By Samantha Goldberg
What would you do if you lived in a world where you could not be yourself? If everything you yearned for and wanted to accomplish was somehow forbidden? If you felt your life was in constant danger, would you run? This is the story of a brave girl, her harrowing journey to safety, and her dedication to speak out for what is right.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was an eighteen-year-old first year university student when her desire for freedom overwhelmed her. On a family trip to Kuwait, she arranged a flight to Australia via a stopover in Bangkok. Even with a visa for Australia at hand, Mohammed was stopped by Thai immigration authorities who alerted her family. According to Saudi law, a woman cannot travel without being accompanied by a male relative. Authorities escorted the terrified young woman to an airport hotel where she would await deportation back to Saudi Arabia. On January 4th, Rahaf refused to board her flight from Bangkok to Kuwait to re-join her family, who she claims has abused her and made several threats on her life. Mohammed barricaded herself in her airport hotel, refusing to leave. In a desperate attempt to save her own life, Rahaf took to social media to plead for help. During this 48-hour standoff her frantic posts, videos, and stories could be seen on social media channels such as Twitter. At the start of her ordeal, Rahaf had 24 followers.
Sharing years of physical and mental abuse from her family, constant threats and lockups, she feared the worst awaited her if she were to return home. One of her first tweets read, “I’m afraid. My family will kill me.” It was translated and shared with the hashtag #SaveRahaf. Her fate was sealed after her renunciation of Islam, a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. As she revealed these personal accounts online, she was well aware of what could happen, “My life was in danger and I felt I had nothing to lose.” The posts caught the attention of Human Rights Watch, leading to the deputy Asia director based in Bangkok personally reaching out to guide her through. Less than 24 hours after her first tweet, the Saudi teenager had grown to over 27,000 followers.
Her pleads for asylum were answered when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees caught wind of what was taking place. On January 11th, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would welcome Mohammed with open arms. Upon starting her new life in Canada, and her family’s disownment over social media, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun has dropped her last name. Throughout this ordeal, her family denies any abuse.
Now, in the safe embrace of Canada, she knows her work is not done. With her newfound freedom, Rahaf has chosen to dedicate herself to women’s rights. Mohammed knows she is very lucky. There are countless rumors of Saudi women who have fled the kingdom from harassment only to be forcibly taken back and never heard from again. Mohammed is adamant that the number of women attempting to flee will increase, and hopes her story “encourages women to be brave and free.” In a statement read at a press conference, she vowed that, “Today, and for years to come, I will work in support of freedom for women around the world.”
Mohammed’s actions have sparked debate on the mistreatment of women in Saudi Arabia, particularly the rule of guardianship. Under Saudi law, women are assigned a male relative whose approval is needed if she is to travel alone, hold a passport, or marry. The global campaign trended with the headline, “Remove guardianship and we won’t all migrate”, with Saudi Arabian women using #EndMaleGuardianship as a way to share their stories. The social media storm has created a forum for women to speak out, including claims that there are women imprisoned for publicly challenging these laws.
As Mohammed settles into her new life in Canada, the flurry of social media still surrounds the young activist. Social media is what Rahaf Mohammed used when she was backed into a corner, and her pleas for help were answered. Now comforted within the safe borders of Canada, her abuse is not over. As with every viral story on the internet, those that disagree make their opinions known. Through the backlash, those defending the Saudi government have been using #revealrahaf to portray Mohammed as sexually promiscuous. There is no way of knowing how serious these threats against Mohammed’s life are, but ignoring them is not worth the risk. Mohammed has been assigned a security detail to ensure that she is not left alone or in harms way.
Supporters jump to her defense, instead using the hashtag to discredit a person that would use the term to slutshame a terrified eighteen-year-old girl. Unfortunately we live in a society where living a life ‘unplugged’ means being shut out of social networks and being disconnected from the rest of the world. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have become sources for people to connect and keep up to date with school, family, work, and the news. There is little to be done to escape online harassment, nevertheless voices of support help to balance the scales in an attempt to drown out the negative space.
As proven in Rahaf Mohammed’s case, for each online bully arising, there is someone out there willing to jump in for defense. These social media warriors and activists have a major role to play in combatting online harassment. The power of social media can be harnessed for good and bad, to save a life or threaten one. Once people realize the power their virtual voice can have, there is no stopping the capabilities of the individual, just ask Rahaf Mohammed’s 221,000 followers.
Samantha Goldberg is a student in the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program. This heavy subject does not bring down her bubbly demeanor, she is lighthearted and quick with a joke. Outside of her school life, she enjoys baking, running, and eating pizza. In the future, she dreams of adopting a puppy and perfecting the art of bread making.
Illustration by Marina Skovgaard Dokken.