Saudi Kingdom Tries To Prevent More Women From Fleeing

Not surprising:

After an 18-year-old Saudi woman, who said she feared death if deported to Saudi Arabia, arrived in Canada, she directed some of her first public commentsback home. Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun encouraged other women to flee family abuse and the oppressive controls imposed on them by the conservative kingdom.

She has just showed them how to do it.

Alqunun was offered asylum in Canada in January after she barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room, from where she mounted a sophisticated social media campaign that sparked international headlines and sympathy.

But in Saudi Arabia, Alqunun’s successful escape from a prominent family spurred harsh media attacks and a social media narrative accusing Western nations of using Saudi women to undermine the kingdom. Still, the domestic campaign is unlikely to deter other young women from fleeing the kingdom, say activists who are in touch with women planning to run.

The high-profile story is “going to set off copycat scenarios,” says Bessma Momani, a Middle East specialist at Canada’s University of Waterloo. “I think women will feel more emboldened.”

She explains that Alqunun’s story has provided a virtual road map for others and revealed a network of groups willing to work out logistics and offer escape strategies. “Rahaf’s story showed there is a quasi-organized group that is willing to help,” Momani says.

Alqunun’s asylum in Canada comes as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, portrays himself as the leader who is steering the country toward a more secular modernity.

Movie theaters have reopened. Saudi women can now drive cars and attend sports events. The kingdom says it has made it easier for women to enter the workplace.

“Any way you slice it, MBS has done more change than anyone in the last 50 years,” says Ali Shihabi, who heads the Arabia Foundation, a pro-Saudi think tank in Washington, D.C. Reform is “an art rather than a science,” he says, “and being an art, there are going to be mistakes. He can’t let the snowball get too big.”

The crown prince is also behind a harsh crackdown on political dissent. That includes jailing more than a dozen women’s rights activists who were vocally pushing for an end to Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, which allows male relatives to control most aspects of a woman’s life.

“When MBS came, he made it clear: ‘You either listen to me, or you go to jail,’ ” says Yasmine Farouk, a visiting scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“He is that much of a dictator that he is able to impose measures that other kings were too scared to impose on society. We are talking about a regime that wants to do everything under its control.”

But the growing number of Saudis seeking refuge abroad undermines Prince Mohammed’s international image as a leader bringing new personal freedoms to the kingdom, says 30-year-old Samah Damanhoori. She was granted asylum in the United States last year after she accused her family of abuse and declared she was no longer a Muslim.

“OK, we are going to let you drive — happy now? Stop running away,” she says, to explain her views on reforms introduced by Prince Mohammed. “But more women are running away. We have to do that to get them full rights.”

In Saudi Arabia, men wield vast powers over women. The guardianship system gives male relatives control over women’s travel, education, medical treatment and marriage. An app called Absher allows Saudi men to specify when and where a woman can travel. The service includes a message alert when a woman uses her passport at an airport or a border crossing.

Fleeing even an abusive home is a crime. If caught, a woman can be jailed or housed in a government-run shelter until her guardian permits her release.

Alqunun’s success was a “huge shake,” Damanhoori says, because she comes from a prominent family, the daughter of a powerful governor.

“The more powerful the family, the harder for a woman to escape, because of family connections. But she made it.”

Alqunun’s family status may explain why the Saudi government has ramped up a campaign to stem the flow. In recent weeks, the General Department for Counter Extremism released an online video as a warning. The animated message compares women who flee the country to young men who join terrorist groups — and blames a vast international conspiracy that it says is aiming to damage the kingdom’s image through its youth.

“Everyone who tried to escape, they compare her with ISIS — it’s horrible,” complains Damanhoori.

“This is not going to end,” says Hala Aldosari, a Saudi activist and writer based in New York. “It will get worse.”

Aldosari says the government blames “agents of the West” and “women activists” as the culprits of the alleged global plot to destabilize Saudi Arabia, “rather than the grievance of the women.” She says the common denominator among those trying to flee is that they are “women who come from controlling or abusive families” and who believe that running is the only way to survive.

The rise of social media has opened a window for people to compare Saudi women’s rights with women’s rights in other Gulf nations. “Saudi women are now more aware of the restriction they live with, and they take higher risks to escape,” Aldosari says.

Reliable statistics in Saudi Arabia on these escapes are hard to find. Some families don’t report a missing daughter for fear of social stigma in a society where a family’s honor is tied to the behavior of women.

Figures on Saudi asylum-seekers abroad, however, are known to have increased. Saudis made 815 asylum claims worldwide in 2017, compared with 195 in 2012, according to the latest tallies published in the United Nations Refugee Agency’s database. Their destinations include the U.S., Canada, Germany, Sweden, the U.K. and Australia.

In 2011, Manal al-Sharif was jailed for nine days in Saudi Arabia for protesting driving restrictions. Her activism cost her the custody of her son, she says. Now she is living in self-imposed exile in Sydney.

“These proclaimed reforms are just refurbishing a huge cage,” al-Sharif says of the changes in Saudi Arabia. “We can’t run a country when half of it is depending on the other half.”

But inside the kingdom, the crown prince is largely viewed as trying to change that equation, says Farouk at Carnegie. “It really is a paradox. It’s the strong man who is able to impose reforms without being afraid of the consequences.”

But Saudi officials know the consequences of the continued flight of women. That undermines the international message that Saudi Arabia is modernizing and that Prince Mohammed has opened a new era of freedoms.

Alqunun’s father, who is a governor, released a statement in January saying that the family had disowned the runaway and calling her “the mentally unstable daughter who has displayed insulting and disgraceful behavior.” That prompted the 18-year-old to drop her family name, she told reporters.

Her father reportedly denied physically abusing her or trying to force her into marriage, according to The Associated Press.

So far, Farouk says, the domestic response, even among women, is to condemn Alqunun’s escape as reckless.

“They don’t care,” Farouk says. “Things have changed in their daily life: They can drive to work, they can go to concerts, play sports. As long as their daily life has been made easier, why care about politics?”

But there is still a limit to personal freedoms. “They will care when they try to contest a policy at work,” she says. “They will be jailed or interrogated, or their fathers will have to get them out of the police station. They will care, but it will take time.”

Source: Saudi Kingdom Tries To Prevent More Women From Fleeing

Did Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed jump the queue with her speedy resettlement to Canada?

Good overview on the process followed:

Did Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun jump the queue over other refugees when Canada quickly opened its doors to the Saudi teen who was fleeing an allegedly abusive family?

Not according to Canadian immigration officials and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

While Rahaf’s plea for help on social media got her international headlines and drew the attention of the UNHCR to her plight, the emergency rescue effort was by no means unique — though the warm embrace by a foreign minister at the airport may be.

According to immigration officials, some 200 people are processed under Canada’s Urgent Protection Program each year, with about 50 resettled within the rapid timelines seen in Rahaf’s case. The 18-year-old arrived in Toronto Saturday — accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland — after a tumultuous week that began with Rahaf escaping from her family during a trip to Kuwait. Rahaf then flew to Bangkok, where she was detained by Thai authorities who prepared to deport her to Saudi Arabia, where she feared for her life.

“Canada has the flexibility to respond quickly to individual emergency situations for a small number of refugees,” said immigration department spokesperson Beatrice Fenelon. “These individuals are resettled on an expedited basis due to their particular circumstances.”

In a news conference in Toronto Tuesday, Rahaf, who has dropped her last name after she learned on social media that her family has disowned her, admitted she was “lucky.”

“I know that there are unlucky women who disappeared after trying to escape or who could not do anything to change their reality,” she told reporters.

People in need of protection cannot apply directly to the special Canadian program and requests must be made by referral organizations, such as the UNHCR.

Since Rahaf’s speedy resettlement to Canada — less than a week after she started a Twitter campaign while barricaded inside her hotel room — she has faced backlash not only from internet trolls criticizing her as a disgrace to her family and Islam but also from refugee supporters accusing her of being a queue jumper.

“A Syrian refugee from a war zone who lost everything is not welcome in the west. But a person from a golden palace in Saudi-Arabia who says ‘I am not a Muslim anymore’ is a hero and very welcome. Can someone explain this to me?” Arnoud van Doorn, a member of The Hague City Council in the Netherlands, asked on Twitter.

In Rahaf’s case, the UNHCR dispatched a team to her hotel room in Bangkok for an emergency resettlement assessment after learning from media reports that the teenager was going to be handed over to her family, who were en route to Thailand and planned to take her back to Saudi Arabia.

Among the 25.4 million refugees worldwide, less than 1 per cent end up being resettled, many of them after years in limbo.

“Emergency resettlement is extremely rare,” noted Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the UNHCR representative to Canada. “Based on agreed-upon criteria, we refer these cases to the 30 countries that offer resettlement programs. There are many situations. It could be for the lack of medical care or the fear of torture if someone is returned to the country of origin.”

At her hotel in Bangkok, Rahaf was given a formal interview where she was asked to provide the details and evidence to substantiate her claims of mental and physical abuse by her family. After she got her UNHCR refugee designation, she underwent a thorough security and criminal check, as well as a medical exam, before being admitted to Canada.

“Rahaf met those criteria and we referred her case to several countries. Canada was the fastest to respond. Rahaf can’t choose her destination. She didn’t jump any queue. It’s a different process with different criteria,” said Beuze. “It’s not a unique case, but it’s only unique because of all the media and social media attention.”

While some critics fear Rahaf’s case may set a precedent and open the floodgates for other Middle Eastern women to claim gender oppression, experts say resettlement is only available to those who make it outside their country of origin.

“The assumption is your country can protect you. You become a refugee because you don’t get the protection and other countries need to step in,” said Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “Due to the notion of sovereignty, you can’t be a refugee in your own country.”

While praising Canada’s quick response to Rahaf’s situation, Dench said government officials must not politicize the refugee resettlement process by only prioritizing cases of those “who have the ears of the Prime Minister or Immigration Minister and are the favourite of the month of the media.”

According to the UNHCR, 1.4 million refugees have been identified for resettlement in 2019, but only 80,000 spots are available, including 11,000 in Canada.

Source: Did Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed jump the queue with her speedy resettlement to Canada?

Christie Blatchford has a nice column on her strong character and independence, somewhat spoiled by her last editorial comments on grief and trauma counsellors:

She is a psychologically sturdy, resourceful and strong-willed young woman, this Rahaf Mohammed, recent “urgent protection” case freshly arrived in Toronto from Saudi Arabia via Kuwait and Thailand.

“I want to be independent, travel, make my own decisions on education, a career or who and when I should marry,” she said Tuesday at a big press appearance at COSTi Immigrant Services in the city’s west end.

“I had no say in any of this,” Rahaf said. “Today, I can proudly say that I am capable of making all of those decisions.”

She spoke in Arabic, her words translated and read in English by her COSTI settlement worker, Saba Abbas.

But there is no doubt she wrote it, said COSTI executive director Mario Calla with a grin, acknowledging he has seen evidence of the ferocious independent spirit himself.

For instance, he said, inundated with media requests from across the globe, Rahaf was crystal clear that she would do three interviews (with the ABC Australia network, the CBC and Toronto Star) and that was it, because “ ‘I want to get on with my life,’” Calla said.

“We suggested a press conference,” he said and she agreed to write a statement.

“That statement was all her,” Calla said. “She’s been very clear.”

As she said in it, “I understand that everyone here and around the world wishes me well and would like to continue to hear about how I am doing, but I will not be conducting any more media interviews for the time being.

“I ask everyone to respect my wishes.

“I would like to start living a normal private life, just like any other young woman living in Canada. This starts with me getting help in my settlement process and of course, learning English!”

As a government-sponsored refugee, Rahaf is entitled to 12 months of support (worth almost as much as social assistance, Calla said, lest the amount fuel local resentment), and COSTI will help with English classes, getting her settled into temporary accommodation (first with a family, later on her own) and has hired security guards as protection.

In defying her family and leaving behind the repressive guardianship system of Saudi Arabia, which infantilizes women from cradle to grave and makes them dependent on male relatives (father, husband, brother, etc.) for every decision, the 18-year-old has potentially put herself in danger.

Any country brazen enough to arrange to murder one of its own, as Saudi officials have acknowledged doing to journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, has a long and lethal reach.

As well, Rahaf has been vilified in the Arab world, with the Kingdom insisting the entire business is a family matter blown out of proportion. Amid all the love she has received on social media, inevitably for this new media world, there comes a backlash, and she also has received some threats. She has left Islam.

And Rahaf’s family has apparently denounced her in a tweet of its own; even discussing this was painful for her in the interviews she did.

“She finds it very difficult,” Calla said after her brief appearance before the cameras. “She does not want to talk about those things.” So she decided, he said, fine, she’d pull the Band-Aid off in one fell swoop: “’I’ll get it out there’” (in the interviews) and be done with it.

She arrived in Canada last Saturday after sneaking out from under her family’s grasp on the last day of their holiday in Kuwait, hopping a plane to Bangkok, and then, with her father and brother apparently enroute to retrieve her, barricading herself in an airport hotel room and launching a desperate Twitter campaign begging for help.

She had the savvy of her age group, to harness social media. It’s new, but refugees have long been innovative. As Calla said, “It’s a complex world. People do everything and anything to try to save themselves.” Some sneak over borders; some jump into little boats and try to cross perilous oceans; a few, and probably soon a few more, use social media.

For all her determination and resourcefulness, she’s also just a teenager. The first order of business, Calla said, after she arrived was to go to the mall.

Rahaf had been expecting to end up in Australia, where she was also welcomed, but the bureaucracy there was slower moving, and on the advice of the UNHCR, she landed in Canada instead, wearing just a little skirt. She needed winter clothes.

“And a phone package,” Calla said, smiling. “We did that on Saturday.”

In her new country, press-gangs of grief counsellors and soothers are brought into high schools and colleges at the first hint of trauma, discomfort, even disrespect. The cultural assumption here is that we are fragile beings. So, Calla was asked if Rahaf is receiving psychological support.

“She is not, right now,” he said. “We do have services at COSTI … We have not seen any signs of distress in that sense.” In the longer term, he said, “for any refugee, the big challenge is the loss — family and friends and a culture that was familiar to them.”

In that sense, one of the country’s newest arrivals is like a delicious throwback to an older and more self-reliant Canada.

Stay tough, darling.

Source: Christie Blatchford: Stow the trauma counsellors, this tough runaway is doing fine on her own