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Saudi woman exposes runaways’ plight
In this file photo, a Saudi woman attends the traditional Arda dance, or War dance, during the Janadriyah Festival of Heritage and Culture, on the outskirts of Riyadh. AP
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A young Saudi woman’s plea for help after she was stopped in an airport in the Philippines en route to Australia where she planned to seek asylum has triggered a firestorm on social media and drawn attention to the plight of female runaways.
For runaway Saudi women, fleeing can be a matter of life and death, and they are almost always doing so to flee male relatives.
Under Saudi Arabia’s conservative interpretation of Islamic law, a male guardianship system bars women from traveling abroad, obtaining a passport, marrying or even leaving prison without the consent of a male relative.
The mystery around what triggered Dina Ali Lasloom’s cry for help has only added to concerns for her safety. In a video that has gone viral, the 24-year-old says her passport was taken from her at an airport in the Philippines on her way to Australia last week.
“If my family come, they will kill me. If I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead. Please help me,” she pleads in the video.
Wearing a beige coat, the woman does not show her face in the video. Most women in Saudi Arabia cover their face with a veil known as a niqab. Many do so believing it is a religious obligation, in addition to covering their hair and body. Some also cover their faces due to social pressure.
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“I am kept here as a criminal. I can’t do anything,” Lasloom says in the video. The Associated Press could not independently verify the video’s authenticity.
Women’s rights advocates in Saudi Arabia say Lasloom was ultimately forced to board a plane to the kingdom with two of her uncles, who flew from Riyadh to stop her. They said authorities then took her to a women’s shelter because of the attention around her case.
She cannot leave, however, without a male guardian’s permission. Activists say only officials and relatives can contact her there.
Although there are no public statistics on how many Saudi women attempt to flee abroad, the issue has gained attention through a number of publicized cases. This despite gains made in recent years for Saudi women, including the right to run in, and vote in, local elections in 2015 and a government effort to increase women’s participation in the workforce.
Women who have managed to flee abroad say they were barred from marrying or forced into marriages. Others have told rights groups that male relatives were abusive and confiscated their salaries.
“Many of them, they just want to be free,” said Moudi Aljohani, who fled last year and is seeking asylum in the US.
Aljohani, 26, says her family felt she’d become “too Americanized” after a year of study in Miami. What was supposed to be a week-long visit home turned into months of confinement, she says.
“The eight months of being locked in Saudi Arabia has created an angry, rebellious person inside of me that I don’t want to be silent anymore,” she said. “What happened to me in Saudi Arabia created a person who just wants to speak out.”
For the past 15 years, four of the late King Abdullah’s daughters, Princesses Jawaher, Sahar, Hala and Maha – all in their 40s – have allegedly been held in a royal compound in Saudi Arabia. Their mother, who lives in London, has spoken out in the British press to try and bring attention to their plight. Two of the princesses managed to release videos in recent years pleading for help.
Saudi courts have heard numerous cases of women asking for a transfer of their guardianship to more sympathetic male relatives – in some cases to their own sons.
A Saudi women’s activist reached by phone in Riyadh said Lasloom was apparently trying to flee relatives in Kuwait who threatened to send her to live in Saudi Arabia.
“There have been a lot of Saudi girls who sought asylum abroad, but now it’s a trend. A lot of younger girls in their 20s are seeking asylum,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“When they say honor killings do not exist, it’s not true. It’s just invisible,” she said, referring to the killing of daughters in the name of family honor.
Middle East director at Human Rights Watch Sara Leah Whitson says Saudi women fleeing their family can face so-called “honor” violence if returned against their will. She called on Saudi authorities to protect Lasloom from her family.