On February 8 2017, Areej and Ashwaq Hamoud packed their belongings and left the house where they grew up in Saudi Arabia to board a plane to what they hoped would be a better life.
That night they left behind their family home and at the same time overrode the kingdom’s notorious male guardianship system, which at that time required a woman to have permission from a male relative to travel, in a highly dangerous move that could easily have cost them their lives.
“We did not sleep the night before we fled, it was a huge risk,” Ashwaq tells me. “We had to flee or die. Even if we died, at least we tried.”
Since childhood the two sisters suffered domestic violence. Their parents withheld food from them and even tried to kill them, though Ashwaq is not forthcoming with the details, which she describes as too humiliating to share.
“We don’t know why we were treated like this; we have other siblings but they weren’t treated like this. In fact, they support the parents and everything they are doing.”
The next day Areej and Ashwaq landed in Hong Kong where they planned to take a connecting flight to Auckland in New Zealand, but they were prevented from boarding the plane when airport authorities suspected their intention was to seek asylum there.
They had to make a decision on the spot and decided to reroute to Turkey where they didn’t need a visa to enter.
Now the sisters are stranded in Istanbul, terrified that their family members – who are actively pursuing them – will find a way to bring them back and subject them both to an honour killing.
In an effort to preserve his “honour”, Areej and Ashwaq’s father has filed a complaint against his daughters, claiming they arrived in Turkey on their way to Syria to join a terror group.
“This accusation is an attempt to damage our future and end our lives. He is trying to bring us back because we shamed him by fleeing and he would do anything for family honour and we will be the victims of an honour killing only because we fled to save our lives and live safely, with dignity,” says Ashwaq.
One month ago, the two sisters contacted Equality Now, an NGO based in the UK, which supports the rights of women and girls, and asked them for help drumming up support for their case.
“From my experience,” says the organisation’s MENA consultant Suad Abu-Dayyeh, “if these girls go back to Saudi Arabia they would definitely be killed or locked inside the house and no one will know what is happening to them, because they challenged the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia and it is not acceptable, in inverted commas, for girls and women to do this, not just in Saudi Arabia, but in our region.”
Men are the legal guardians of the family in Saudi and women fleeing their homes is considered a “parental disobedience” crime.
It’s part of the custom and tradition that girls should not challenge the system they are living in. So, whenever a girl tries to transcend this system they will definitely be at risk of their lives. It’s part of the culture that girls and women have to, in inverted commas, behave well.
Three months after they arrived in Turkey Ashwaq and Areej applied for residency permits, but instead they were arrested by Turkish authorities. Now, the sisters have both lost their appeal in a Turkish court and risk deportation and forced return to Saudi.
Besides the danger they are in from their own family they believe Saudi authorities will press charges against them for harming the reputation of the kingdom due to their public requests for assistance.
“We seek protection in a safe third country where we can live in safety and dignity,” Ashwaq tells me. “We have been registered at the UNHCR for years yet we haven’t received a response from them.”
Their predicament raises questions over the relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which came into the spotlight in the aftermath of the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“Turkey and Saudi Arabia are not friends,” says Suad, “because of Jamal’s case. But Turkey are also implementing patriarchal structures. They are not really supportive to women.”
In January the Turkish parliament debated a bill which would provide an amnesty for men convicted of raping children if they marry their victims, whereas countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia have repealed these articles, explains Suad.
“I don’t think Turkey are living in a just society without discrimination. If they are thinking of enacting a law that permits and pardons a rapist from punishment, you can imagine how they treat women in general. So, if their case has been rejected it reflects the mentality of the judges.”
In early 2019 a Saudi teenager, Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunan, made waves when she barricaded herself in a hotel room in Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi Airport in the capital Bangkok where she was detained by Thai authorities pending her scheduled forcible deportation to Kuwait where she would be handed over to Saudi Arabia where her father was waiting for her.
Like Ashwaq and Areej, Rahaf escaped an abusive family and planned to travel to Australia where she would seek asylum. Whilst in her room she opened a Twitter account and within a day gained some 45,000 followers and worldwide support. Rahaf was granted asylum by Canada and was met at Toronto Airport by the then minister of foreign affairs. Her case underscored that international pressure is paramount.
Inspired by her success story a wave of young, abused Saudi women escaped the kingdom to start new lives across the world. However, some have faced a less positive fate. Dina Ali Lasloom was 24 when she was forcibly returned to the kingdom while transiting through the Philippines and Mariam Al-Otaibi was 29 when she was captured and jailed whilst attempting to flee.
At the time of Ashwaq and Areej’s escape Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system was still very much in place. Adult women had to get permission to marry, access healthcare or travel abroad. It remains unclear exactly how the two sisters overrode this.
With their escape they became part of a wide network of Saudi activists and young women who have steadily chipped away at the guardianship laws for years, with some small victories. In 2016, 2,500 women sent telegrams to King Salman and over 14,000 people signed a petition demanding it be abolished.
In 2018 the Saudi regime lifted the ban on women driving and one year later issued a royal decree which permitted women over the age of 21 to obtain passports and travel abroad without permission from a male guardian.
However, women’s rights campaigners have responded to these reforms with scepticism, largely over the contradictions inherent in government action, not least in their treatment of Ashwaq and Areej.
Equality Now are part of the Free Saudi Activists coalition and have worked for the past two years to free females who have been jailed for advocating an end to the male guardianship system, promoting civil society or suggesting shelters be built for abused women.
Loujain Al-Hathloul was one of the prominent feminist rights defenders arrested and detained for speaking out, among other things, about the fact that women were not allowed to drive. She was singled out for particularly harsh treatment, including torture, solitary confinement and sexual violence.
The law is just the first step, what should come after this is awareness raising, says Equality Now’s Suad: “I don’t think the government is doing that. Most people still need to be taught that women are your companion and not your enemy.”
At the same time as making cosmetic reforms, the Saudi regime has rolled out endless propaganda, in response to Western pressure. On 27 June this year the kingdom was ranked the Arab world’s best country for women by CEOWPRLD magazine. It provoked a wave of criticism similar to the news in 2015 that the UN had chosen Saudi to head a key UN human rights panel.
“So, you will see that Saudi Arabia is trying to do so much ‘positive propaganda’ and saying that they are the best in the Arab region where they are the worst country you know, treating women as legal minors, in spite of the reforms they have done,” says Suad.
“We are living in a patriarchal society where power relations are dominant. The patriarchy will not give up any privilege they have if they are not forced to do so and there is no political will. They will just enjoy the privileges they have had for years and years,” she adds.
“Ashwaq and Areej have challenged the status quo they are living in. They are very brave and they are very courageous to take this step.”