‘Now I own my life’: Saudi sisters who fled family granted asylum

Pair, given asylum in undisclosed country, faced recriminations in kingdom

'Now I own my life': Saudi sisters who fled family granted asylum

Two Saudi sisters who say they were beaten and treated like slaves by their brothers and father have been granted asylum in an undisclosed country.

The women, aged 18 and 20, ran away from their family last September while on holiday in Sri Lanka and have been stranded in Hong Kong since an abandoned attempt to reach Australia, where they hoped to secure asylum.

The sisters, who are known by the pseudonyms Reem and Rawan, have asked for the country which granted them asylum to remain confidential.

I was so happy, the younger sister told Reuters in Hong Kong, describing how she felt when she was told she had been given asylum. I screamed, Its real, its happening … It was just relief and unforgettable.

The women arrived in Hong Kong in September after planning their escape over several years and secretly hoarding around $5,000. They were blocked from continuing their journey to Australia by Saudi consular agents at Hong Kong international airport and had their passports revoked.

Had they been forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia they would have been at risk of criminal charges for leaving their homes without the permission of their male guardian, for escaping the country and for renouncing Islam.

They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner, the younger sister said of her brothers and father.

The women were critical of Saudi Arabias male guardianship system, under which women must get permission from a male relative for activities such as working, travelling and getting married.

Women are just like slaves, said the older sister. I want to settle down and to feel safe, and [to know] that I have rights and I matter in that country. Just to live normal, and discover myself because now I own my life.

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She said she hoped to become a writer one day, describing George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four as one of her favourite books. She likened the totalitarian regime described in the book to her homeland. Its a science fiction book but its real in Saudi, she said.

The younger sister, whose favourite bands include Radiohead and Queen, said: Theres a bright, beautiful future awaiting me.

Theirs is the second such case this year. In January, an 18-year-old Saudi woman, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, was granted asylum in Canada after fleeing her family and barricading herself in a Bangkok hotel to resist being sent home.

Responding to news that the sisters had left Hong Kong to live safely in a new country, Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty Internationals Middle East research director, said the two women showed immense courage and took huge risks to escape the repeated abuse by their male relatives.

The sisters must be allowed to build their lives without living in fear that their family or the Saudi authorities will force them back, she said. Reem and Rawans male relatives got away with repeated beatings because of the lack of adequate protection against domestic violence in the country.

No woman or girl should fear for their life like Reem and Rawan did. Saudi Arabia must urgently reform the guardianship system and end the whole range of discriminatory laws and practices women face.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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