Gulf women activists still face persecution despite hopes of reform

Article Summary
Saudi Arabia's women still languish under the country's system of male guardianship, even as the case of Rahaf al-Qunun, who barricaded herself in a hotel room at the Bangkok airport, refusing to go back to Saudi, has brought renewed attention to the situation of women in the kingdom.

A Saudi woman resisting deportation from Thailand has won the first round today, after United Nations officials were granted access to her and she was formally admitted into the country. Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, had barricaded herself inside a hotel room at Bangkok’s international airport after immigration officials tried to force her on board a flight to Kuwait City on Monday. Qunun then embarked on a campaign via Twitter, appealing to the United Nations, Western governments and rights groups to help her win asylum. She said she faced death if she were to return to her family, since she had renounced Islam. Qunun had planned to travel to Australia when Thai authorities, ostensibly tipped off by her family in Kuwait, intercepted her.

The woman's plight, relayed through videos she posted of herself defiantly shoving a mattress against her hotel room door, is a further example of the risks faced by Saudi and other Muslim women in the Middle East when they challenge a rigidly patriarchal system that is often enshrined in law. “My brothers and family and the Saudi Embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait,” she told Reuters. “My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.” The jeans-clad brunette said a Saudi diplomat seized her passport when she arrived in Bangkok on Saturday. Saudi officials have denied this.

The BBC reported that an injunction filed by Thai lawyers to stop the deportation was dismissed by a Bangkok court early Monday. But apparently caving in to the barrage of protests triggered by Qunun’s online appeals, Thailand’s chief of immigration vowed hours later that the country would “protect her as best we can.” Immigration chief Surachate Hakparn said, “She is now under the sovereignty of Thailand, no one and no embassy can force her to go anywhere. We will talk to her and do whatever she requests.”

Thailand is accumulating a reputation for collusion with Gulf monarchies. In December it provoked an outcry when it detained dissident Bahraini footballer, Hakeem al-Araibi. A fierce critic of the Bahraini royal family, Araibi was hauled away after landing at Bangkok airport with his wife for a belated honeymoon. Araibi, who was previously tortured in a Bahrain prison before being granted refugee status in Australia, has yet to be freed.

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Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor in emailed comments: “It's not bad enough that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain persecute their citizens inside their own countries: They’re now relying on the long arm of their wealth and power to reach their citizens fleeing to other countries, with the collusion of feckless foreign security forces, especially the Thai.”

Given Thailand’s record, Qunun may not be out of the woods quite yet, even though a UNHCR spokeswoman told the BBC she was now in their care and that they had assurances from Thai authorities that she would not be deported.

Nicole Pope, author of “Honor Killings in the Twenty-First Century,” believes Qunun would face serious harm if she was sent back. Her family must undoubtedly claim that through her actions — renouncing Islam, then advertising her break for freedom — she has brought dishonor on her family. “What is sometimes called the ‘honor culture’ is in fact about obedience," Pope told Al-Monitor. “Girls and women are expected to accept the diktat of their male relatives. Wanting to make their own choices puts them in danger.”

Under Saudi law, every woman must have a male guardian — a father, brother, a husband or even a son — whose approval is required to apply for a passport, study abroad on a government scholarship, get married and even exit prison, among other things. 

There was a whiff of change in April 2017, when the current ruler, King Salman, ordered all government agencies to provide service to women without their guardian’s consent. His favorite son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who portrays himself as a reformer, claimed credit for lifting the ban on driving for women in September that year. But Saudi feminists say it's all a facade aimed at winning support in the West, most critically from the United States, which, under President Donald Trump, has emerged as one of the biggest champions of the 33-year-old crown prince.

The reformist veneer evaporated when the controversial royal was linked to the Oct. 2 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. But it was already showing signs of wear when 17 female activists, many of whom campaigned for the right to drive, were arrested by Saudi authorities last year. Among those detained is Loujain al-Hathloul, a 29-year-old feminist who had been arrested twice before. Last spring Hathloul was reportedly grabbed, blindfolded and forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates, where she was studying for a master’s degree. Her father intimated in a tweet that she had been brutally tortured and sexually harassed in prison only to have his account suspended by Twitter.

According to Amnesty International, some of the women were “repeatedly tortured by electrocution and flogging, leaving some unable to walk or stand properly.” 

Amani al-Ahmadi, a Saudi American feminist who fled the kingdom, called the lifting of the ban on driving “a shallow fix.” She told Al-Monitor, “They gave us the car without giving us the keys.” Until the male guardianship system is scrapped, any talk of real change is empty, Ahmadi asserted. However, the deeply ingrained tribal code of honor, which gives families complete control over women, stands in the way of change because of the potential chaos and ripple effects that would ensue.

Meanwhile, Qunun, in one of her latest tweets since leaving her barricaded hotel room, announced that her father had arrived in Bangkok, but that she felt secure under the UN's wing.

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Found in: Women’s rights

Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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