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Matter of Life and Death! Young Saudi Woman’s Plea for Help Exposes Risks related to Runaways from mostly Male Relatives

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A young Saudi woman's plea for help after she was stopped in an airport in the Philippines en route to Australia where she planned to seek asylum has triggered a firestorm on social media and drawn attention to the plight of Saudi females fleeing repressive male relatives. VOA
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A young Saudi woman’s plea for help after she was stopped in an airport in the Philippines en route to Australia where she planned to seek asylum has triggered a firestorm on social media and drawn attention to the plight of female runaways.

For runaway Saudi women, fleeing can be a matter of life and death, and they are almost always doing so to escape male relatives.

Under Saudi Arabia’s conservative interpretation of Islamic law, a male guardianship system bars women from traveling abroad, obtaining a passport, marrying or even leaving prison without the consent of a male relative.

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The mystery around what triggered Dina Ali Lasloom’s cry for help has only added to concerns for her safety. In an online video, the 24-year-old says her passport was taken from her at an airport in the Philippines on her way to Australia last week.

“If my family come, they will kill me. If I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead. Please help me,” she pleads.

Wearing a beige coat, the woman does not show her face in the video. Most women in Saudi Arabia cover their face with a veil known as a niqab. Many do so believing it is a religious obligation, in addition to covering their hair and body. Some also cover their faces due to social pressure.

“I am kept here as a criminal. I can’t do anything,” Lasloom says in the video. The Associated Press could not independently verify the video’s authenticity.

Women’s rights advocates in Saudi Arabia say Lasloom was ultimately forced to board a plane to the kingdom with two of her uncles, who flew from Riyadh to stop her. They said authorities then took her to a women’s shelter because of the attention around her case.

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She cannot leave, however, without a male guardian’s permission. Activists say only officials and relatives can contact her there.

Although there are no public statistics on how many Saudi women attempt to flee abroad, the issue has gained attention through a number of publicized cases. This despite gains made in recent years for Saudi women, including the right to run in, and vote in, local elections in 2015, and a government effort to increase women’s participation in the workforce.

Women who have managed to flee abroad say they were barred from marrying or forced into marriages. Others have told rights groups that male relatives were abusive and confiscated their salaries.

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“Many of them, they just want to be free,” said Moudi Aljohani, who fled last year and is seeking asylum in the U.S.

Aljohani, 26, says her family felt she’d become “too Americanized” after a year of study in Miami. What was supposed to be a weeklong visit home turned into months of confinement, she says.

“The eight months of being locked in Saudi Arabia has created an angry, rebellious person inside of me that I don’t want to be silent anymore,” she said. “What happened to me in Saudi Arabia created a person who just wants to speak out.”

For the past 15 years, four of the late King Abdullah’s daughters, Princesses Jawaher, Sahar, Hala and Maha – all in their 40s – have allegedly been held in a royal compound in Saudi Arabia. Their mother, who lives in London, has spoken out in the British press to try and bring attention to their plight. Two of the princesses managed to release videos in recent years pleading for help.

Saudi courts have heard numerous cases of women asking for a transfer of their guardianship to more sympathetic male relatives – in some cases to their own sons.

A Saudi women’s rights activist reached by phone in Riyadh said Lasloom was apparently trying to flee relatives in Kuwait who threatened to send her to live in Saudi Arabia.

“There have been a lot of Saudi girls who sought asylum abroad, but now it’s a trend. A lot of younger girls in their 20s are seeking asylum,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“When they say honor killings do not exist, it’s not true. It’s just invisible,” she said, referring to the killing of daughters in the name of family honor.

Sara Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, says Saudi women fleeing their family can face so-called “honor” violence if returned against their will. She called on Saudi authorities to protect Lasloom from her family.

According to the Philippines’ Inquirer news website, Lasloom was barred from her Australian-bound flight by Saudi Embassy officials in Manila who asked airport officials to stop her.

The Saudi Embassy in the Philippines wrote on Twitter that what occurred was “a family matter in which a girl was returned with her family to the homeland.”

When asked by The Associated Press whether Saudi diplomats in the Philippines had requested that authorities in Manila stop Lasloom from boarding a flight to Australia, Foreign Ministry official Osama Nugali said: “Saudi embassies abroad respect the institutions and laws of host countries and do not interfere in their affairs.”

Manila Airport General Manager Eddie Monreal told the AP he had no knowledge about the case. An immigration official reached by the AP said the airport’s immigration officers neither detained nor held any passenger under that name.

In Saudi Arabia, activists tracking her plea for help attempted to meet Lasloom at Riyadh airport overnight Wednesday. They say instead, another activist, Alaa al-Anazi was detained by security officials at the airport and transferred to a girl’s detention center in the capital.

The Interior Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A Human Rights Watch report released last year on guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia found that even with greater opportunities for women in the kingdom, a woman’s life rests largely on “the good will” of her male guardian.

Powerful clerics in the kingdom support male guardianship based on a verse in the Quran that says men are the protectors and maintainers of women. Other Islamic scholars argue this misinterprets fundamental Quranic concepts like equality and respect between the sexes. Most Muslim-majority countries do not have similarly restrictive guardianship laws. (VOA)

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A step forward: Saudi Women take up active roles in an All female Emergency Call Centre

This is a big shift for the conservative Saudi Arabia

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A Saudi woman works inside the first all-female call center in the kingdom's security sector, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia
A Saudi woman works inside the first all-female call center in the kingdom's security sector, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. VOA
  • The seven Saudi women, almost all wearing the black niqab over their faces form the first women’s section of an emergency call center in Mecca
  • Saudi Arabia adheres to strict interpretations of Islamic law and tribal custom, requiring women to have male guardians and obey a modest dress code
  • Saudi women are present in multiple fields, so they can also be present in the security sector

Mecca, Saudi Arabia, September 1, 2017: Seven Saudi women sit in front of computer screens fielding distress calls from across Mecca ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage this week, in a first for Saudi Arabia as it tries to expand participation in the workforce.

The seven, almost all wearing the black niqab over their faces form the first women’s section of an emergency call center in the kingdom, which has begun offering more education and employment opportunities to the half of the population that has traditionally stayed at home.

The women verify a caller’s location and request, which could be related to fire, crime, illness or a traffic accident, before passing the information on to first responders.

In the conservative kingdom, that’s a big shift.

Saudi Arabia adheres to strict interpretations of Islamic law and tribal custom, requiring women to have male guardians and obey a modest dress code. They are barred from driving.

However, the Saudi government has begun introducing gradual reforms to open new job opportunities for Saudi women as part of a vision to wean the country off oil — on which it relies for more than 60 percent of its income — and transform society.

“Saudi women are present in multiple fields, so they can also be present in the security sector,” 31-year-old Baara al-Shuwaibi, who studied English at a Mecca University, told Reuters, headphones hanging over her ears.

The women all speak English and received training before starting their jobs in recent weeks. Dozens of men sit in a separate room doing the same work.

“I receive a call, check the location and send the request to the proper authority as fast as possible, especially if it’s an emergency like fire or ambulance,” Shuwaibi said.

‘Step forward’

The National Operations Center in Mecca launched two years ago, becoming the first in the kingdom to unify government response services. There are plans for similar sites in Riyadh, Medina, and the Eastern Province.

This is the first year the women’s section will operate during the hajj, which is expected to attract about two million Muslims from around the world for a week of sacred rituals starting Wednesday.

The world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims has in the past seen numerous deadly stampedes, fires, and riots, and the authorities have been preparing for months to handle any violence, disease or a crash like the one that killed hundreds in 2015.

Major General Abdel Rahman al-Saleh, who runs the operations center, said it receives around 65,000 calls each day during Hajj, 50 percent more than normal.

“We consider the women’s section a step forward to demonstrate that women can work in any place and in any field,” Saleh said.

There are plans to increase the number of women and offer them advanced training, he said.

Hassa al-Badi, who manages the women’s section and has a master’s degree from an American university, said female callers sometimes ask to speak to another woman due to the sensitivity of their request.

“Women are now present in the security sector and, God willing, they will continue to advance,” she said. (VOA)