A New Chance for a Saudi Woman

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Courtesy of Insider

Rahaf Mohammed speaks out about Thai immigration laws.

Lizzie Koumans, Sentry Staff Reporter

The internet blew up on January 6 after Saudi Arabian teen Rahaf Mohammed (formerly Rahaf al-Qunun) took to Twitter to protest the Thai immigration officials who were attempting to deport her to Kuwait. Mohammed had been vacationing with her family in Kuwait when she escaped them and took a flight to Thailand. Mohammed was attempting to take a connecting flight and make her way to Australia where she hoped to be granted asylum, but was stopped by Thai authorities in Bangkok when they took her passport.

The Thai officials threatened to deport Mohammed back to Kuwait, but before they could, Mohammed barricaded herself in her airport hotel room and demanded to meet with representatives of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Mohammed claimed that she was trying to escape her abusive family and she feared they would kill her if she returned. After locking herself in her room, she began frantically pleading for help and documenting the standoff with authorities on her Twitter account, which gained thousands of followers quickly and gained more attention when activists began using the hashtag #SaveRahaf. After her social media cries for help were amplified by human-rights organizations and activists from across the world, Mohammed’s calls were finally answered when she met with UNHCR officials on January 7.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., Mohammed spoke of the terrifying period when she was uncertain of her fate, in which she even considered taking her own life. Mohammed said she was expecting Thai officials to burst into the hotel room in which she was hiding and kidnap her.

Fortunately for Mohammed, her story did not end in that hotel room. Deportation proceedings against Mohammed were halted soon after the meeting and her case was turned over to UNHCR officials. They worked furiously to process her request for refugee status and find a country that would accept her if she qualified. Refugees often wait years for a country to offer asylum, but because of the large amount of social media attention and the severity of Mohammed’s case, Canada was quick to help out and grant the teen refuge. On January 11, Mohammed flew from Bangkok to Toronto and now is excited to start a new life for herself in Canada.

In less than two weeks, Mohammed has gone from the cloistered life of a woman in Saudi Arabia to independence on the opposite side of the world. Mohammed, given her newfound opportunity and voice, is excited about what she can do next. She wants to go to college and study architecture as well as take English classes. Also, after becoming a social media sensation and gaining worldwide attention, now with over 200,000 followers on her Twitter account, Mohammed has taken advantage of the chance to speak out about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. She has especially been speaking on Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship” law that restricts women’s freedoms and rights to travel and work.

“[Women in Saudi Arabia] can’t be independent. They need the approval of their male guardian for everything. Any woman who thinks of escaping or escapes, will be at risk of persecution. I want to be independent, travel, make my own decisions on education, a career, and who and when I should marry. I had no say in any of this. Today, I can proudly say that I am capable of making all of those decisions,” Mohammed said in a public statement in Toronto on January 15.

With her newfound freedom, Mohammed immediately chose to drop her surname. She was previously known as “Rahaf al-Qunun,” but upon arriving in Canada, she dropped her family name and will use “Mohammed” instead.

She has also fully embraced life in Canada, sharing pictures online of her enjoying bacon and Starbucks coffee as well as bundling up for the winter weather.

Now that Mohammed’s case has been mostly settled, Thailand has had the time to revise its notoriously harsh policies on treatment of refugees. On Wednesday, the newly appointed head of immigration in Thailand, Surachate Hakparn, said refugees would no longer be returned home “involuntarily,” as was attempted with Mohammed’s case. This would be a major reform to current, and long-running guidelines in Thailand of refusing asylum seekers and not providing them with shelter or help.

For now, Mohammed will try to reestablish her life in a new country away from the bustle of news reporters and the world of politics. Though she faces death threats daily and even has a personal security guard, Mohammed said she wants to focus on her studies, settle down and live a regular life just like any other woman in Canada.