When a Saudi woman living at home with her parents and siblings asked her brother to fix something in her room a few months ago, he asked what color underwear she was wearing.
She found the comment chilling.
Her father had already tried to grope her. When she hid in her room, installing a lock and stockpiling food, he made lewd phone calls from elsewhere in the house while he masturbated, she said. Upset, she fled to furnished apartments for days at a time, but always returned when her father — who is her guardian under Saudi law — phoned.
“He would threaten, ‘I’m going to file a case against you that you ran away. I’m not going to let you work,’” said Hala, 30, who works in healthcare. As she spoke at a women’s coffee shop recently, she glanced around nervously, covering her face with a black veil when strangers approached. She asked to be identified only by her first name out of fear over the consequences of being publicly identified.
In Saudi Arabia, fleeing even an abusive home is a crime for women. Their male relatives wield vast power under the kingdom’s guardianship system, which prohibits women from running away from male guardians, including fathers and husbands, and gives those relatives control over their ability to obtain passports and travel. If runaways are caught, they can be jailed until their guardian allows them to be released.
Guardianship can be particularly onerous for women who are divorced, widowed or who delay marriage. Some mothers are forced to defer to their sons as guardians.
But Saudi women are increasingly risking imprisonment to flee, not just within the country, but overseas as well. They are coordinating those efforts with a network of supporters via social media, sometimes arranging marriages, vacations and study-abroad programs as a cover.
A list of proposals for reforming the guardianship system was submitted this spring to King Salman, who signaled after he took the throne in 2015 that he was open to lifting some of the most oppressive restrictions on women.
The proposals call for ending the requirement that women have a male relative’s permission to travel or do many other things considered routine for women in other parts of the world. More than 14,000 people have petitioned the government to overturn a ban on women driving.
Already, the king has issued a decree ordering government agencies not to deny women services simply because they do not have a male guardian’s consent, unless existing regulations require it.
The king’s interest in the topic has given some women hope for greater freedom.
“It might not be in my lifetime,” Aisha Manie, a businesswoman and rights activist who drew up recommendations to the king on relaxing guardianship, “but it’s coming.”
In the meantime, some women say they have no recourse but to run.
More than 1,750 women fled their homes in 2015, the latest year of figures released by the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Development and many were domestic violence victims. The ranks of such women are growing, according to Mansour Askar, a sociologist at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University in Riyadh.
Activists who aid runaway women said one reason more are able to flee is because they have access to help through social media.
“Many women reach out to me every day. The number is increasing,” said Taleb Abdulmohsen, a Saudi activist who spoke by phone from Magdeburg, Germany, where he coordinates escapes on Twitter. “They ask me to help them. Most of them don’t have travel permission from their guardian.”
He knows women who have fled to Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States.
Two months ago, Shuruq Hussain Almughamisi told her family she was going to Canada with her Algerian husband on vacation. She had endured years of abuse by her father, she said; he used to hit her with whatever came to hand: a broom, garden hose, shoes. Instead of going to Canada, however, the couple deleted her social media accounts and fled to Europe, where she issued a video denouncing Islam for “inciting hatred, violence [and] oppression” against women.
Almughamisi won’t say precisely where they moved for fear her family might find out.
“If they knew,” said Almughamisi, 30, via Skype video, “they might kill me.”
Norah Dulaym Mohamed, 22, fled the kingdom last month while her father, who is her guardian, was away. He had granted her a permit to travel the year before, she said. After she arrived in Germany, she called her mother.
“I told her I was going to start a new life here and I wasn’t coming back,” Mohamed recalled. “She was very upset and cried a lot and told me to come back.”
Mohamed instead applied for asylum.
Several Saudi women have been caught fleeing this year, forcibly returned and jailed, igniting viral international online campaigns to free them.
Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, an English teacher from Riyadh, recorded a video statement after she was stopped at the Manila airport while in transit to Australia on April 10.
According to Human Rights Watch, another woman who was traveling through the airport that day said Lasloom asked her for help because airport officials had confiscated her passport and boarding pass and detained her for 13 hours — something Philippine immigration officials deny.
That woman, Meagan Khan, helped Lasloom record several cellphone videos that were later posted online, including one in which Lasloom said, “If my family comes, they will kill me. If I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead. Please help me.”
Khan said that before she got onto her own flight, she saw two men arrive; Lasloom said they were her uncles. Human Rights Watch said it interviewed an unidentified airline security official who saw two of his colleagues and three Middle Eastern men carry a struggling Lasloom — bound with duct tape on her mouth, feet and hands — to a wheelchair and whisk her away.
Witnesses recounted on Facebook seeing a screaming Lasloom forced by her uncles onto a Saudi Arabia Airlines flight to Riyadh. A woman who tried to meet her at the airport was temporarily detained. It’s not clear where Lasloom was taken. Supporters launched #SaveDinaAli, a Twitter campaign to raise awareness and urge a royal pardon.
The same month, Maryam Otaibi, 29, was arrested after she fled an abusive home north of Riyadh to the capital, where she found work at a recruitment agency and rented an apartment until her family found her and had her jailed. Supporters are still trying to free her, tweeting #justiceforMaryam.
Given the risks, even some women’s activists said they won’t help women flee, and consider those who do irresponsible.
“I know a lot of girls who regret it,” said Riyadh activist Aziza Yousef, 58, who is helping Otaibi and trying to start a shelter for 40 women. She frowns on the work of Abdulmohsen, the activist in Germany who aids women as they flee.
“I don’t think escaping is the solution. I think the solution is improving things in the country so they don’t have to leave,” she said.
Another Saudi activist, retired university professor Sahar Nasief, who lives in Jeddah, said she feared for the safety of young women who escape abroad.
“Our girls, they’re not like American girls. They’re dependent on their parents,” she said. “What we really need is a [royal] decree to say, ‘Women you are set free.’ We say we’re slaves, but slaves even had it better because they could buy their freedom. We can’t.”
One woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, Mashael, had an arranged marriage five years ago, divorced, and was facing a second arranged marriage this spring when she took off for Britain on “vacation.” Her ex-husband had given her permission to travel and failed to revoke it after the divorce. She concocted an escape that involved packing her clothes in garbage bags "for charity," taking the family driver to a mall where she secretly bought a suitcase, repacked, and took a second driver to the airport.
Three months later, she is still awaiting an asylum interview. Her family figured out where she was, she said, and her brother threatened to kill her if she didn’t return. Mashael said she reported the threat to police.
Running away, she said, had been “really tough, but I think it’s worth it.”
Women who successfully flee are more likely to help others. They make use of their newfound freedom to speak out on Twitter and YouTube, saying more needs to be done to aid victims of domestic abuse and to end male guardianship.
Soon after Amal Aljubarah fled last year to Germany with her 7-year-old daughter, other women started contacting her.
“So many women, they sent too much email. ‘Please, please tell me how,’” she recalled. She directed them to Abdulmohsen, the activist who helped her.
“It’s not a healthy life in Saudi Arabia. Nobody ever is like, ‘I want to go back,’” she said.
After Hala, the healthcare professional, fled, she was afraid she would lose her job and bank account, and returned home. But she now fears the abuse by her father and younger brothers is worsening. During the interview at the coffee shop, Hala was wearing medical scrubs under her black abaya gown because, she said, she had to pretend to go to work in order to leave the house.
She scrolled through cellphone photographs of bruises on her neck and arms from a recent argument with her brother during which she said he tried to strangle her. When she refused to do his homework for him, he broke into her room and tore up her books, she said. She showed photos of ripped volumes strewn across the floor. Her mother sided with the men, she said, locking her out of the house when she upset them, stealing her possessions and not letting her eat with the family or use household supplies.
A wealthy man offered to take her abroad if she slept with him. Hala refused.
“My virginity is one of the last things I have left and he wants to take that to give me my freedom,” she said.
She sought help from lawyers, showing them photos of her injuries.
“I told the lawyers I want to leave, I want them to stop being my guardians,” she said of her father and brothers.
But the lawyers told her that if she didn’t have video evidence, she couldn’t file charges. She could go to a women’s shelter, but a shelter manager she contacted said she would lose access to her possessions, the Internet, television and social media.
“I don’t want to leave one prison and go to another,” Hala said.