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Looking for freedom in Asia

The story: Saudi Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18 years old, was on vacation in Kuwait with her family. Without her parents knowing, she took a plane and tried to flee to Australia. She had renounced Islam, and she was afraid of her family, of her country, and for her life. As soon as she arrived to the airport in Bangkok, Thailand, to take a connection flight, she was held by Saudi embassy officials and had her passport confiscated. She asked for the protection of Thai immigration officials, which escorted her to a transit hotel. She then barricaded herself inside and posted several pictures saying she was seeking refugee status from any country that would protect her from getting harmed or killed due to leaving her religion. Her Twitter account attracted more than 50,000 followers in less than 48 hours and her story grabbed the attention of foreign governments as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which eventually granted her the refugee status. Al-Qunun's case reached the international community thank to a global social media campaign started by her supporters and human rights activists (using the hashtag #saverahaf), who are trying to urge the authorities in Thailand not to deport the teen back. The incident happens as Saudi Arabia faces scrutiny over the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Saudi Arabia and women’s rights: In Saudi Arabia, apostasy laws make it illegal for a Muslim to change his or her religion or to renounce Islam. The country adheres to strict interpretations of Sunni Islam, and has a long history of preventing women from taking on a larger role in society. Male guardians have the power to decide whether they can marry and get divorce, travel or get a job. Moreover, Saudi women who flee their families can face serious harm from relatives, especially if returned against their will. However, there has been encouraging news from Saudi Arabia in the past year, which leaves room for hope. In June 2018, Saudi Arabia issued driving licences to women for the first time in decades, just weeks before a ban on female drivers was lifted. On Sunday 6 January 2019, Saudi courts were enabled by the government to notify women by text message when they get divorced, in a new regulation aiming at ending the many cases of men secretly ending marriages without informing their wives.

Giulia Mizzon


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