This week we learned of a beautiful, courageous, independent woman who had the initiative to escape her abusive, traditional Muslim, Saudi Arabian family. She was en route to Australia, tourist visa in hand, and ended up being detained by the Thai authorities, who–under pressure from Saudi Arabia–intended to send her back to her family. But did she give up? No. She barricaded herself in her airport hotel room, where she was told to wait for the next flight back to Kuwait. And she started tweeting. Soon the whole world became aware of her plight, putting enough pressure on the Thai authorities that they had to refrain from forcibly deporting her, and allow the United Nations to intervene.
More on Rahaf’s plight here:
At first I was skeptical as to whether the UN would be much help. After all, they’re the organization that is seriously considering trying to do whatever it can to outlaw “blasphemy,” and Rahaf is an atheist apostate. But, perhaps due to the spotlight Rahaf created for herself, they ended up granting her refugee status. This, under the current bureaucratic regime, allows countries to consider her application for asylum–and prevents Thailand from sending her back to Saudi Arabia. Her first choice had been Australia, but the latest word is that Canada was the first country on her list of preferences to actually agree to admit her. Good for them. And her.
Even though I spent much of Sunday night messaging any contact I could think of to help get her here, in hindsight I think this is probably better for her. (Even better, of course, would have been her first choice, Australia.) Our country, at its best, would have been the natural place for a woman with such independence, courage, and initiative. But our current President is too unwelcoming, and way too chummy with the Saudis. (And apparently we are, in the United States in the 21st century, regularly approving child bride requests, giving legal sanction to this horrific abuse of women and girls.)
So Rahaf is on her way to (relative) freedom, but that doesn’t mean that she’s no longer in danger. Even in the limited time I spent posting on social media on Rahaf’s behalf, I ended up receiving a number of hostile responses, including one actual threat. I can only imagine how many she must have received. (As of this writing, she has at least temporarily deactivated her Twitter account, due to the threats she received.) Unfortunately the same actions that were necessary for Rahaf to take, to bring the world’s attention to her case, to give her a real chance of escape, will now also make her vulnerable wherever she goes.
Moroever, there are still many more women, still stuck in Saudi Arabia, facing the same conditions that Rahaf was. And their situation is not helped by the way that many in the media have been framing her story. The headline of the one I found on Apple News this morning says that she has “fled ‘abusive’ family.” And from what I hear, that’s typical of much of the news coverage about her case. How does anyone expect the conditions faced by Saudi women to improve, if no one is brave enough to even name the problem properly: She’s an atheist apostate, and her home country, Saudi Arabia, would allow her family to kill her for it, without even blinking.
Nonetheless, despite the media’s attempt to minimize the nature of the plight faced by Rahaf and other Saudi Arabian women, she has inspired many of them to demand better for themselves. I don’t know that I’m as optimistic as Mona Eltahawy, who said she thinks there will now be a revolution in Saudi Arabia due to the inspiration Rahaf has provided. But it’s clear, judging by the reaction I saw on Twitter and elsewhere, that Rahaf has made a difference.
And while, as I said, she herself is still at some risk, she has earned a real shot at a great life, in the type of country she deserves: one that provides religious freedom, equal rights for women, and significantly better prospects for safety. Rahaf, I admire what you’ve done and I wish you the best in your new life.