Women can finally drive again in the Saudi Arabian desert kingdom, after decades of being banned.
The move, under the reign of “modern” Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, was heralded as one of a range of initiatives that showed the ultra-conservative country was relaxing. Just a little bit.
Women in Saudi still need permission from their husband or a male relative to do anything. They have to cover up at all times with an abaya, a long cloak-type dress and a headscarf. It is unlawful to hang out with men they’re not related to.
Rape victims (yes, victims) face prison and lashings.
This is the country teenager Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun fled from, while she says the father she also fled from was violent, that the family she fled from would kill her if they caught her.
Now the UN Refugee Agency has declared her a refugee and Australia will consider her bid for asylum.
Ms Alqunun escaped while her family was holidaying in Kuwait, and was headed to Australia via Thailand. But the desert kingdom was not prepared to let her go; officials came after her. She locked herself in an airport hotel room and told the world what was happening via Twitter.
Saudi Arabia charge d’affaires in Bangkok Mr. Alshuaibi
said “they should have took her phone instead of her passport”
Twitter account has changed the game against what he wished for me
— Rahaf Mohammed رهف محمد (@rahaf84427714) January 8, 2019
She has been in Bangkok, waiting, as her father and brother fight to get her back and the world fights to get her free and Australia decides what to do.
Hard line Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton insists she will not get special treatment — although the publicity will likely increase the risk to her if she is forced to return home.
Naturally, people are wondering whether her journey will open the way for more women fleeing the oppressive Saudi regime.
According to Tamara Wood, from the University of New South Wales’ Centre for International Refugee Law, women fleeing gender-based violence can seek refugee status, but there are a few serious obstacles — so Mr Dutton doesn’t have to worry about the floodgates opening.
For Saudi women, the first (often insurmountable) hurdle is escaping the country when they need permission from a male guardian to travel.
“This alone precludes most women from accessing international protection,” Ms Wood wrote in The Conversation this week.
“The cost of travel and the danger it entails — women and girls face heightened risks of sexual violence, trafficking and exploitation during their journeys — making seeking asylum a dangerous endeavour.”
If they get out, women then have to prove they have a real fear of persecution in their home country.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne has been in Thailand where she was expected to talk to the Government about Alqunun’s situation. Senator Payne was already heading there to lobby for Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi’s release — he’s been detained in Bangkok since November.
Mr al-Araibi says he was imprisoned and tortured in Bahrain after being part of a pro-democracy movement. He was also publicly critical of Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa, a royal and prominent football official. Australia granted him refugee status in 2061.
He was in Thailand for his honeymoon — and Thailand has shown itself to be a country open to sending asylum seekers back to their places of persecution.
Although it increases her risk if she does get sent back, Ms al’Qunun’s prolific tweeting has increased the chances she’ll end up somewhere safe.
On Twitter she revealed she had renounced Islam — a move that would further endanger her if she ends up back in Saudi.
“They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism. They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn’t want to,” she said.
“I want to be protected in a country that will give me my rights… and allow me to live a normal life,” she wrote.
All eyes are on her, and on the Saudi regime. Alqunun’s situation has sparked calls for a repeal of the guardianship law, for more rights for women. Such hopes are optimistic, but at least better than everyone turning a blind eye.
In a public relations sense, the timing is pretty good to put pressure on Saudi Arabia. The world is still reeling in shock from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashkoggi, who was murdered and dismembered when he went into a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
The Saudi national was trying to get proof of his divorce so he could marry his new love.
These individual stories raise questions for Australia and its relationship with countries guilty of human rights abuses.
The Federal Government is still learning how to tread a line with China, our greatest trading partner and a country that is imprisoning Uighurs, spying on friends and enemies alike, and testing new weapons as it colonises the South China Sea.
Australia describes its relationship with Saudi as “friendly”. It’s certainly friendly enough that we’re selling them arms, in the context of trying to expand our defence exports industry.
If the obviously brave and outspoken Alqunun ends up safe here in Australia, her voice on women’s rights and Australia’s friendship with Saudi Arabia could be uncomfortable for both nations.
Originally published as How close should we get to Saudi Arabia?