Image source: The National
By Eleonora Zuares
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi teenager that took everyone’s attention when she flew away from her abusive family, is now safe in Canada encouraging other women to be brave and free.
But who is she and how did she gain thousands of supporters in just a few weeks?
It all began when Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, scared of her family decided to fly away. The 18-year-old feared her father and brother after she renounced Islam and said that they would kill her if she had to be forced to come back to Saudi Arabia.
After being advised to leave, she planned her escape with the help of her friends in Australia, Canada, and Sweden, who themselves already left Saudi Arabia behind.
After months of plotting the escape, on January 6th, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun followed the plan and ran away during a family trip to Kuwait. Everything went as planned until she landed in Bangkok where she wanted to spend a few days as a “free woman”. Despite her friends buying her a ticket from Thailand to Australia and advising her not to do it as it was risky, the teenager decided to stay. As her friends planned, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun got stopped by Thai immigration officials. They banned her from entering Thailand and was threatened to be deported back to Kuwait. Reports say that she was stopped during her transit because of her lack of documents and because Saudi officials had contacted them to say she had fled away from her family.
As the young woman was subjected through physical and mental abuse by her family, she had to prevent her deportation. She made the decision to tell the United Nations (UN) that she feared her family would kill her if she was repatriated and asked for protection while being barricaded in an airport hotel room.
The next day, the teenager posted a tweet that eventually became viral, asking Australia, Canada, the United States or the United Kingdom’s to help her. A few days later the UN referred her case to Australia with the government considering granting her asylum.
After a meeting with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the immigration chief, Surachate Hakparn, announced that Thailand “will not force her” to leave. He also sent Thai security to help take care of her and declared “she can stay in Thailand for a while seeking asylum to a third country”.
Following this announcement, Qunun tweeted that she felt safe under Thailand’s UNHCR protection. She then retweeted her previous tweet and specified that she decided she wants Canada to give her asylum.
After this Ms. Al-Qunun left the airport to a safe place in the city. “Thailand is a land of smiles” said Surachate, “We will not send anyone to die and will take care of her as best as we can”.
Meanwhile, the woman’s father, a regional government official, contacted the diplomatic mission for “help bringing her back”. Despite a spokesperson for her family told BBC that they did not wish to comment on the situation and that all they cared about was her safety, the teenager refused to meet him. The Saudi-Kingdom is known for having restricting rules on women and to be punished, they could go through “honor killing”.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun told reporters she would likely be imprisoned if she came back and she was “sure 100%” her family would kill her. “My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair,” she said. Furthermore, the teenager not only escaped but also renounced Islam which puts her at higher risk of prosecution by the Saudi Arabian Government.
This fear of her family became even more controversial when a Whatsapp conversation with Ms. Al-Qunun was posted in which she said: ‘I’m happy because I’m out the airport now but I’m worried because my dad is here.’
Later on, Rahda Stirling, a Dubai-based human rights lawyer, said: ‘She has violated Saudi laws in seeking to travel without the permission of her male guardian and has now further violated a number of laws and outraged the regime. There are reports that she is receiving death threats and that Saudi men are calling for her to be hanged as an example to other would be ‘rebels’.’
With now thousands and thousands of people supporting Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the situation became worse when Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, charge d’affaires at Bangkok’s Saudi embassy said ‘It would have been better if they confiscated her phone instead of her passport because Twitter changed everything’. Ms. Al-Qunun replied indirectly writing “The Twitter account has changed the game against what he wished for me.”
The father however later decided to deny he ever physically abused her. ‘He said that he has been taking good care of his daughter, he never forced her or hurt her. He continued, saying that in Saudi Arabia there is an agency that enforces the law [against abuse], and he certainly couldn’t do anything illegal’ General Surachate said. He continued telling reporters that he has 10 children and could have felt neglected sometimes but nothing more. After these declarations, he didn’t go into details.
Following this, Ms. Al-Qunun tweeted “Hey… I’m happy” to officially declare that the UN declared her as a refugee. With her important number of followers, the teenager decided to empower other women in her same situation and in a separate tweet wrote “Don’t let anyone break your wings, you’re free. fight and get your RIGHTS!”, followed by a post in Arabic which read, “I made it”.
Rahaf Al-Qunun has now arrived in Canada after being granted asylum there. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland introduced the teenager as “a very brave new Canadian”.
In her first interview being Canadian, Qunun told ABC Australia “her case might be the agent for change”. “I think that the number of women fleeing from the Saudi administration and abuse will increase, especially since there is no system to stop them,” she said. Ms. Mohammed explained that she still can’t believe this is happening to her. She wishes her escape will inspire others to leave and admitted she wants to “start a revolution”.
At the end of the interview, the teenager that now has more than 100,000 Twitter followers concluded saying: “I will try things I haven’t tried. I will learn things I didn’t learn. I will explore life… I will have a job and live a normal life.”
Regardless of the different opinions on this story, Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun has soon become one of the bravest and most inspiring teenagers who helped and will continue helping change the word for women.