Saudi Arabia Tries To Stem Further Cases Of Women Seeking Asylum Abroad The case of an 18-year-old refugee in Canada will embolden other Saudi women to follow suit, experts say. Saudi officials have launched a campaign to stop that from happening.

Saudi Kingdom Tries To Prevent More Women From Fleeing

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In January, an 18-year-old Saudi woman was granted asylum in Canada. She said she was running from an abusive family and was no longer a Muslim. Many say her case will prompt more women to flee Saudi Arabia, even though leaders there say conditions for women are improving. Here's NPR's Deborah Amos.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Rahaf al-Qunun's arrival in Canada was big news after declaring she feared death if she was deported back to Saudi Arabia.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Arriving on Canadian soil after a long journey, with the foreign affairs minister in tow, Rahaf al-Qunun touched down at Toronto's Pearson International Airport yesterday.

AMOS: She encouraged other Saudi women to flee family abuse and the oppressive controls in the conservative kingdom. She had just showed them how to do it. Al-Qunun was granted asylum after she barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel and mounted a social media campaign. Her dramatic case will likely spur more Saudi women to flee, says Bessma Momani, a Middle East specialist at Canada's University of Waterloo.

BESSMA MOMANI: Rahaf's story showed that, actually, there is a quasi-organized group that is quite willing to help these Saudi women.

AMOS: Momani says there's now an underground network of activists who provide logistical support.

MOMANI: You know, it's going to set off copycat-type scenarios where people now sort of know the MO, and so I think they feel more emboldened. Before, they didn't really know where to begin.

AMOS: In Saudi Arabia, an aggressive media campaign began as soon as Al-Qunun arrived in Canada. Newspapers mounted harsh attacks. On social media, a narrative emerged that alleged Western nations use Saudi women to undermine the kingdom.



AMOS: In recent weeks, the government's General Department for Counter-Extremism released this online warning. The animated message compares young women who flee the country to young men who join terrorist groups like ISIS.



AMOS: But Hala Aldosari, an academic and a Saudi activist based in New York, says Saudi women will continue to run. She says family abuse is the common denominator.

HALA ALDOSARI: They are all in controlling or abusive families, and this is the main reason why they had to leave the country - because of lack of resources or support system from within.

AMOS: In Saudi Arabia, male relatives have vast powers over women. The kingdom's guardianship laws allow male relatives to control travel, education, medical treatment and marriage. Fleeing home, even from an abusive family, is a crime. If caught, a woman can be jailed until her guardian allows her release. It's why some Saudi women cheered Rahaf al-Qunun's asylum in Canada. She comes from a powerful family and yet she beat the system, says Samah Damanhoori.

SAMAH DAMANHOORI: And she wore, like, a very short dress on her first-day arrival to Canada. I'm like, you know what, Rahaf? Applause to you (laughter).

AMOS: Damanhoori was granted asylum herself in the U.S. last year after she claims she was no longer a Muslim and her family was abusive. She says women fleeing the kingdom undermined the international image of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He's hailed as a reformer in Saudi Arabia, but he's also known for an unprecedented crackdown on dissent. The crown prince lifted the ban on driving. It's now easier for women to enter the workforce. But it's not enough, says Damanhoori.

DAMANHOORI: OK. Fine. We're going to let you drive. Happy now? Now, stop running away. And right now, more women are running away. You know, we have to do that to get them their full rights.

AMOS: How many are fleeing? It's hard to document. The U.N. shows a jump in Saudi asylum applications - male and female - since the crown prince came to power. But activists say numbers are hard to come by. Some families don't report a missing daughter because of the social stigma.


AMOS: This popular Saudi TV program tackled domestic abuse in the weeks following Al-Qunun's escape. One guest was a Saudi woman living in exile in London, says academic Bessma Momani.

MOMANI: You know, this one girl's talking about being raped by her brother. And she starts talking about her friend, who was being raped by her father.

AMOS: A shocking discussion, but an attempt to address cases like Al-Qunun's, says Yasmine Farouk, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She summarized the Saudis' approach.

YASMINE FAROUK: What she did was wrong. But let's face it. We have a problem. We have a problem with the guardianship law, the problem of domestic violence against girls. So it also had this positive impact.

AMOS: After the episode aired, the show was abruptly canceled with no official explanation. Activists feared it signaled the guardianship law was now off-limits. But just as abruptly, the well-known TV host posted this message on social media last week.


UNIDENTIFIED TV HOST: (Speaking Arabic).

AMOS: "They want us to shut up. We won't," he said. A caption read the show was returning soon. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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