visiting Kuwait, which does not have the same requirements for a male relative to approve travel.

HRW speculated that if she were returned to Saudi Arabia, she could face possible criminal charges for “parental disobedience” or for “harming the reputation of the kingdom”.

There has been some progress for women, like giving girls the right to play sports at public schools, and the September 2017 decree that allowed women to drive from June last year.

In the lead-up to the end of the driving ban, HRW said Saudi authorities began detaining prominent women’s rights dissidents.

Among those detained was Loujain al-Hathloul, who was also detained in 2014 for 73 days for driving herself from Abu Dhabi to the Saudi border and attempting to cross.

Ms al-Hathloul was arrested as part of a sweep targeting at least 11 women’s right-to-drive activists, who have allegedly been tortured with electrocution and flogging, as well as sexual harassment, according to HRW and Amnesty International.

In July 2017, a woman known as Khulood was arrested for flouting the country’s dress code when she wore a mini skirt and crop-top in public.

Prince bin Salman was perceived in some regards to have ushered in a more moderate way of life for the kingdom, but this has all but been destroyed after the killing of high-profile critic, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at the country’s embassy in Turkey last October.

At the time, Curtin University Middle East affairs expert Dr Ben Rich told The New Daily there was still a long way to go for Saudi women.

“Even now with women having more access to education and being allowed to drive, regardless of age, all women are still treated as second-class citizens,” said Dr Rich, who lived in the kingdom for six months in 2011.

“They have more economic freedom – they can work in healthcare or in a shop – but are still restricted in terms of their legal rights. There’s a long way to go.”

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