Life in Saudi
By the time she was 14, Nourah* was thinking about escape. The young Saudi woman was on Twitter watching the Arab Spring unfold across the Middle East, bringing hopes for freedom.
“It wasn’t just for those people, it wasn’t just for those countries. For me as a young woman, that made a lot of difference and I decided when I was 14, I’m going to leave this country,” she said.
Nourah’s life was controlled by men.
Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship laws mean women need permission from their guardian — a father, brother, husband, son or uncle — for the most basic activities. They can’t travel, go to school, get a job or marry without permission. Under Saudi law, their witness statements carry half the weight of a man’s.
“Any male from my family can control my life in any way. He can make the big decisions in my life including my partner, the future of my education, even if I went to hospital he had to sign for me,” Nourah said.
For Shahad, life in Saudi included constant beatings from her father. When she complained to her mother about the abuse, her father beat them both.
“My life in Saudi Arabia was like a slave since I was a little girl. I couldn’t do anything without the permission from my male guardian. My father was an abusive man,” she said.
Sisters Amal* and Amani* were also trapped with an abusive family. Others, like Ranya* and Rawan*, had no say in how they lived.
For many wealthy, well-educated Saudi women, it’s life in a gilded cage. For those who disobey their male guardians or the Saudi government, it’s been likened to a Handmaid’s Tale-style dystopia.
All women fear the Dal Al Reaya — the state-run institutions where women who resist the male guardianship system or ‘shame’ their families often end up. Even women who go to the police to report a crime can be sent here. Their only way out is if a male guardian comes and collects them. Sometimes women locked in the Dal Al Reaya will agree to marry perfect strangers as a way of leaving.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has been selling himself to the world as a reformer who has wound back some of the strict controls on women, like the ban on driving.
In reality, he’s been behind an unprecedented and brutal crackdown on Saudi female activists, with dozens arrested since May 2018 and thrown in jail.
One of those imprisoned is 29-year-old Loujain al Hathloul, who has since been subjected to waterboarding, beatings and threats of rape, according to human rights groups.
“Loujain appeared to her parents during a visit and they said she had black bruises on her thighs, she was physically shaking,” Adam Coogle from Human Rights Watch told Four Corners.
“Women [in prison] have reported that they were subjected to various forms of brutal torture including electric shocks, whippings, sexual harassment.”
Plotting the escape
In order to escape Saudi Arabia, women need permission from their male guardian to travel. Saudi Arabia’s far-reaching controls over women extend online, where men are able to grant travel permissions through a government-run app called Absher.
Absher can be used for every day functions like paying parking fines or renewing drivers licences, but it also allows men to change travel permissions and set up SMS alerts to let them know when a woman uses her passport at a border crossing or airport check-in.
Activists say some women manage to secretly access their guardian’s phone, often at night when they are asleep, and change the settings on their guardian’s Absher account.
In some cases, like the high-profile story of Rahaf Mohammad Al Qunun, women use the opportunity of a family holiday overseas to flee.
When Shahad and her family visited Turkey, she saw a chance to escape.
“I decided to take my chance and run away from them there,” she said.
“At night, when I saw that everyone was sleeping, I took everything, my stuff, my passport, their passports, everything that would give me time to reach a good country who could save me.”
Nourah’s escape from Saudi took years of meticulous research online, working out the safest routes and who she could trust to help her. In the end she fled with almost nothing — one small bag.
“Just my life and my freedom,” she said.
Ranya had less time to plan. Her situation in Saudi became so bad she feared death and left within a month. She managed to book flights and get a visa online.
“Big thanks go to Google, it’s helped me a lot to find out how I can go to Australia,” she said.
On the run
Getting a plane ticket and a passport was just the start of Ranya’s risky journey.
“I planned to leave the house in the middle of the night so no-one will notice me,” she said.
“It’s not only the airport system that scared me, every male in your way, he can stop you and question you where you are going. If he is suspicious of you, he will report you to the police.”
She feared even the taxi driver who took her to the airport would turn her in.
Shahad, alone on the streets of Turkey, was terrified.
“I felt so scared. It was so hard for me. I have never in my life gone on the street alone, so when I escaped my family it was actually the first time for me that I go out alone,” she said.
Desperate, she managed to get a taxi to the airport, but was unable to get a flight out. She got another taxi and this time made it across the Turkish border into Georgia, where Saudis can travel without a visa.
By that time her father and the Saudi authorities were in pursuit.
For women on the run, the horror story of Dina Ali Lasloom is not far from their minds.
In April 2017, Dina Ali was stopped in transit in Manila as she tried to flee to Australia. Like Rahaf Mohammad Al Qunun, Dina Ali posted a video on social media pleading for help. Before she could make it to safety, her uncles flew from Kuwait to Manila Airport to capture her.
Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch say her arms and legs were taped together, her mouth was taped shut, a blanket was put over her and she was forced onto a flight back to Saudi Arabia. She’s not been heard from publicly since.
Human Rights Watch’s Adam Coogle says Saudi Arabia is continually pressuring countries it does business with.
“Saudi Arabia is able to get away with this because they have a lot of money and they’re able to use that in an effective way to exert influence on other countries.”
Sisters Amal and Amani, who were trying to flee to Australia, were stopped in transit in Hong Kong, where the Saudi Consul General was waiting for them.
They had valid visas to Australia but an Australian Border Force officer at Hong Kong airport blocked them from boarding their flight after he was approached by the Consul General.
The sisters managed to flee the airport, but with their passports cancelled, they remain trapped in Hong Kong. They have been living in hiding for more than four months, moving locations several times to avoid their family and Saudi authorities tracking them down. The Department of Home Affairs cancelled their Australian visas.
For Saudi women who do make it to Australia, asylum is not guaranteed. At least 80 Saudi women have sought asylum in Australia in the last few years.
Four Corners has been told that Saudi women who arrive alone in Australian airports are being asked by Border Force officials why they are not travelling with a male guardian.
Four Corners has evidence of at least two young Saudi women who arrived at Sydney airport in the past two years and who made their asylum claims clear to Australian Border Force officials but were sent back.
Ranya’s friend Dina was of the girls blocked entry at Sydney airport.
“She was planning to apply for asylum here, [after] she came from Saudi to Indonesia and Indonesia to Sydney,” she said.
Ranya says she has not heard from her friend since she was returned to Saudi Arabia
“We tried to reach her but we haven’t heard from her, hopefully she’s alive. We don’t know.”
For Shahad, who was stranded in Georgia, freedom came when the UNHCR found out about her case and helped get her permanent residency in Sweden. She’s left a lot behind, including sisters who are still in Saudi Arabia.
Like Rahaf, who was granted asylum in Canada after her case went viral, Shahad is one of the lucky ones.
Ranya, Nourah and Rahan all made it to Australia but they remain on bridging visas and are hoping to be granted asylum.
Ranya says she will never forget the first day she arrived.
“I arrived in the afternoon, so first thing that I have done was running on the street — jogging. I wanted to try to understand the feeling of jogging in the open air,” she said.
“It was amazing.”
The women in Australia say they live in constant fear of the Saudi authorities. Four Corners has uncovered evidence that officials from the Saudi Ministry of Interior are operating in Australia to try to coerce Saudi women seeking asylum to return home.
“They’re saying ‘[we] want to talk to you, can we meet up in a coffee shop? We can get you what you want, what you like’,” Rawan said.
“They’re like, nothing is going to happen to you if you go back, don’t worry we’ll try to talk with your male guardian there.”
They hope the years spent planning their escapes will not be in vain and the Australian Government will allow them to stay.
“I live with this fear every day because I don’t know what’s going to happen to me if I went back to Saudi Arabia,” Nourah said.
“I’m not going back. I’d prefer to kill myself.
“They will kill us but with torture.”
For now though, Nourah’s future is looking bright. She’s been accepted into university in Sydney and she’s getting used to being able to wake up and do what she wants.
“I can decide what I’m going to do in my day. It’s something incredible. It’s something I can’t explain it to normal people,” she said.
*Four Corners has changed the names of some of these women because they fear for their safety.
Reporter: Sophie McNeill
Digital Design: Georgina Piper
Digital Producer: Brigid Andersen
Producers: Sharon O’Neill, Mary Fallon