BEIRUT, Lebanon — Whenever her father beat her, or bound her wrists and ankles to punish her for perceived disobedience, the Saudi teenager dreamed of escape, she said.
As desperate as she was to leave, however, the same question always stopped her short: How would she get out?
If she ran away anywhere within the country, the Saudi police would just send her home, she feared. Saudi law barred her from traveling abroad without her father’s permission.
But during a family vacation in Turkey when she was 17, Shahad al-Muhaimeed saw her chance, and bolted. While her family slept, she took a taxi across the border to Georgia and declared herself a refugee, leaving Saudi Arabia behind to start a new life.
“I now live the way I want to,” said Ms. Muhaimeed, 19, by phone from her new home in Sweden. “I live in a good place that has women’s rights.”
World attention was drawn to the status of Saudi women after another teenager, Rahaf Alqunun, was stopped in Thailand last week while trying to make it to Australia to seek refuge there. After an international social media campaign, the United Nations declared her a refugee on Wednesday. She left Thailand on Friday and was flying to Canada, where officials said she had been granted asylum.
[Read more about Ms. Alqunun’s journey here.]
The phenomenon of women trying to flee Saudi Arabia is not new, coming to the world’s attention as early as the 1970s, when a Saudi princess was caught trying to flee the kingdom with her lover. The couple were tried for adultery and executed.
But the number of young women considering and taking the enormous risk to flee Saudi Arabia appears to have grown in recent years, rights groups say, as women frustrated by social and legal constraints at home turn to social media to help plan, and sometimes document, their efforts to escape.
“All these women who 15 years ago would have never been heard from can now find a way to reach out,” said Adam Coogle, who monitors Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch.
Some who dare to leave slip out quietly, traveling to the United States or elsewhere before applying for asylum — which is never a sure thing. Since being stopped in Turkey in 2017, two sisters, Ashwaq and Areej Hamoud, 31 and 29 respectively, have been fighting a deportation order in court, saying they fear for their lives if they return to Saudi Arabia.
For other women, like Ms. Alqunun, publicity played a key role in their successful escapes, but even global attention does not guarantee that a woman will not be repatriated.
In 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, begged for help in a widely viewed online video after she was stopped while transiting in the Philippines. She was held at the airport until family members arrived and took her back to Saudi Arabia, where it is unclear what happened to her.
The women who make it out must contend not only with their families’ efforts to force them home, but also with the Saudi government’s extensive and well-financed efforts to do so, often involving local diplomats pressing for repatriation.
Women who are repatriated can face criminal charges of parental disobedience or harming the kingdom’s reputation.
“As Saudi women, we are still treated as property that belongs to the state,” said Moudi Aljohani, who moved to the United States as a student and has applied for asylum. “It doesn’t matter if the woman has any political views or not. They are going to go after her and forcibly return her.”
The ways women choose to flee vary, but interviews with five who succeeded showed common themes. Many had discussed their plans in private chat groups with other women who had already fled or were also considering it.
A few months before Ms. Alqunun left her family during a trip to Kuwait, for instance, a friend of hers had fled and reached Australia as a refugee and was giving her advice about escaping.
Many fled from Turkey, a popular Saudi vacation spot, to Georgia, which Saudis can enter without a visa. And many aimed for Australia because they could apply for visas online, the only option for women who could not get to a foreign embassy.
Some said they had fled because of abuse by male relatives and because they felt that the kingdom offered nowhere to turn for protection or justice.
Others wanted out of the kingdom’s strict, Islamic social codes, which limit what women can wear, which jobs they can pursue and with whom they can socialize. And all spoke of wanting to escape the kingdom’s male guardianship laws, which give men great power over the lives of female relatives.
“It is male guardianship that made us flee from Saudi Arabia,” said Ms. Muhaimeed, in Sweden. “That is the biggest reason that the girls flee.”
In Saudi Arabia, all women are required to have a male guardian, whose permission they need to get married, travel and undergo some medical procedures. The guardian is often a father or husband, but can be a brother or even a son.
The kingdom’s day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to make life better for Saudi women. He defanged the once-feared religious police, who harassed women deemed inappropriately dressed, and last year he lifted the ban on women driving. Saudi women can now attend mixed concerts and pursue careers off limits to their mothers.
When asked about guardianship laws last year, the prince said that Saudi Arabia had to “figure out a way to treat this that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.”
Those moves have increased his popularity among Saudi women, many of whom say guardianship is not a burden because their male relatives take good care of them. Others escape the rules by seeking jobs in neighboring countries like the United Arab Emirates, where social rules are more lax.
But the system’s critics say it gives no recourse to women with controlling or abusive guardians.
That’s what sent Nourah, 20, fleeing for Australia. Her father had divorced her mother before Nourah was born, and she was raised mostly by her uncles, she said. Her father sometimes abused her, but her efforts to get help fell on deaf ears.
Last year, her boyfriend wanted to marry her, but her family refused because they perceived him as coming from a lower social class, said Nourah, who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used for her safety. Her father began to arrange her marriage to a man she did not know and who wanted to bar her from working. In October, a day before her prospective groom arrived, she ran away.
Saudi men use a government website to manage the women they have guardianship over, granting or denying them the right to travel, for example, and even setting up notifications so that they receive a text message when their wife or daughter boards a plane.
In order to flee, Nourah used her father’s phone to give herself permission to travel, disabled his notifications and flew to Turkey. From there she traveled to Georgia, then bought a ticket to Australia via the United Arab Emirates, although she feared that the Emirati government would catch her in transit and return her to Saudi Arabia.
“To me that was like a suicide mission, but I had no other option,” she said.
But she made her connection and safely landed in Sydney, where she applied for asylum.
Once abroad, the women often face barrages of insults and death threats from family members and other Saudis who think they have shamed the country.
While human rights groups understand why women would want to flee bad situations, they worry that doing so could put them in grave danger.
“For the few who succeed, there are many who fail, and to be sent back after this puts the women in a really dangerous situation,” said Mr. Coogle of Human Rights Watch.
He said it is hard to know how many women have fled the kingdom because some who leave never seek help from aid groups, and those who do reach out sometimes fall out of contact before it is clear if they actually made an attempt to leave or, if they did, where they ended up.
He said he had been contacted by many women inside Saudi Arabia who wanted help getting out. His organization did not help them do so, he said, although it would help them seek legal protection if they were outside Saudi Arabia.
Speaking from a hotel room in Bangkok where she was waiting under guard to learn if another nation would grant her asylum, Ms. Alqunun was already thinking about her new life. She wanted to go to college to improve her English and study architecture, she said.
She did not expect the transition to life in a country she had never visited to be easy, but she had no regrets.
“There is no escape other than fleeing,” she said. “There is no other way.”
Orignially published in NYT.