The reality of modern life in Saudi Arabia as a woman

Escape from Saudi Arabia: Woman, 21, who’s started a new life in Canada reveals her brothers ‘controlled’ her and her mother threatened to ‘burn’ her for ‘dishonouring’ the family – before she decided to flee country after being raped

  • Rahaf Mohammed, 21, from Saudi Arabia, has revealed how she escaped family 
  • Hit headlines in 2018 when she barricaded herself in Bangkok airport hotel room
  • She said she took action in a bid not be sent back home to her oppressive family
  • She was handed over to the UN refugee agency and resettled to Canada
  • Has now explained how she was silenced and raped in her home country 
  • Rebel: My Escape from Saudi Arabia to Freedom is published on March 10  

A Saudi woman who was granted asylum in Canada after fleeing her homeland has revealed in a new book how she plotted her incredible escape from her oppressive parents.

In Rebel: My Escape from Saudi Arabia to Freedom, Rahaf Mohammed, now 21, explains how her family controlled what she wore, whether she spoke and even how she was allowed to sit.

Despite knowing she was risking her life, she began rebelling as a teenager, experimenting sexually with men and women.

Aged 18, Rahaf was tragically raped by a driver and finally began plotting her escape with the help of an underground network of girls in an online chat room.

After flying from a family holiday in Kuwait to Thailand, she captured global attention in December 2018 after she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room in Bangkok in a bid to not be sent home to her family.     

The then-18-year-old said she was being oppressed by her family and took action to save her life. She was handed over to the UN refugee agency and resettled to Canada.   

In Rebel: My Escape from Saudi Arabia to Freedom, Rahaf Mohammed, now 21, has revealed in a new book how she plotted her incredible escape

Rahaf was born the fifth child of seven to a family of  Sunni Muslims from the al-Shammari tribe that once ruled over the Ha’il region.

The family are from one of the strictest and most conservative areas in Saudi Arabia, and lived a lavish lifestyle.

She grew up in a nine-bedroom home with multiple members of staff, while her family worked as governor of al-Saulaimi. 

From a young age, Rahaf understood she was different from her brothers, who were allowed to play outside and wear jeans and t-shirts.

After flying from a family holiday in Kuwait to Thailand, she captured global attention in December 2018 after she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room in Bangkok in a bid to not be sent home to her family (pictured) 

In her memoir, she explains how her family controlled what she wore, whether she spoke and even how she was allowed to sit

She writes that her siblings ‘controlled her every move’, saying: ‘By the time I was nine, I was told not to open my legs ever and to always sit up straight with my legs crossed.’

She was also forbidden from sitting outside, unable to even open her bedroom window or answer her own front door. 

How Rahaf was petrified of being sent to Saudi Arabia’s houses of horror for disobedient women

In the book, Rahaf documents how she was terrified of her parents sending her to a ‘care home’ for disobedient women.

According to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, Dar Al Reaya holds two types of women: those who need ‘social correction’ and ‘strengthening the religious faith’ for ‘deviat[ing] from the straight path’ and those under the age of 30 awaiting an investigation or trial. 

However women have described it as a prison for those who dare to ‘disobey’ the regime – by  defying the dress code, an unacceptable sexual orientation, or refusing to marry the man of the family’s choice.   

Rahaf calls them a ‘dumping ground’ for families who claim their daughters have brought them shame.  

Hala Al Dosari, a prominent Saudi activist and scholar, told New Lines: ‘There’s very limited information and testimonies from those who have been to Dar Al Reaya. 

‘Women can only tell their stories many years after their release, once they reach a safe place. What we know is there have been cases of suicide there.’ 

She wrote: ‘No one should hear a girl’s voice. I was told you can never walk in public, and if you must work, you can only become a teacher in an all-girls school.’

The 21-year-old was kept in check by her controlling brothers and mother, who warned her there would be strict punishments if she ever stepped out of line.

She explained: ‘One day my mother struck a match and held the flame very near to my body. She said, ‘Your body will get burnt in life and even in the afterlife if you soil your honour or your family’s honour.”

Aged 11, she was forced by one of her brothers to start wearing a niqab. She was forbidden from speaking to sellers at her local souk, and her male relatives would speak for her during medical appointments.  

As she became a teenager, she began to rebel, searching online for images of girls who spoke freely of drinking and having sex and experimenting with men and women in private.  

She and her friends started talking about the prohibited subjects, getting candid about their hopes and dreams of getting rid of the veil, having sex and being free.  

She stumbled across a Twitter account for a Saudi woman who had managed to flee to Canada, who gave her a secret code to access a website which could help her plot her escape. 

The private chat room offered  Rahaf the information she needed about what life could be like in a foreign country, as well as how to gain a travel permit without your guardian knowing, how to book an airline ticket and how to apply for a visa. 

She even learned there were many Saudi women who led double lives, taking driving lessons in secret and even playing football with friends.  

In the autumn of 2018, she registered at the University of Ha’il, where she had more freedom to remove her niqab and even walk down the street alone.

However one day she hired a driver to take her across town, and he drove her into the mountains and raped her.

Rahaf then spent three days at Bangkok airport after being denied entry by Thai immigration officials. She barricaded herself in a hotel room to avoid deportation and began tweeting – quickly amassing a huge following

When she told a friend what had happened, she was immediately warned not to tell anyone else. 

She wrote: ‘There it was right in front of me – all the evidence I needed to understand where girls stand in Saudi. 

‘The driver who raped me knew he would never have to be accountable for his crime…If anyone knew that I was soiled goods, I would have to be killed – it would be a classic case of honour killing.’

Rahaf began plotting her escape, using advice from the girls she had met online to begin saving money in a friend’s bank account.   

Thai authorities eventually allowed her to enter Thailand and the UN refugee agency began to seek a home for her, before she was offered asylum in Canada 

When she had enough money, she applied for the Australian visa online and, having convinced her parents they should holiday in Kuwait, she left the country for good.

Rahaf described the week she spent with her family in Kuwait as nerve-wracking as she desperately sought the perfect moment she could escape.

After snatching her passport from the empty car one afternoon, she stayed up all night and booked a ticket on from Kuwait to Thailand.

She also booked a hotel in Bangkok for three days, before leaving the hotel in a taxi.

She wrote: ‘I asked the driver to take me to the airport and then connected to the internet through his phone’s hotspot.

‘Through messaging apps, I texted my friends. I didn’t feel scared at all. I even did a video chat from the taxi and kept saying, ‘I did it, I did it.”

Upon arriving in Canada, she said she wanted to be independent, travel and make her own decisions on education, on a career and who she will marry

However that wasn’t the end of her journey – Rahaf then spent three days at Bangkok airport after being denied entry by Thai immigration officials.

She barricaded herself in a hotel room to avoid deportation and began tweeting – quickly amassing a huge following.

Thai authorities eventually allowed her to enter the country and the UN refugee agency began to seek a home for her.   

Since starting her new life, Rahaf, who has renounced her last name al-Qunun, has posted snaps of her enjoying things that she was forbidden to have in her homeland.    

The 21-year-old now regularly shares pictures of her new life in Canada on Instagram, showing off her huge sleeve tattoo 

After being informed that she had been granted asylum in Canada, she said in a press conference: ‘the stress I felt over the last week melted away.’

Ms Mohammed also said in her press conference that she wants to work in support of freedom for women around the world.

‘Today and for years to come, I will work in support of freedom for women around the world,’ she said.

Rahaf has said she wants to help other women around the world experience the freedom she has felt while in Canada 

‘The same freedom I experienced on the first day I arrived in Canada.’

She added that her first priority is to learn English.

She said she wanted to be independent, travel and make her own decisions on education, on a career and who she will marry. 

Rebel: My Escape from Saudi Arabia to Freedom is published on March 10 

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