Saudi sisters trapped in Georgia after fleeing their country beg for help and say they are 'in danger'

‘It is totally understandable why an oppressive system built upon gender discrimination would drive these two sisters to take such drastic action as fleeing their home and family,’ says expert

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Wednesday 17 April 2019 14:40 BST
Saudi sisters trapped in Georgia after fleeing their country beg for help and say they are 'in danger'

Two sisters from Saudi Arabia who are trapped in Georgia have appealed for asylum after fleeing the ultra-conservative kingdom.

Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25, claim they are in danger and will be killed if they are forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

The sisters, who created a Twitter account called “Georgia Sisters”, said their father and brothers have arrived in Georgia and are looking for them.

“We are two Saudi sisters who fled from Saudi Arabia seeking asylum,” the siblings wrote in their first Twitter post on Tuesday evening. “Yet, the family and the Saudi government have suspended our passports and now we are trapped in Georgia country. We need your help please.”

The sisters appeared with their faces showing and their hair uncovered which is taboo for conservative families in Saudi Arabia. They say they are showing their faces so the world can remember them in case something were to happen to them.

Maha said in a video later posted on Twitter: “We want your protection. We want a country that welcomes us and protects our rights.”

They asked for protection from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) – in another video, Wafa said: “We fled oppression from our family because the laws in Saudi Arabia (are) too weak to protect us. We are seeking the UNHCR protection in order to be taken to a safe country.”

Some social media users have reacted by using the hashtag #SaveSaudiSisters to generate support for them.

The deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, contacted the women via Twitter. “Have already sent an email to our Middle East & North Africa team, and also inquiring about who we have in Georgia,” he said.

Saudis are able to enter Georgia visa-free – meaning the country has become a transit point for numerous other Saudi women who have fled the kingdom in recent years.

Under the kingdom’s restrictive guardianship system, women are legal minors and cannot marry, divorce, travel, get a job, be released from prison or have elective surgery without permission from their male guardians. Women are also forbidden from mixing freely with members of the opposite sex. It was unclear how the two sisters had left the country.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, the Middle East and North Africa expert of Equality Now, an NGO which promotes the rights of women and girls, said: “It is totally understandable why an oppressive system built upon gender discrimination would drive these two sisters to take such drastic action as fleeing their home and family in hope of finding sanctuary in another country.

“Governments and businesses around the world need to place greater pressure on authorities in Saudi Arabia to take necessary measures in guaranteeing the rights and safety of women and girls, including Wafa and Maha, and to accelerate efforts to repeal discriminatory legal provisions that require women and girls to seek authorisation from a male guardian in order to exercise what should be state protected civil liberties.”

Saudi women who run away are often escaping abusive male relatives but women caught running away can be forced into restrictive shelters, forced into reconciling with abusive partners or detained on charges of disobedience.

The guardianship system makes it almost impossible for victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse to seek justice or protection because the police often insist that women and girls obtain their guardian’s authorisation to file complaints even if the complaint concerns the guardian.

Saudi women and migrant domestic workers who report abuse, including rape, sometimes face counter-accusations, leaving them open to criminal prosecution, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Women may be charged with moral crimes, such as khilwa (which means mixing with unrelated members of the opposite sex) or with fleeing from their homes.

Saudi Arabia imposes a very strict interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism.

Last month, two Saudi sisters fleeing their family in Saudi Arabia secured emergency visas after hiding for months in Hong Kong, according to their lawyer.

The young women, who are referred to by the aliases Reem and Rawan and who are aged 18 and 20, departed Hong Kong for a new country of residence, which has not been named.

Lawyer Michael Vidler said the sisters were granted emergency humanitarian visas after six months in Hong Kong. Mr Vidler said the siblings are now “beginning their lives as free young women”.

It came after 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was granted asylum in Canada after using Twitter to attract global attention to her predicament and barricading herself in a Bangkok hotel room. The Saudi teen used the social media site to help stop her deportation from Thailand when she was stopped en route to Australia in January.

Ms Alqunun fled her “abusive” family during a trip to Kuwait and feared her relatives would kill her if she was returned to Saudi Arabia.

Around a dozen women’s rights activists have been detained – many since May – after campaigning against the guardianship system. Some were also keen to set up alternative shelters for women runaways, saying that current shelters in the kingdom are run similarly to detention centres.

Saudi Arabia has faced extensive scrutiny and criticism over its human rights record after detaining women’s rights activists. It has also been criticised for its role in the war in Yemen and over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October.

The Independent contacted Maha and Wafa al-Subaie for comment.

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