In the novel Woman at Point Zero (1975) by Nawal El Saadawi, Firdaus, the protagonist, recounts her life as an Egyptian woman. No matter how hard she tries at school and work, she is merely considered as a subordinate who should submissively obey her 60-year-old husband. Despite possessing a clear intellect and keen insight, Firdaus could only become a high-class prostitute at most, clearly marginalized from the society. Surprisingly, this situation, which one would expect to see only in the 1970s, can also be seen in 2019.
“Please I need you all. I am shouting out for help of humanity,” said Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun on her Social Networking Service (SNS) post. She is an 18-year-old girl from Saudi Arabia, who sought asylum in Australia under the fear of death threats from her family. On her family trip to Kuwait, she headed to Bangkok on her own and reported her situation live through SNS. Claiming that she was exposed to physical and psychological abuse from her family, she refused to be deported from Thailand. Rahaf barricaded herself in a hotel room in the main airport, imploring authorities to believe her words that she will be either imprisoned or killed once she is sent back to her country.
Rahaf insisted that she has been under a highly restrictive guardianship system for women and decided to unchain herself in a form of refuge. Despite her desperate pleas, Thai authorities initially claimed they would send her back to Saudi Arabia. However, a sensational campaign was spread across SNS by activists to save Rahaf, which resulted in careful consideration of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide her a humanitarian visa. Eventually, UNHCR carefully evaluated her request under the principle of non-refoulement and granted her refugee status. Canada accepted her request for asylum and she was warmly welcomed to start her new life as Rahaf Mohammed.
A Living Marionette in Chains
Unfortunately, Rahaf is not the only one who has been suppressed by her own family. Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman, also attempted to escape from an arranged marriage by seeking asylum. However, unlike Rahaf, Dina was forcibly taken back to Saudi Arabia by her male relatives, which was clearly against her will. She was wrapped in bed sheets and sent to a women’s detention center that resembles a prison.
Provided by Twitter. Rahaf's posts on Twitter
The main motive behind both Rahaf’s and Dina’s escapes can be revealed through the life of women in some Muslim countries where Islamic fundamentalism resulted in extremism. Women must obtain permission from male relatives in order to do many things, even to get married or travel outside the country. According to Rahaf, she was locked up for six months, simply because she had cut her hair, which is considered unwomanly in Saudi Arabia.
As can be seen, women are treated as second-class citizens in those countries, in which men believe women lack authority to make critical decisions for themselves. The system of male guardianship, which is the main obstacle to women’s rights, is known to be derived from a Koranic verse that claims, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more strength than the other.” While Muslim experts maintain that Islam is gender equal, always emphasizing respect between the two genders, it is hard to deny the fact that women in extremist countries are suffering from those distorted social norms. Women who have attempted to challenge the system have been prosecuted and sent to detention facilities.
Rahaf delivering a speech in Canada. Provided by The Daily Star
Spread the Word of Women, Spread the World with Equality
While Saudi Arabia approved the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2000, there is still no legal definition of women’s rights in terms of gender equality. The Saudi Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has been saying that it is trying hard to engage women in social activities where laws concerning abuse, justice and criminal procedures have been strengthened. While Saudi Arabia adopted many different laws such as granting suffrage to women, there are still many other areas that need improvement.
As social norms are held strong in Saudi Arabian society, the role of international organizations and the public has become ever more significant. For instance, UNHCR is the organization that changed the life of a woman who was goaded by incessant pain. The key difference between Rahaf and Dina, successful flight and unsuccessful attempt, was the active support from UNHCR, allowing a chance for a second life for the oppressed. If it were not for UNHCR, Rahaf would also have been sent back to her country.
Moreover, the movement across SNS has assisted in raising awareness about the lives of innocent women in Islamic nations. Without posts praying for the rescue of Rahaf, the rest of the world may still be oblivious of reality, resulting in the unnoticed disappearance of a woman. Furthermore, there should be wellstructured oversight for activists in the aftermath. For instance, Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who often criticized the Saudi government, was suddenly assassinated in Istanbul. This clearly shows that beyond challenging the system itself, the protection of those fighting for change should also be ensured.
New Page of Life, for the Changing World
While recent transformations in Saudi Arabia may seem to be a potential threat to its own culture, women are certainly qualified to enjoy their fundamental human rights. It has been lately reported that Rahaf felt true happiness and freedom when she was allowed to freely eat bacon with her meal, which is simply part of ordinary life that is taken for granted in other countries. In light of this, people of Islamic cultures should be aware of the fact that women are also independent individuals who have freedom of choice.
Religion is certainly an important aspect of society, but if a certain part of society is suffering to an extent where people are asking for asylum, it is definitely a problem. Religion only serves its purpose when no one is hurt; extreme relativism should not be embraced. Now, with today’s globalized open economy and ubiquitous Internet technology, it is simply unjust to keep young Saudi women from desiring their own lifestyles. It is time to release the bird from the cage.