Earlier this month, 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun grabbed her passport and snuck out of her hotel room in Kuwait, where she and her family had been vacationing from Saudi Arabia. She crawled into a taxi slated for the international airport and called a friend, crying.
“She knew at any moment she would be dead so she was so, so scared,” Shahad Al Mohaimeed says. “I tried to tell her to be calm and tell her that it was really, really worth it. I told her we will save her and never forget her.”
Alqunun fled to Bangkok, where she was stopped by Thai authorities. She barricaded herself in her airport hotel room and demanded to meet with representatives of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Using Twitter, Alqunun documented the standoff in real time, garnering tens of thousands of followers. A loose group of activists and friends, including Al Mohaimeed, bolstered her social media campaign using the hashtag #SaveRahaf.
After a nearly week-long international drama that caught the attention of the world, Alqunun was granted asylum in Canada, arriving on Friday.
In the interim, Saudi women took to social media to express their long-held indignation with the “guardianship system.”
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most repressive countries for women. A woman needs permission from her male guardian for key decisions such as to travel, marry, work and receive health care. The restrictions effectively turn women into perpetual dependents.
Egyptian American activist Mona Eltahawy, who began tweeting translations of Alqunun’s tweets as soon as they posted to Twitter, says guardianship laws imprison women, adding that Saudi women she’s interviewed have had their smartphones taken away by family members because they understood that access to phones gave access to the rest of the world.
“What Rahaf did is a revolution,” she says. “We now have a young woman who has shown us that women are rising up against the dictator in the home and in her society.”
“Rahaf has forced onto the global consciousness what it’s like to be a Saudi woman, that there are thousands of Saudi women who say ‘We want to be free, we are here, and we’ve always been here,’” says Eltahawy. “If anything this is a testament just how access to the Internet and especially social media has given us this front row seat to this.”
Alqunun continued to tweet of her plight in real time with the support of friends Al Mohaimeed in Sweden, “Nourah” in Australia and “Eros” in Canada. The tweets were urgent, fevered and desperate.
Alqunun fled Saudi Arabia because of physical abuse. Al Mohaimeed says she had been locked in her bedroom for six months after she cut her hair without the approval of her male guardian.
In tweets, Alqunun said that she had renounced Islam, a move that carries the legal punishment in Saudi Arabia of death. She received death threats, including from her cousin.
As Alqunun’s situation unfolded in tweets and in the news, Al Mohaimeed, Nourah, and Eros took shifts day and night, tweeting on Alqunun’s account and “being ready if she needed us,” says Al Mohaimeed, who fled from her family to seek asylum when she was 17.
“We know exactly what Rahaf is feeling right now. We don’t want her to feel what we did: scared,” she says about her friend who she describes as kind, funny, and sociable.
Al Mohaimeed says she ran away from an abusive father. “It was real, real violence,” she says, adding that her father abused her brother as well but she got it worse “because I was a girl.”
Al Mohaimeed says she tried to go to her mother about the abuse but all she was told was that her father “has the right to do that.”
Eltahawy explains her theory on why some women are complicit to the abuse: “Proximity to patriarchy” gives women privilege. She likens it to the white women who voted for President Trump.
“In exchange for standing close to patriarchy and not speaking out, they are offered a limited form of power and protection but you must remember that that protection is contingent on them not speaking out,” she says.
Al Mohaimeed and her friends began planning three months ago for an organization outside of Saudi Arabia that would “be there” for victims of abuse seeking asylum outside the kingdom. Oftentimes, she explains, the protection services offered to abuse victims requires a signature from a woman’s male guardian, who could be the abuser she’s seeking shelter from.
“I think what the world is missing about the guardianship system is to acknowledge what they do in Saudi Arabia. It is a form of gender apartheid,” says Eltahawy. For all the women who have fled or attempted to flee the grips of guardianship laws, many others have been imprisoned for their activism in Saudi Arabia.
Even though she has escaped, Al Mohaimeed knows Alqunun will face challenges as she adjusts to her new life in Canada.
“We will grow up in this country. We will get used to it. We will love the people in it,” she says.