It was early last Saturday when Saudi Arabian teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun crept past her vacationing family as they slept in their Kuwait hotel room, slipped outside and got into a taxi bound — she hoped — for a new life.
Rahaf, 18, was not alone as she left: On her cell phone she spoke furtively with a friend who had already successfully fled the kingdom.
“She was scared,” that friend, a 19-year-old woman named Shahad, tells PEOPLE. “Rahaf had the feeling that you don’t know what is going to happen to your life, good or bad. It was a matter of life and death.”
Rahaf was in danger both from Saudi officials and from her own family, says Shahad, who escaped two years ago and has established a new life under an assumed identity in Sweden.
“She skipped Saudi Arabia because her family locked her up in her room for six months,” Shahad says. The alleged offense was that she had cut her own hair.
Rahaf’s story is one of many, according to humanitarian observers: Saudi Arabia, a monarchy whose society is intimately bound up with an extremely conservative branch of Islam, places severe restrictions on its women and girls.
“Women live under male guardianship, where a male relative has control over virtually every aspect of their lives,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, an official with Human Rights Watch, a New York-based international advocacy group. “Women have been jailed for things like marrying without permission.”
Had she tried to flee from Saudi Arabia, Rahaf would have required the permission of a “male guardian,” even at 18. But she waited until her family was in Kuwait.
“She had to get away, like I did,” says Shahad, who spoke with PEOPLE via encrypted communication.
That night last week, under the cloak of a sunless moon, Rahaf boarded the first of two flights on a cross-continental journey to seek asylum in Australia, where she reportedly already had a tourist visa. But she miscalculated one key element, Shahad says.
“She wanted to stay two days in Thailand,” says the friend who has known Rahaf since they both lived in Saudi Arabia.
Shahad and other escapees who were coaching her during her flight advised her to stay inside the airport in Bangkok and to proceed directly to the departure lounge for her connecting flight. “We friends said, ‘No, Thailand is not a safe country,’ ” Shahad says. (As the New York Times has noted, “Thailand has a history of sending refugees back to autocratic countries.”)
Shahad says, “She did not listen to us because she thought there was no Saudi embassy in Thailand. She was wrong. When she tried to get a visa to Thailand, the trouble started.”
A man who apparently claimed he would help obtain the necessary visa reportedly instead took Rahaf’s passport and plane ticket to Australia. According to the Times, he returned with others who said that her family wanted her back and had reported her missing.
The exact details of the incident are disputed: a Saudi ambassador initially said Rahaf had broken the …read more