by Radha Stirling, 9th of January 2019
For obvious reason, the immediate concern in the case of Rahaf Alqunun bas been for her safety; but this incident must develop into a discussion about reform in Saudi Arabia.
As Rahaf appears to be assured of asylum in what are likely to be many welcoming countries following her gripping, real-time narration on social media of her plight; it is appropriate to begin to talk about why she did what she did, which is to say, why she had to.
Initially, Rahaf claimed that she suffered physical and psychological abuse by her family and subsequently declared her renunciation of Islam another reason for her escape. Rahaf was in communication with a network of Saudi expatriate feminists and human rights activists, and it is conceivable that this latter reason was offered following their advice, since renunciation of Islam is legally punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, thus making her deportation highly unlikely.
In some ways, it is more disturbing that Rahaf’s claims of abuse may have prompted her escape, and that these claims would be taken less seriously as a reason for granting her asylum. First of all, if a young woman who has been abused feels the need to seek asylum, becoming a refugee in a foreign country; it can only mean that the legal institutions in her own country provide insufficient support for female victims of domestic abuse. She could not, in other words, go to the police; she could not turn to social workers; she had no recourse whatsoever for protection with her own government. Domestic violence is a global issue; it occurs in every society in the world; but where else do women feel so devalued that the only way they can escape their abuser is to literally appeal to the United Nations for refugee status?
While there have been PR campaigns in Saudi Arabia recently discouraging domestic abuse, there are absolutely no laws in the penal code that criminalise violence against women. Rahaf’s claims of abuse, then, should have been sufficient to prevent her deportation. Certainly, her declared renunciation of Islam puts her at risk of death and gives her a convincing argument for asylum; but as a woman in Saudi Arabia, it is legal for her family to abuse her, and the government could offer no guarantees of her safety.
It is important to talk about the kingdom’s dismal position on religious freedom; everyone should have the right to choose their faith or choose not to have one. But it is fair to assume that the laws on apostasy impact far fewer people than the absence of laws protecting women from domestic violence.
Because of male guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia, it is impossible to know to what extent Rahaf is representative of Saudi women, as there is no opportunity to credibly gauge their opinion; but surely the government must recognise that every woman wants and deserves legal protection against abuse. If the regime is not proactive in instituting such protections, Rahaf’s defiance in the Bangkok airport in 2019 may well be remembered as an historic moment akin to Rosa Parks’ defiance on that Montgomery bus in 1955.
In the wake of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and their catastrophic war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s global image has been plummeting into an abyss. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shuffled his cabinet in an attempt to offset negative publicity and to signal a return to a more moderate approach to foreign affairs; and now his domestic policy needs to refocus on his earlier reformist agenda.
While Saudi authorities may not yet see it this way, Rahaf has given MBS a new impetus for change in Saudi society because, in the final analysis, Rahaf’s appeal for asylum exposes a dramatic systemic failure within the country to protect and empower women. The reflex response of the government, and even many individual Saudis, may be to condemn Rahaf for exposing these failures, but this exposure is a necessary step to addressing them.
Radha Stirling, is founder and CEO of legal and human rights organisation Detained in Dubai, Expert Witness and respected analyst of Middle East Policy.
Ms Stirling has been a prominent advocate for human rights and judicial change and has represented numerous individuals, who have faced injustices.
Radha Stirling, April 2018 at London press conference over the abduction of Sheikha Latifa, daughter of the ruler of Dubai.
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