Why Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun Fled Her Family In Saudi Arabia, & Why It Matters

A Saudi teenager who said she fled her family out of fear for her life has reportedly been granted temporary admission into Thailand after a highly-publicized two-day standoff at a Suvarnabhumi Airport hotel in Bangkok. Immigration authorities said Monday that they would allow Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun to stay in Thailand under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"Thailand is a land of smiles," The New York Times reported Thai Immigration Chief Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn said. "We will not send someone back to die. We will take care of her as best as we can." According to Surachate, Alqunun ended her hotel standoff on Monday and left Suvarnabhumi Airport with UNHCR representatives. Officials will reportedly have 10 days to process Alqunun's asylum request and find a country willing to host her, The New York Times reported Surachate said.

In a statement issued Monday, UNHCR said that Thai authorities had granted the organization access to Alqunun in order to assess "her need for international refugee protection," but did not confirm that Alqunun had left Bangkok's main international airport or been granted permission to temporarily remain in the country. "For reasons of confidentiality and protection, we will not be in a position to comment on the details of the meeting," the agency said after meeting with Alqunun.

However, Thai immigration authorities also told the Associated Press that Alqunun's father was expected to arrive in the country Monday. Surachate told the news outlet they would see if Alqunun would want to return to Saudi Arabia with him.

On Twitter, Alqunun tweeted that she was "worried and scared" to hear of her father's arrival. The 18-year-old Saudi woman had been stopped while attempting to flee from her family while on vacation in Kuwait. Alqunun has said she was attempting to travel to Australia, where she planned to seek asylum, when she was stopped in Bangkok by an alleged representative of the Saudi embassy who took her passport from her and reported her to Thai immigration authorities.

Alqunun told Human Rights Watch that she had been physically and verbally abused by male relatives, in the form of beatings and death threats. According to the nonprofit, Alqunun's male relatives once imprisoned her in her room for six months after she cut her hair without their permission. What's more, Human Rights Watch has argued that Alqunun could face criminal charges if she were forced to return to Saudi Arabia, where charges of "parental disobedience" and "harming the reputation of the kingdom" are punishable by imprisonment.

While Saudi Arabia has recently given women the right to drive and vote, women in the country still have little control over their own lives thanks to Saudi's male guardianship laws. Under the law, women of all ages must have the permission of a male guardian to get a passport, travel, marry, or exit prison. In some instances, the permission of a male guardian can be demanded of women seeking to rent an apartment, open a bank account, obtain a job, or get medical treatment.

Currently there are no statistics available regarding the number of Saudi women who, like Alqunun, seek to escape abroad, although a few cases — that of Dina Ali Lasloom in 2017, sisters Ashwaq and Areej Hamoud also in 2017, sisters Tala and Rotana Farea in 2018 — have captured media attention in recent years. But while there aren't statistics regarding the number of Saudi women who flee abroad, there are statistics about the number of women who flee domestically.

According to the Associated Press, Saudi's Ministry of Labor and Social Development recorded 577 Saudi women as having attempted to flee home in 2015. The news outlet has argued that number is likely significantly higher due to the number of cases that go unreported due to social stigma.