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Three years ago, Rahaf Mohammed al Qunun took to Twitter, begging for her life.
The 18-year-old runaway had just fled her oppressive life in Saudi Arabia — absconding in the dead of night while on a family vacation. But Saudi forces caught up with her at the Bangkok airport, where they seized her passport, threw her into a hotel room and told her they would be returning her to her abusive family in two days.
“Please help me,” Rahaf tweeted in desperation. “They will kill me [if I go back].”
Her plea went viral. She gained 45,000 followers in one day. News outlets from all over the world breathlessly followed her plight as she barricaded herself in her hotel and refused to eat. Social-media sympathizers helped connect her with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Canada granted her asylum.
She arrived in Toronto a week later, on Jan. 12, 2019, to a crowd of cheering supporters throwing flowers and shouting “Welcome to Canada!” The next day, she woke up to hundreds of death threats on her phone.
But, as the now 21-year-old writes in her new memoir, “Rebel: My Escape from Saudi Arabia to Freedom” (Ecco) out now, she was undeterred.
“I shut down my social media account, dropped my family name, al Qunun, and went out to find a store where I could buy a parka that would keep me warm,” she writes with the utmost pragmatism.
It’s perhaps that attitude that has compelled Rahaf — who now goes by Rahaf Mohammed — to tell the story of her escape and her brutal life in Saudi Arabia, even if it means more death threats.
“I hope my story encourages [other women] to be brave and find freedom,” she writes. “But I also hope it prompts a change to the laws in Saudi, and that rather than being one girl’s story of escape, this book becomes a change agent at home.”
Rahaf Mohammed al Qunun was born in 2000, the fifth of seven children. Her family lived in ultra-conservative Ha’il, in northwestern Saudi Arabia, in “a big nine-bedroom house” with a cook, a driver, a housekeeper and six family cars. Her father, Mohammed Mutlaq al Qunun, was a politician who interacted with the royal family, and as a member of the “elite,” his brood enjoyed “a lot of advantages,” like being able to travel outside the country. Furthermore, Rahaf’s mother, Lulu, was a science teacher who encouraged her four daughters to get educations.
Yet even for the elite, life in Saudi Arabia held few advantages for Rahaf and her sisters.
“There are no balconies on our house — a good woman would never sit outside where someone can see her. And our windows are closed in case a man might see a woman inside the house. A woman — that is, anyone over the age of 9 — can’t leave home to visit the neighbors or go to the bazaar, even if only to buy lingerie or makeup, or go out for a walk without a husband, brother or son present to monitor her,” she writes.
At first, Rahaf played with her brothers, building pillow forts in the playroom and staging mud fights in the garden together. But that changed when she turned 7. Suddenly, she couldn’t shout or raise her voice, couldn’t carouse with her siblings, couldn’t even dip her toe into the swimming pool in which her brothers splashed.
Her mother forbade her from riding a bike because it would turn her into “a tomboy or a lesbian.” At 9, she no longer could be in the same room alone with her brothers — lest she arouse their lust — and she had to wear a long, black shapeless garment that obscured her body. When she turned 12, she began wearing a niqab that hid her face, too.
“I was a young girl when I began to wonder if this was a form of punishment,” she writes of the harsh dress code. “If a man can’t control himself, why must a woman hide herself behind robes as though it is her fault? And if women do have to be covered, why is it that men who are not in jeans and Western dress wear white robes that deflect the blazing heat, but the women must wear black that absorbs it?”
Because her father was away at work during the week, Rahaf’s older adolescent brothers — Mutlaq and Majed — acted as her guardians, and they became particularly controlling after her father took a second wife, when Rahaf was 14, and became even more absent. (He married a third three years later.)
Mutlaq and Majed monitored Rahaf’s cellphone use and regularly inspected her messages. Once when she refused to let her Mutlaq into her room to see her phone, he tried to chop his way in with a meat cleaver while screaming she was a prostitute.
Another time, when Rahaf walked home alone from school, Mutlaq punched her in the mouth, gave her a black eye and tore a clump of her hair off her head.
Her older sisters and mother could not protect her. When her sympathetic second-oldest sister, Reem — whom everyone adored — was caught dressed like a man with a suitcase, with a paper detailing an escape plan, her father and uncle beat her up and took her to a mental institution. When Reem came back, she was pale, quiet, almost comatose. People in white coats would go into her room every few hours to give her mysterious injections. She never fully recovered, Rahaf writes.
Rahaf couldn’t comprehend what was happening, but “knew instinctively it was something that could happen to me as well.”
Still, she couldn’t help but get in trouble. She was innately curious, questioning and — she eventually realized — bisexual. (Homosexuality is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.) She had her first sexual experience with a girl when she was 12. Rahaf writes that because her peers had virtually no exposure to members of the opposite sex, lesbian romances were common in her all-girls school.
After one of her classmates ratted Rahaf out, her mother, Lulu, “grabbed me and started choking me, calling me an infidel and a dishonorable daughter.”
“She was wildly angry, pulling my hair, punching me; she even bit me,” she writes. Lulu pulled her out of the school, but didn’t tell Rahaf’s father or brothers the reason why. Eventually, she forgave Rahaf because she was “young and had made a mistake” and transferred her to a different school, “away from the girls who had led me astray.”
“Despite my mother’s forgiveness that day, I knew that I had lost her trust, and I knew she had decided I was not what she would call a good girl,” Rahaf writes.
For a while, Rahaf did try to be a good girl, but soon she was hooking up with boys she met through social media apps. She knew if her parents found out, she could be killed, or sent to one of the notorious Dar al-Reaya prisons for girls that have “brought their families shame.”
She became depressed and began losing faith in Allah. Online, she stumbled on “an extraordinary underground network of Saudi women runaways.” She began dreaming of an escape.
Rahaf found a possible exit at the end of 2018, after her first semester of college at the University of Ha’il. Some family members were going to Kuwait City for a vacation, and if she could get her passport from her brother’s grasp during the trip, she could get from there to Thailand and then Australia, where she would ask for asylum.
She had already stashed $2,700 in a friend’s bank account, a male pal in the UK who could pose as her father if anyone asked to speak with her guardian and contacts in Australia who would meet her plane. On Jan. 5, 2019, she spotted her chance when her brothers briefly left her and her mother and younger sister in the car — where the passports were stashed in the glove compartment. She grabbed hers and, later that night, contacted a taxi service to bring her to the airport early the next morning.
That night, she bought a plane ticket, flushed her traceable phone’s SIM card down the toilet, and went to the airport, where she boarded a six-hour flight to Bangkok.
But as soon as she landed, she walked into a trap: A Thai man who offered to help her with her visa ended up being an agent of the Saudi embassy. Suddenly, seven large men were chasing her as she yelled for help. They dragged her into an airport hotel and told her that in two days she would be headed back to Kuwait, per her father’s request. That’s when she took to Twitter.
In Toronto, Rahaf lived at first with a Canadian-Jewish family who helped her acclimate to life in a new country. The city had a robust refugee community, and she connected with other Saudi runaways, as well as counselors and therapists. At first, she was “afraid” to enjoy her newfound freedom. She almost had a panic attack when she ordered a glass of red wine on her 19th birthday.
Despite all that had happened, Rahaf missed her family and tried to contact her mother and other relatives on WhatsApp. They told her not to contact them again.
“My journey has been rocky, but it has allowed me to grow and learn and fulfill my dreams,” she writes.
“I have goals to graduate from university and dreams to become an actor and plans to help refugee women settle. That’s what I want to achieve. I have what it takes to make a good life.”
Runaway Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed writes book about escaping abusive, oppressive life – New York Post
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