Leaving an abusive relationship is hard enough. What happens when the abuser is not just a partner, but a family, a society, or a country?

Many women living in the Arabian Gulf find themselves in this position. In Saudi Arabia in particular, restrictive social norms, enforced by disenfranchising laws, have pushed many women to flee their homes and seek refuge abroad. Some succeed, but many end up being dragged back home, or to prison.

By no means do all women in the Gulf experience lives of torment and subjugation. Some families are open-minded and liberal and some women feel comfortable and cared for within this social structure. Emirati women have been gaining significant social and economic freedoms in recent years, and boldly seizing opportunities, but progress is still limited.

Despite what some call “great strides to reduce the gender gap,” the heavy net of conservative religious and social traditions still weighs women down, severely restricting their ability to determine their own lives and move freely. Those who flee seek to escape this lack of freedom.

Saudi Arabia stands out as one of the least free countries in the world, and the fourth most gender unequal in the world. The kingdom, ruled by a deeply patriarchal absolute monarchy, has a long history of violating the rights of fleeing women, sometimes to a deadly degree.

Princess Mishaal

In 1977, Saudi rulers arrested and executed one of their own, Princess Mishaal bint Fahd, after she tried to flee the country with the man she loved. The details are disputed, but the story is that Mishaal, a granddaughter of the king’s brother, had met and fallen in love with a Saudi man, Khaled al-Sha’er Mulhallal, while studying in Lebanon.

Although he was connected to the Saudi elite, her family did not approve of their relationship, ordering her to return home and enter into an arranged marriage with a man her father’s age. Back home, she and Mulhallal allegedly eloped in secret. The princess then faked her own drowning and the two tried to flee the country in disguise. They were caught, detained, accused of adultery and, after what undoubtedly was an unfair trial, were sentenced to death.

Little of Mishaal’s story would be known had a British citizen working in Saudi Arabia not taken photos of the swift execution, which took place in a parking lot. In front of an audience of Saudi passersby, executioners shot Mishaal in front of her husband, then gruesomely beheaded him.

Shortly after this brutal episode—and apparently in reaction to it—the Saudi government enacted a law that made it illegal for women to leave the country without permission from their male guardians.

Guardianship

Since well before 1977, a system of male guardianship has governed Saudi society.

Since well before 1977, a system of male guardianship has governed Saudi society. It is a social practice and legal code based on an ultra-conservative interpretation of a Qur’anic verse and patriarchal concept of gender. One Saudi scholar explained that the system also mirrors the monarchy’s absolute power, cultivating an acceptance of the hierarchical domination that sustains the male royals who rule the country.

This system puts the choices that shape a woman’s life entirely into the hands of a male relative—her guardian, known as a wali.

From her birth, a woman’s father is her guardian, holding the exclusive right to determine her life. She has little right to make life choices, from fulfilling basic needs to getting married, traveling, or working. If she wants to do or be something, her guardian must consent.

This system continues for the rest of her life. When she marries (which she can only do with her father’s consent), her husband becomes her guardian. If her husband dies, her father either resumes his role as her guardian, or her son, uncle, or brother takes it up, gaining the right to determine her life.  

If a Saudi woman wants to get an education, work, open her own bank account, or travel, her guardian must consent. Women often find themselves unable to even leave the house for errands without a chaperone if their guardian, or even just another male relative, disapproves. Landlords will almost never rent to a single woman, even with the approval of her guardian.

If a woman’s guardian abuses his ability to control her, she has next to no legal recourse to get justice. Some women who report abuse are dealt harsh retribution by their families or the police. If a Saudi woman is arrested, for whatever reason, she cannot be guaranteed a fair trial, and will not be released until her male guardian picks her up.

This system denies women freedom of movement. To merely exist in public spaces, especially the few shared by both women and men, women are expected to be chaperoned by a man. To get a passport and travel abroad, women must get their guardian’s permission.

But if a woman is fleeing the very men who are legally controlling her, this permission is inevitably out of reach. Male guardians can now use a state-run app to track the women who are their “dependants,” receiving a text message when they try to leave the country. With the pressing of a few buttons, they can deny their request.

Exodus

While the guardianship system has strictly limited women’s freedom to leave Saudi Arabia, depriving women of the freedom to move has spurred more of them to try to do so.

According to the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Development, about 577 women tried to flee their homes to other parts of the kingdom in 2015 alone. The data do not account for the women who attempt to escape the country or succeed in doing so, but a Saudi scholar estimated that at least 1,000 women try to escape the kingdom annually.

Increasingly, fleeing Saudi women have been trying to use international refugee law as a way out. U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) data show that the number of Saudi asylum-seekers and refugees (not just women) has shot up since 2013, reaching 2,392 in 2017 alone.

The recent case of Rahaf Mohammed (referred to as Rahaf, here) brought renewed scrutiny to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women. The 18-year-old Saudi woman fled her family while on vacation with them in Kuwait, flying to Thailand with the goal of reaching Australia and claiming asylum. Thai authorities stopped her on January 5, 2019, and took her passport.

Stuck in the airport, she made an appeal on social media, posting videos to Twitter in which she explained her situation and asked for support. Rahaf, who dropped her family name, al-Qunun, after they renounced her, claimed to have been physically and emotionally abused by her family, especially at the hands of her mother and brother. She said that she had been locked in her room for six months after she had cut her hair. On Twitter, she announced, “[My family] will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism.” Renouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

Her tweets alleging abuse and threats of forced marriage and death prompted a swell of international support. With the help of other escaped Saudi women, her story ballooned to gain worldwide attention, pressuring Thailand to back down from forcing her to return home. After just a few days, the UNHCR evaluated her asylum claim, and Canada announced that it would accept her as a refugee.

Rahaf is now living in Canada, where she said she wants to live as a normal young person, free to choose her own life. Unfortunately, her success story is not a common one. She said after arriving in Canada: “I am one of the lucky ones. I know there are unlucky women who disappeared after trying to escape.”

The Unlucky Ones

She might have been talking about Dina Ali Lasloom (referred to as Dina Ali, here) a 24-year-old Saudi woman living in Kuwait who tried to flee a forced marriage in April 2017 and seek asylum in Australia.

Her escape route took her from Kuwait to the Philippines, where, like Rahaf, airport authorities confiscated her passport, detained her, and notified her family in Saudi Arabia. Whereas Thailand is not party to the 1951 UN refugee convention that prohibits the deportation of a person facing gender-based persecution, the Philippines is.

Soon after, two of her uncles arrived at the airport and violently forced her to return to Riyadh, taping her mouth, hands, and feet and carrying her, screaming, onto the plane.  

Dina Ali’s current whereabouts are still unknown, and requests for more information have been denied.

Dina Ali’s current whereabouts are still unknown, and requests for more information have been denied. It is thought that she was put in a women’s detention center and then possibly moved to a women’s shelter, but there is no guarantee that she has not been returned to her family, with potentially deadly consequences.

In a video plea recorded in the airport, Dina Ali echoed Rahaf’s fears: “If my family comes, they will kill me. If I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead.”  

The threat of return is too much to bear for some women, such as the two young Saudi sisters allegedly ordered by Saudi Arabia to return home after they had applied for asylum in the U.S. Last month, their deaths in the Hudson River, bound together by duct tape, were ruled suicides by the New York City chief medical examiner.

The Public Eye

Like Rahaf, Dina Ali used social media as a lifeline. After her passport was taken, she walked up to a stranger in the airport and asked for help. The stranger, a Canadian woman, listened to Dina Ali’s story and helped her film a video pleading for support. The video, posted to Twitter, prompted a trending hashtag—#SaveDinaAli—but not until Dina Ali had already been abducted by her uncles and returned to the kingdom. In her case, social media could not work fast enough to save her.

These public pleas for help have become a recurring practice for fleeing Saudi women. They have limited outlets and no support network at home, so they seek support from an increasingly globally-connected, international public. But this only works some of the time.

Many of the women who try, or even succeed in, escaping Saudi Arabia and their family members, do not receive widespread attention. Those who do are often already in the public eye—i.e. princesses or activists—or come to find a global audience through social media.

One high-profile case took place last year in the UAE. The UAE does not have guardianship laws like Saudi Arabia, but a conservative, patriarchal family system still dominates.

Sheikha Latifa bin Mohammed al-Maktoum, a daughter of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, fled the UAE in February 2018, in an elaborate escape involving a Finnish friend, a French ex-spy, jet skis and a yacht. The escape yacht was intercepted by Indian and Emirati authorities off the coast of India a few days later—Sheikha Latifa was captured and returned to the UAE.

Some months later, her family posted photos of her with a former UNHCR chief, in an attempt to assure the public of her well-being. Her friends and human rights activists still believe that she is being held against her will, possibly drugged into submission.

Soon after, her supporters released a video that she had secretly made before her escape, detailing the severe abuses of her family against her. Sheikha Latifa had attempted to escape as a teenager, and was tortured and imprisoned for three years, she claimed. Over 2.5 million people have watched the video, but Sheikha Latifa remains in the custody of her family, cut off from the outside world.

Generally only women who can afford plane tickets (or have connections to yacht owners) even have the opportunity to flee. And, while all women on Saudi soil face discrimination, those born abroad are not subject to the guardianship system (37 percent of Saudi residents are foreign born). Immigrant women, particularly Westerners, generally enjoy more agency.

However, some employers trap foreign born women workers by confiscating their passports; Mellany Zabala, a Filipina domestic worker, tried to take her own life after being denied permission to leave Saudi Arabia after her only child had died back home.

Shallow Progress

Even though Sheikha Latifa came from abundant financial privilege, she fled the same deprivation of choice and glaring gender inequality that many Gulf women face. While her half-brother, the much-loved Crown Prince Hamdan, roams the world freely, she is kept on an extremely tight leash.

In Saudi Arabia in particular, men almost invariably have the freedom to do things women cannot, and women are valued less.

Gulf women have gained some rights in the past decade, but in Saudi Arabia, they have been largely superficial. Since the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), became the de facto leader of the kingdom in 2017, he has tried painting himself as a liberal reformer. His repeal of a law that banned women from driving has garnered widespread attention, but often with the disclaimer that it is but a small gesture in the face of a monumental barrier. The excited faces of new drivers are a good distraction from those of imprisoned activists.

While MbS has instituted progress, he has also cracked down hard on dissent, most notably in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. When women push back, they often get pushed back even harder. Women activists who had fought for the right to drive have been and are still imprisoned, tortured, and denied contact with the outside world.

Women who campaign against guardianship have been dealt a heavy hand, but have made some gains. Activists submitted a 14,000-signature petition to the Royal Court in 2016, calling for the abolition of the guardianship system.

Women who campaign against guardianship have been dealt a heavy hand, but have made some gains. Activists submitted a 14,000-signature petition to the Royal Court in 2016, calling for the abolition of the guardianship system. The kingdom’s head religious jurist labeled the petition a crime against Islam and “an existential threat to Saudi society,” but King Salman banned “unofficial” guardianship rules some months later. Saudi women now also have the right to be notified by text message if their husband divorces them — something which previously could be done without their knowledge.

But the abandonment of informal guardianship rules has proven largely hollow, like many other women’s rights concessions. Although forced marriage was banned in 2005, it continues in practice. Despite Saudi Arabia’s ratification in 2000 of a 1979 UN women’s rights convention that, among other measures, promised the elimination of the guardianship system, it still exists. The kingdom stated in a 2009 UN human rights review that “gender equality is guaranteed” in its territory, but the country is still one of the most gender unequal in the world.  

These token women’s rights reforms will not signal true progress unless the Saudi monarchy backs up its words with serious action. Male guardianship laws must be repealed and laws protecting women’s rights need to be enforced with vigor. Activists need to be released and their demands heard. Women need to be allowed to make choices for themselves, without male oversight.

Yet, even profound legal progress will engender minimal change without a tectonic cultural shift. Even if family members are supportive, social and religious pressure together keep women subordinated. If the guardianship system is legally abolished, conservative social norms and gender beliefs might still keep the practice alive. Families must allow their daughters, sisters, and mothers to have the freedom to study, travel, marry, and live without male consent.

Unless deep and abiding change is made in Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf region more widely, more women will follow in the footsteps of Princess Mishaal, Rahaf Mohammed, Dina Ali Lasloom, and Sheikha Latifa and flee a home that might as well be a prison.