The news that the Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun reached safety in Canada is a wonderful start to 2019 – it shows what can happen when one determined young woman with a Twitter account meets a global network of human rights activists.
Last Saturday I saw a tweet from prominent Egyptian women’s rights activist Mona Eltahawy sounding the alarm: 18-year-old Rahaf had been stopped at Bangkok’s international airport and Thai authorities were forcing her back to the family she said abused her in Saudi Arabia. I confirmed that Rahaf was confined to Bangkok’s airport hotel after a Saudi embassy official took her passport. The official had engineered the rejection of a Thai visa, and Thai authorities planned to put her on a Monday morning flight back home rather than let her fly to Australia to seek asylum.
Human Rights Watch swung into action, alerting journalists, contacting the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, so they would demand access to her, and enlisting the support of friendly embassies to press Thailand to change course. We worked online with activists to pump out the message, and within 24 hours, #SaveRahaf had been used half a million times. Newsrooms noticed and Rahaf’s story hit the global headlines, prompting our phones to ring off the hook with press inquiries.
Our team was in constant contact with Rahaf via Twitter direct messages and WhatsApp, documenting her story, and we issued a news release urging Thailand to stop her deportation. We worked with a group of overseas activists to come up with a plan, including having the intrepid Australian reporter Sophie McNeill fly to Bangkok. McNeill slipped into Rahaf’s hotel room unseen and documented Rahaf’s demand to see UNHCR, adding a line of communication to those campaigning for her.
Finally, Rahaf decided to barricade herself into her hotel room; the world watched the clock tick down to departure time and the flight left without her. Human Rights Watch colleagues around the world called foreign ministries to press Thailand to keep her safe. Canadian Ambassador Donica Pottie in Bangkok was relentless in urging Thailand to do the right thing.
Under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, Rahaf had no legal right to make basic decisions – like obtaining a passport or travelling abroad – without the agreement of her male guardian. The state in many areas still considers women to be children in legal terms, regardless of age, contrary to international law.
Facing a protracted standoff in front of the world’s TV cameras, the Thai authorities gave up their plan to deport Rahaf and allowed UNHCR to interview and assess her asylum request. The refugee agency protected her, despite the arrival in Bangkok of her father and brother whom she claims had psychologically and physically abused her. She refused their public demands to meet.
Rahaf has now reached Canada, which cut through red tape to offer her asylum. She made it with courage and perseverance, aided by newfound friends around the world. This is a victory for everyone who cares about women’s rights, values youth boldly seeking change, and demands that governments operate in light and not darkness. We need more of these positive movements in 2019. #RahafSaved