Earlier this month, 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed escaped her Saudi Arabian family, barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room and, through social media, made one plea to the world: "I want asylum."
Mohammed told of the abuse she endured as a Saudi woman, which she says she suffered at the hands of her family members. Once, she was locked in her room for six months for having her hair cut the wrong way. Often, they beat her. She was ultimately granted asylum in Canada.
Her story sounded all to familiar to "Laura," a Saudi woman who fled the country in 2013, and was also granted asylum in Canada. Even though she escaped more than five years ago, Laura asked that we use a pseudonym during her On Point appearance, as she still fears for her safety.
"Currently the Saudi regime has been extremely oppressing people,” she told host Meghna Chakrabarti. "Even if you are not in Saudi, they might harm your family or do anything just to blackmail you because they don’t want their stories out in public. They want to keep their vision and their picture very shiny and bright to everyone in the world that Saudi is changing, but the reality is that it is not."
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, has made moves in recent years to introduce social changes. The country lifted its long standing ban on women driving. And women are now permitted to attend sporting events. But the country is still governed by strict guardianship laws, meaning women, no matter their age, are considered legal dependents, and need male guardians, whether fathers, husbands or sons, to consent to their life choices. Those choices include everything from driving a car to leaving the house.
Laura became a prisoner in her own home on two occasions. Her father locked her in her room once for a period of eight months, and another time for a period of nine months, each time without food or water. She was let out to go to the bathroom once a day.
"My dad’s intention was, he wanted to starve me to death," Laura said. “I’ve had a gun pointed on my head because of my father because he was really upset at that moment.”
Laura said one of the times she was locked in her room was because her father found out she was in a relationship with a man. Although he hadn’t seen them together, he found out they had been speaking. On the other occasion, Laura said her sister was caught by the state’s governing religious police. Her sister was lost in the mall, looking for Laura, and was stopped because she wasn’t dressed conservatively.
"Because of the way she was looking and the way she was dressed up, the religious police held her and then they reported to my dad she was busted in a car with several men in it, which was not true," Laura said. "Usually when he locks me up, he only locks me up after he beats me up."
"My dad’s intention was, he wanted to starve me to death. I’ve had a gun pointed on my head because of my father because he was really upset at that moment."Laura
Laura said she was able to survive through the kindness of a housemaid, who sneaked her a small sandwich and a bottle of water once a day when she came upstairs to take her to the bathroom.
All the while, Laura was plotting her escape. She planned for three years in total, and said the biggest obstacle was trying to escape without permission from a male guardian.
"My only option was trying to convince my family maybe I have [an educational] course somewhere, and then I can take off," she said. "We did travel to one of the Gulf countries, and then from there, they dropped me off at that course, and then from there, I took a plane to London, U.K., and then from there to Toronto. During that time, I had to plan it to make sure I’m stalling my family to make sure I’m executing my plan."
When she landed in Canada, she was met by a lawyer whom she had been in touch with. Because she took so long to plan her escape, she was sure of her rights in claiming asylum, and confident her claim would be accepted.
"I want to make sure 100 percent I will be accepted because I don’t want to go back and maybe get killed," she said.
Although she has adjusted to life in Canada, she still fears for her safety, especially as the government cracks down on people they consider dissidents, even if those people are not in Saudi Arabia. But she encouraged other women to follow in her footsteps — as long as they’ve done the right preparation.
"Whomever is under so much pressure, or so much oppression, or even being abused, save your life," she said. "If you ever decide to run away, just please, please, please plan it properly. And we are willing to help with whatever it takes."
Allison Pohle produced this show for broadcast and adapted it for the web.