By Nina Dragicevic  

Rahaf Mohammed wasn’t the first to attempt a daring escape, but she was the luckiest. 

The Saudi teenager (then known as Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun) live-tweeted from a barricaded Thai hotel room to plead for asylum in January and, within a week, landed in Canada as a refugee. It was a remarkable story that captured the attention of the world. But activists worry that her flight to freedom may actually make it harder for other women who may try the same in the future.

Roughly a year earlier, Sheikha Latifa — known formally as Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the daughter of Dubai’s ruler — wasn’t as fortunate. She had tried to escape Dubai on a yacht, but was captured in international waters and sent back.

A year before that, Saudi woman Dina Ali Lasloom sought asylum in Australia. Eyewitness reports say that after being detained on a layover in the Philippines, she was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia, screaming as she was carried onto the plane.

These women’s stories are similar. Mohammed, Sheikha Latifa and Lasloom all alleged abuse from their families; described male guardianship laws that suppress women’s rights and freedoms; and planned escapes, going viral in their attempts.

So how did Mohammed succeed? In Breaking Free: Rahaf’s Escape to Canada, a documentary from The Passionate Eye, we witness the moments behind the hotel door as she reached out to the world for help.

Going viral before she could be captured

The documentary Escape from Dubai: The Mystery of the Missing Princess, also from The Passionate Eye, shows Sheika Latifa’s attempt to escape by ship. As she tries to contact journalists and human rights groups, the yacht’s crew races to get her safely to India. The reporters, however, do not respond.

A video Sheikha Latifa made about her plight was released after her capture; it went viral and was viewed around the world. But by that point, it was too late.

Lasloom’s case went viral a bit earlier in her escape attempt. Her pleas were starting to gain traction online while she was still being held at the airport in Manila.

As shown in Breaking Free: Rahaf’s Escape to Canada, Lasloom had asked to use a phone belonging to another airport passenger, a 28-year-old Canadian tourist, to try to reach journalists and human rights groups. But her contact with the outside world was broken when she was seized by alleged family members at the airport. She lost access to the phone, disrupting any attempts to help her.

“None of us could [directly] reach her to know who she was and verify what was going on,” says Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Bits of information were coming to us third-hand,” she says, as other airport witnesses and plane passengers described the scene. Lasloom was reportedly duct-taped, bound to a wheelchair and forcibly boarded on a flight back to Riyadh.

In Thailand, however, Mohammed went viral from the hotel room where she had barricaded herself — before Thai or Saudi authorities could reach her. The hashtag #SaveRahaf rapidly spread, raising awareness and a sense of urgency, which dispatched journalists and UN representatives to the hotel.

Keeping her phone

“[Mohammed] held onto her phone, and that made the massive difference,” Begum says. “We were able to stay in touch with her, we were able to mobilize diplomats, mobilize the media, continue to speak on the phone to her.”

Managing to keep her phone also allowed Mohammed to receive advice: don’t leave the room with any other authorities, wait for the UN.

“The fact [that] she was streaming video in real time meant the world was watching,” Begum adds. “The Thai authorities knew she was videoing everything. If they had broken through her room door, she would have videoed that, and the entire world would have seen the Thai authorities breaking through her room door.”

“So obviously, in terms of their behaviour, it was modulated as a result.”

Canada versus Saudi Arabia

An earlier dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia may have also helped expedite Mohammed’s asylum claim.

In August 2018, one tweet from Global Affairs Canada about women’s rights activists being jailed in Saudi Arabia sparked a public break between the two countries. Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia was expelled, Saudi students in Canada were ordered home by their government, and the country froze all new trade deals with Canada.

“[Canada has] felt repercussions from standing up for Saudi women’s rights activists, who have been held since last May without charge or trial,” Begum says.

“Canada is now in a position where none of the other Western allies supported them in that regard, [and] they continue to have bad relations with Saudi Arabia — they are trying to show a moral standing.”

Increasing awareness around the world

After previous escape attempts had gained worldwide attention — and failed — a sense of urgency was clear in Mohammed’s case.

“I think people are more sensitized and more able to mobilize,” Begum says.

HRW has been documenting male guardianship laws for more than a decade, but attention to the issue has spiked recently, Begum says, possibly because of another major news story from 2018.

The killing of Jamal Khashoggi did sensitize the world to the kinds of abuses that happen in Saudi Arabia,” Begum says, making people aware of “the Saudi authorities’ willingness to go out of their way to kill a journalist who mildly criticized [them].”

“We know that the situation is bad in Saudi Arabia.”

‘It may not happen again’

Less than six months after the Canadian-Saudi diplomatic conflict over women’s rights and Khashoggi’s shocking death, a Saudi teenage girl was making international headlines for attempting to escape. #SaveRahaf went viral, and she was able to keep her phone with her until the UN arrived.

In an extraordinary final act, Mohammed landed in Toronto on January 11 and was personally greeted by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

“Her case is highly unique,” Begum says. “It’s not that we’re going to see more cases like this. The truth is it may not happen again.”

Begum believes that if a woman attempts escape now, Saudi authorities will likely find ways to have her phone confiscated earlier. She also says Saudi families who are already abusive and controlling may further restrict their daughters’ freedoms.

“I think we have to be aware of the incredibly dangerous circumstances and how difficult it is for women to flee, and that this isn’t going to be a precedent where we’re going to see more successful escape attempts,” Begum says.

“It’s more dangerous now.”

Watch two documentaries on the plight of these women and their daring escapes on The Passionate Eye.

Breaking Free: Rahaf's Escape to Canada and Escape from Dubai: The Mystery of the Missing Princess