Q&A: The hurdles and obstacles Saudi women runaways face

In this Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, image made from video released by Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun/Human Rights Watch, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun views her mobile phone as she sits barricaded in a hotel room at an international airport in Bangkok, Thailand. Alqunun says she is fleeing abuse by her family and wants asylum in Australia. (Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun/Human Rights Watch via AP)
In this Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, photo released by Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun/Human Rights Watch, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun views her mobile phone as she sits barricaded in a hotel room at an international airport in Bangkok, Thailand. Alqunun says she is fleeing abuse by her family and wants asylum in Australia. (Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun/Human Rights Watch via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun is the latest young Saudi woman to attempt to flee her family and seek asylum abroad. Her calls for help on Twitter have grabbed international attention and prompted Thai authorities to say they will not deport her back to her family.

With Saudi women runaways increasingly using social media to amplify their desperate pleas for help, here's a look at the obstacles they face:

WHY ARE SOME SAUDI WOMEN FLEEING?

Alqunun has told rights groups and media she's fleeing an abusive family and seeking greater freedoms abroad.

Saudi females who flee their families are almost always running away from abusive male relatives, often a father or brother. In a few of the cases, the women have also renounced Islam and claim they cannot return home. They fear they could be killed after publicly denouncing the faith and publicizing their identities online.

In other cases, a woman's father might be barring from her marriage or forcing her into marriage. In other cases her salary is being confiscated, or she's facing sexual or physical abuse.

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WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?

The kingdom has granted women greater rights in recent years, like the right to drive, run and vote in local elections and play sports in school.

Ultimately, however, male guardianship laws remain in place. Under these laws, a woman must have her male guardian's permission in order to obtain a passport, travel abroad or marry.

From childhood through adulthood , every Saudi woman passes from the control of one legal guardian to another, a male relative whose decisions or whims can determine the course of her life. Legal guardians are often a woman's father or husband, but can also be a brother or her own son.

Although King Salman has tried to limit its scope, male permission is sometimes still demanded when a woman tries to rent an apartment, undergo elective medical procedures or open a bank account.

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HOW OFTEN DO SAUDI WOMEN RUN AWAY?

There are no public statistics available for how many Saudi women try to flee abroad each year. The most recent statistics from the Ministry of Labor and Social Development show that 577 Saudi women tried to flee their homes within Saudi Arabia in 2015. That figure is likely to be much higher in reality because many families do not report runaways for fear of social stigma.

Social media has brought attention to a number of cases of women trying to flee in recent years.

Saudi women like Dina Ali Lasloom who was stopped in the Philippines, two Saudi sisters who fled to Turkey, and now Rafah Alqunun in Thailand have all used Twitter and social media to raise awareness of their plight and ask for help.

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WHAT HAPPENS TO WOMEN FORCED BACK TO SAUDI ARABIA?

If women are caught running away, they can be pressured to return home or placed in shelters where often the only way out is to escape again. Others are jailed for violating so-called obedience laws and only a male guardian can sign for their release.

Last year, Mariam al-Otaibi spent more than 100 days in prison in Saudi Arabia after her father filed a complaint to police against her for leaving home. She'd moved from the ultraconservative province of Qassim to the capital, where supporters helped her rent an apartment and find work.

Women can also be placed in restrictive shelters where they cannot freely access the internet or mobile phones. Their movements are also restricted and often the only way to leave is with the consent of a male guardian.

The shelters say they offer women psychiatric care and therapy, but do not take in women who, for example, are pregnant out of wedlock. Premarital sex can lead to criminal prosecution in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries.

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WHAT HAPPENS TO WOMEN SEEKING ASYLUM ABROAD?

Saudi women who attempt to apply for asylum face a number of legal hurdles, including proving abuse. Without evidence, such as threatening texts, video or photos of abuse, a woman's case for asylum can be rejected in the United States, for example.

Without access to a bank account of their own or a credit card, women can find themselves in dire circumstances in foreign countries where they do not know the local laws.

Saudi activists who have successfully fled political persecution in the kingdom do not advise women to flee as a first option, warning that women who run away without a clear plan in place are vulnerable to various kinds of abuse.

Often the Saudi women who run away are young and inexperienced, further complicating their ability to navigate lengthy and complex asylum processes.

Two young Saudi sisters found dead in New York last year had sought asylum in the U.S., according to detectives. They'd maxed out the older sister's credit card before their bodies were found along the rocky banks of the Hudson River wrapped together with tape. Police did not suspect foul play was involved.

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Follow Aya Batrawy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ayaelb

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