#SaveRahaf: The Saudi woman who is fleeing her family

An 18-year-old Saudi Arabian woman has been making headlines in recent days after she took part in a hotel standoff with Thai authorities who wished to send her back to Saudi Arabia against her will. She believed she would be killed if this were to have happened.

Over the course of 48 hours, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun live-tweeted her experience, where she pleaded for help. The internet and global media noticed and began to put pressure on Thai authorities and the United Nations to grant her temporary access into the country.

Who is she?

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun is an 18-year-old student from Ha'il in Saudi Arabia who had been holidaying with her family in Kuwait when she fled to Thailand. She was stopped in Suvarnabhumi airport en route to Australia by the Saudi Arabian embassy, who then forcibly seized her passport, which had a valid three-month holiday visa to Australia issued to it. Thai authorities attempted to send her back to Kuwait after her parents filed a missing person's report.

In an interview with the New York Times, Alqunun said that she had been abused by her family her entire life and at one point, had been locked in her room for six months after she cut her hair in a way that her family disapproved of. She said: "I can’t make my own decisions. Even about my own hair, I can’t make decisions." She also told the publication that her family repeatedly beat her.

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The young student had also declared herself an atheist, which is a crime in Saudi Arabia. If she was deported back to her home country, she ran the risk of being arrested or subjected to violence by her family for dishonouring them. She said that if she were to return to her family "they would kill me" and that Saudi Arabia is like "a prison."

A friend of Alqunan confirmed her claims, saying: "She’s ex-Muslim and has a very strict family. They’re using violence with her and she faced sexual harassment. She received a threat from her cousin – he said he wants to see her blood, he wants to kill her.”

What does the law say?

Although Alqunum is 18-years old and technically an adult, Saudi Arabia has a strict guardianship policy which requires women to have permission from a male relative to travel, work, marry and sometimes even to seek medical treatment. These guardians are in control of many aspects of the woman's life, including finances, which means that many women may never have the opportunity to rent their own apartment, go to school or get a job.

In Alqunun's case, she travelled without permission, meaning that her male guardian is within their legal right to request her return back to the country she fled from. These types of restrictions are not applicable in Kuwait, which is why Alqunum decided to travel to Thailand from there.

Her plan was to stay in Thailand until she could leave for Australia to seek asylum. Upon her arrival, she had planned to "meet another Saudi refugee who would help her".

Yesterday (Monday) Thai authorities granted Alqunum temporary entry to Thailand after a meeting with the UN refugee agency UNCHR, who are now reviewing her case. It will take five days for the agency to consider her status and another five to arrange travel. Many media outlets have reported that Australia will grant her asylum if her refugee status is confirmed by the UNCHR.

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This is not the first time a case of this nature has caught global attention. In 2017, a Saudi Arabian woman named Dina Ali Lasloom was deported back to Saudi Arabia when travelling through the Philippines on her way to Australia, to seek asylum to escape Saudi guardianship laws. Her current whereabouts remain unknown.

Online reaction

While waiting for her return flight after the confiscation of her passport, Alqunum barricaded herself in a transit zone hotel room and began to live tweet to raise awareness of her case, including a request for asylum and an intervention from the United Nations.

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Sophie McNeill, an ABC news reporter, joined Alqunum in her room and took to social media to report on the situation.

Thousands of messages of online support began to filter through, with the hashtag #SaveRahaf trending.

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