By Reem El Attar and Tim Kitz
Canada has accepted the emergency asylum claim of Rahaf Mohammed, a Saudi teenager who attracted global attention via a series of dramatic tweets from a hotel room in Thailand, where she had barricaded herself to try to avoid deportation to Saudi Arabia.
The 18-year-old fled her allegedly abusive family while on vacation in Kuwait. She flew to Thailand, aiming to eventually seek asylum in Australia.
Upon Mohammed’s arrival in Thailand on Saturday, Jan. 5, Mohammed claimed that she was held at Bangkok’s airport, where authorities sent her to a hotel room and planned to deport her back to Kuwait on the morning of Monday, Jan. 7.
Mohammed’s tweets sparked an immediate online campaign – she racked up over 45,000 followers on her first day on Twitter – and sent shockwaves throughout Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries.
The hashtags #SaveRahaf and #Remove guardianship and we won’t all migrate trended as social media platforms erupted with young women using the hashtags to share their experiences with the Saudi guardianship system and support for Mohammed.
The guardianship system is a system that prohibits Saudi women from traveling, marrying, undergoing medical procedures and working without the permission of a male guardian, who is typically a husband, father or brother.
Mohammed told The Toronto Star “We are treated as an object, like a slave.” She described being beaten for not praying or doing housework and said she was locked in the house for six months for cutting her hair short. “I was exposed to physical violence, persecution, oppression, threats to be killed… My life was in danger and I felt I had nothing to lose.”
Mohammed also renounced Islam, a crime that is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.
The public attention prompted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to investigate Mohammed’s case on Jan. 7. They quickly determined that she qualified for emergency protection and on Jan. 9 referred her to Australia, her original destination.
That same day, the Australian Department of Home Affairs said it “will consider this referral in the usual way,” with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton warning there would be “no special treatment” for Mohammed, according to The Guardian.
Dutton has previously offered to fast-track visa applications from white South African farmers, in response to advocacy by the Suidlanders – a self-proclaimed “civil defense organization dedicated to white Afrikaaners” who likes to take credit for growing global awareness of “white genocide.”
Thailand, meanwhile, has a history of returning asylum seekers and refugees to their home countries.
For example, Bahraini football player Hakeem al-Araibi was granted refugee status by Australia in 2017 after being tortured for criticizing the regime – but was arrested in November 2018 while holidaying with his family in Thailand and sent back to Bahrain.
The UNHCR quickly pivoted, withdrawing its referral to Australia and asking Canada to consider her for the country’s emergency protection program, which has a quota of a hundred refugee cases each year.
On Jan. 11, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters “we have accepted the UN’s request that we grant [Mohammed] asylum. That is something we are pleased to do because Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights, to stand up for women’s rights around the world.”
Mohammed was greeted the next day at the Toronto airport by the Canadian minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland.
Costi Immigrant Services, a settlement organization based in Toronto, is now working to get Mohammed settled with temporary housing. Mario Calla, executive director of Costi said to Global News, “We’ve been getting many calls from Canadians who are offering to help with shelter and schooling.”
Meanwhile, others are slandering her and sending her death threats online, claiming that she has dishonored her family, religion and country through her actions. Others claimed she simply wants the freedom to engage in premarital sex and compared her the Arab porn star, Mia Khalifa.
Bearing these threats in mind, “Costi has hired private security and ensures she is never alone,” said Calla.
During her first week in Canada, Mohammed has remained active on social media. She has shared photos on Snapchat celebrating her new life – which her critics have taken as ‘flaunting’ her rejection of Islam and of the rules of conservative Saudi Arabia.
On Jan. 16, she posted a photo of her breakfast which includes bacon, a meat banned in Islam. Later that day, she also posted about enjoying a glass of wine, which is considered a crime punishable by a prison sentence in Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed also dropped her family name, Al-Qunan, in response to a public statement from her family, where they publicly disowned her and expressed their support for the Saudi government.
“We disavow the so-called ‘Rahaf al-Qunun’ the mentally unstable daughter who has displayed insulting and disgraceful behavior,” the statement read. “Our impious daughters’ shameful behavior has embarrassed our Islamic customs and values … we beg the kingdom to not to blame the family.”
The next day, Jan. 17, Mohammed shared a photo of a lit cigarette on Snapchat and captioned the image in Arabic, “Evaporate Al-Qunan evaporate,” referring to her family name.
When discussing her family’s disownment on her first TV interview with ABC’s Sophie McNeill, Mohammed became teary-eyed, expressing that she didn’t expect this reaction from her family. She also mentioned that she does not encourage women to leave their home because it is too dangerous an undertaking.
Nevertheless, in recent years, more and more young women have been attempting to flee Saudi Arabia, several of them resettling in Canada as refugees.
But not everyone is granted the same fortune. Oftentimes, these extremely risky escape plans turn sour.
In 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, pleaded for help in a video that widely circulated online when her escape plan was impeded while in transit in the Philippines. She was detained at the airport until her family members arrived to take her back home to Saudi Arabia against her will. She hasn’t been heard from since.
More recently, in May of 2018, Loujain Al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist and University of British Columbia graduate, was imprisoned and tortured for her campaign advocating for women to drive.
When Al-Hathloul and several fellow-activists were arrested, Canada tweeted demanding the release of these activists. Saudi Arabia retaliated by expelling Canada’s ambassador.
Canada’s acceptance of Mohammed may have rekindled the discord between the two countries.
According to The Canadian Press, Canada has been accused of meddling in the internal affairs of Mohammed’s family with the intent of vilifying Saudi Arabia, this time by Mufleh Al-Qahtani, the head of Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled human rights commission.