A few weeks after her 24th birthday, Dina Ali Lasloom tentatively approached a Canadian tourist at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila and pleaded to use her cellphone.
Saudi citizen Lasloom had fled Kuwait, where she was living, to escape a forced marriage, and was hoping to fly from the Philippines to Australia and seek asylum there in April 2017.
“They took my passport and locked me up for 13 hours,” said Lasloom to fellow traveler Meagan Khan, who was also waiting for a flight at the airport. “If my family comes, they will kill me. If I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead. Please help me.”
Khan helped Lasloom make calls to activists and post several desperate videos to social media. They also pleaded with local authorities and airport workers for help.
“Dina and I tried calling lawyers and many people to help,” Khan told The Post. “No one came in time.”
Instead of helping Lasloom, airport authorities called Saudi embassy officials who alerted her family. Several hours later, two men Lasloom identified as her uncles arrived at the airport.
“Dina told the airport workers that she was in danger the entire time,” Khan said. “Several times she cried hysterically to them that she needed help. They ignored her. They looked at her like she didn’t exist.”
Amid the euphoria over the escape of a Saudi teenager who was granted asylum in Canada earlier this month, many activists recalled Lasloom’s plight, as well as thousands of women who remain virtual prisoners as a result of the country’s strict male guardianship laws. In Saudi Arabia, women still need the permission of male relatives to marry, travel, apply for a passport or even undergo medical treatment. Under Saudi law, citizens are referred to as sons and daughters of the Saudi rulers, with the king having absolute authority over their lives.
Eighteen-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun, who had been on a family vacation in Kuwait, attempted to escape to Australia earlier this month. She booked a flight with a stopover in Bangkok by using a friend’s credit card. But when Thai authorities attempted to prevent her traveling to Australia, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and launched a dramatic campaign for asylum on Twitter.
She said she had fled her family on Jan. 5 because she was afraid they would kill her. The first-year university student who had been studying math in Ha’il, a city in northern Saudi Arabia, said she had suffered beatings and emotional abuse from her male family members and that one of her brothers had locked her in a room for six months after she cut her hair in a way they did not like.
“I want UN!” she repeatedly tweeted on Jan. 7 after she learned that her father, a well-off Saudi emir who has nine other children, had arrived at the airport to return her to the Kingdom.
“My life is in danger,” she told a Reuters reporter.
While in the hotel room, she also announced on Twitter that she had renounced Islam. “They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism,” she said. “They wanted me to pray and wear a veil, and I didn’t want to.”
Al-Qunun was eventually released to the care of the United Nations Refugee Agency and later traveled to Canada, where she was immediately granted asylum.
But Al-Qunun’s happy ending is not the usual outcome for women in her situation.
In October, two Saudi sisters — Tala Farea, 16 and Rotana Farea, 23 — were found floating in the Hudson River in New York, their waists and ankles tied together with duct tape in what the Medical Examiner’s Office said last week was suicide by drowning. Chief Medical Examiner Barbara Sampson said in a statement that “the young women bound themselves together before descending into the Hudson River.”
The sisters had moved from Saudi Arabia with their families to Fairfax, Va., several years ago, but they ran away to a women’s shelter in November 2017 after suffering alleged abuse at home, police say. They told authorities at the shelter that they would rather “inflict harm” on themselves than return to their home. They traveled to Washington, DC, and Philadelphia before arriving in New York City on Sept. 1, according to the NYPD. They stayed at hotels in Manhattan, charging their rooms on a credit card until they reached its spending limit.
The sisters were spotted sitting together, deep in prayer, by a passerby in Manhattan’s Riverside Park on the morning of Oct. 24, the day their bodies were found.
Usually, Saudi women escaping an abusive home life can’t even get out of the country. Saudi men are able to download a government mobile app that allows them to monitor women’s travel. Some of the women who have escaped from the country disabled the notifications on their male guardians’ apps, which allows men to grant or deny permission for travel.
Last week a woman identified only as Nojoud al-Mandeel took to Twitter from within Saudi Arabia, alleging that she had fled her home after her father had beat and burned her. Authorities tracked her down and placed her in a women’s shelter run by the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Development. Human-rights workers have likened the shelters to women’s prisons. Women can only leave the shelters if a male relative signs them out or if they agree to marry, one expert told The Post.
“The problem is not necessarily the shelters themselves,” said Adam Coogle, a Jordan-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The real issue is that you can’t leave. There are only two ways to get out: You either get married or reconcile with your family.”
In Saudi Arabia, hundreds of women have tried to flee repression at the hands of their own male relatives despite some reforms under 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi officials lifted a ban prohibiting women from driving last year and recently encouraged women to seek employment outside the home and eased their access to higher education. Still, social and family pressures to obey their male relatives and husbands remain strong, as do the draconian laws that require women to seek male permission for just about everything they do.
“Saudi Arabia has made it a p.r. strategy for the last 10 years to change the narrative on women’s rights, but the system still does not foresee that women can live on their own or have any control over their lives,” Coogle told The Post. “Guardianship — a mixture of government and family restrictions — is very much in force.”
‘The system still does not foresee that women can live on their own or have any control over their lives.’
And about 10 activists who have fought for equal rights in the kingdom, including the right to drive, have been jailed and some have been tortured. The charges are vague, with authorities claiming they’re a threat to the country’s security, Coogle said.
Some of the women’s rights activists who are being held in the country’s notorious Dhahban Central Prison just outside Jeddah are now unable to walk or stand properly after electric-shock treatments and whippings, according to a recent report by Amnesty International.
“In one reported instance, one of the activists was made to hang from the ceiling, and according to another testimony, one of the detained women was reportedly subjected to sexual harassment by interrogators wearing face masks,” said the November 2018 report issued weeks after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. The suspects in his murder include members of bin Salman’s inner circle, although the crown prince himself has vigorously denied any connection to the killing.
None of the women’s rights activists have been released from prison so far, human-rights workers said.
Among those in prison are Aziza al-Yousef, an academic in her 60s, who campaigned against male guardianship and for the right to drive. Another detainee, 37-year-old Samar Badawi, is a longtime women’s rights crusader. Her brother Raif Badawi, a writer and activist, is serving 10 years in prison and was publicly whipped for his critical blog posts against the Saudi government.
Since her Jan. 12 arrival in Toronto where she was personally met by Canada’s Minister for Foreign Affairs at the airport, Al-Qunun is enjoying her new-found freedom. The new Canadian, who has renounced her family name Al-Qunun and now goes by just Rahaf Mohammed, has posted pictures on social media enjoying red wine, bacon and a rolled-up cigarette in a country where cannabis is now legal.
Earlier this month, she told reporters that she endured physical abuse from her father and brother.
“I was not treated respectfully by my family, and I was not allowed to be myself and who I want to be,” she said at a press conference two weeks ago. “In Saudi Arabia this is the case for all Saudi women . . . They can’t be independent, and they need the approval of their male guardian for everything.”
Mohammed added: “I hope my story prompts a change to the laws, especially as it’s been exposed to the world.”
Those changes, if they ever come, are probably too late for Dina Ali Lasloom.
Following a lengthy meeting with her male relatives in an airport hotel in Manila, Lasloom had bruises on her arms she said were a result of beatings, according to a witness speaking to Human Rights Watch. Other witnesses said they heard screaming and Lasloom begging for help just before she emerged from her room in a wheelchair, escorted by airport workers and three men. They said Lasloom had a piece of duct tape across her mouth and her arms and legs were tied.
In the early evening of April 11, Lasloom was carried onto Saudia Airlines flight SV871, which arrived in Riyadh at midnight local time.
A group of human-rights workers waited outside the arrivals level of the King Khalid International Airport, but they never saw Lasloom emerge. “We heard that she was put in a women’s shelter,” said Coogle.
To this day, Khan still worries about the desperate young woman she met at the Manila airport transfer lounge.
“She told me she had taken her burka off and wanted to burn it,” said Khan. “She washed the face part since she had cried a lot when she wore it and gave it to me. I still have it.”
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