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Saudi Arabia's grim discrimination against women is exposed by Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun's startling bravery

Freedom of religion is not legally protected in the Islamic kingdom, and people who convert to another religion risk being charged with apostasy

Aisha K Gill
Monday 07 January 2019 17:59 GMT
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt says he will look into forced marriage scandal

The case of 18-year-old asylum seeker, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun from Saudi Arabia who has been held since Sunday against her will at Bangkok airport sheds a welcome light on the plight of women in Saudi Arabia.

Following Rahaf’s plea for help to the UN, she has finally been granted UNCR refugee access at Bangkok airport “to assess her need for international refugee protection and find an immediate solution for her situation.”

Her harrowing story and twitter feed, where she revealed disturbing alleged abuse from her family, is a reminder of the extent of human rights abuses in her home country and demonstrates the lengths to which women must go to seek protection.

In Saudi Arabia, women are discriminated against in all spheres of their life. Their social and cultural roles are almost completely circumscribed by strongly patriarchal norms.

All women are expected to spend their lives under the guardianship of a closely related male family member. For a young woman, this would be her father; for a married woman, her husband; and for a widow, her son.

This guardianship is intended to preserve both the woman’s and her family’s honour, since, in Saudi society, an individual’s behaviour is thought to reflect upon their family’s status and honour.

All women are expected to marry the person chosen for them by their families. Saudi men, under Sharia law, can have four wives if they treat them equally.

Saudi Arabia is one of 117 countries around the world where child marriage is legal.

In 2017 the government announced that marriages for girls under the age of 17 had to be approved by a special court and marriage applications submitted by the girl, her mother, or her legal guardian. But in August 2018 a Saudi court refused to nullify the marriage of an eight-year-old girl to a man in his late 50s.

Women who complain about domestic violence (most commonly perpetrated by extended family members/partners) are rarely taken seriously. Legislation is not adequately enforced and the resources necessary to achieve its aims are not readily available.

Marriage, for Saudi women, is almost inescapable; it is a major life-cycle ritual for women that fundamentally alter their status, group affiliation and future actions. However, it is not necessarily a nurturing space, but a potentially dangerous one, full of emotional and social contradictions and ambiguity.

Parents who force their offspring to marry often justify their behaviour in terms of protecting their children, building stronger families, and preserving cultural and religious traditions.

The honour code is not only a social or moral standard in communities such as Saudi Arabia but also ensures that women are ever mindful of their actions and how their behaviours are perceived.

Consequently, women’s sexual modesty, particularly the virginity of unwed women, becomes the ultimate measure of a family’s reputation.

In many such situations, the concept of honour (ird/namus/sharaf) is not one of individual morality, but a measure of the relationship between a family and the wider community. Direct community and societal pressure therefore bears heavily on individuals who are believed to have transgressed or broken their family/community honour code.

Rahaf knows the risks she faces after leaving her family and the implications of not only rejecting a forced marriage but also renouncing her religion and her ability to ever return to Saudi Arabia.

Freedom of religion is not legally protected in the Islamic kingdom, and people who convert to another religion from Islam risk being charged with apostasy – or abandoning their religious beliefs. The crime is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence in recent years.

Rahaf is very aware that in Saudi society, women are treated as subordinate citizens whose identities are defined mainly by their marital and familial responsibilities. There exists a pattern of female behaviour characterised by compliance with authority (i.e., male family members and the patriarchal society), passivity, obedience, self-deprecation and self-sacrifice.

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This means that when women like Rahaf go against cultural norms, by being independent or strong, travelling to college without a chaperone or seeking redress from the world via social media and from UN refugee agencies for harms against her, this could lead to the disapprobation of her family and society.

The UN refugee agency has intervened in Rahaf’s case and for now it seems there is hope she will be protected. The world is watching and the global interest in this case has led Thailand's Chief of Immigration police to state that the country would “protect her as best we can”

“Since she escaped trouble to seek our help... we will not send anyone to their death.”

This brave and desperate young woman must not be left to languish in police custody in Thailand. We should do everything we can to ensure she can have safe passage to a third country to seek asylum – such as Australia, where she was heading. She must not be returned back to her abusers. The #SaveRahaf hashtag should not only be a trend on Twitter, but also – and more importantly – a message of hope for other women in her situation.

Professor Aisha K. Gill is Professor of Criminology at the University of Roehampton and the author of Forced Marriage: Introducing a Social Justice and Human Rights Perspective​

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