The Current

'An Arab Spring for women': The secret group helping young women flee oppression

A network of young women helping other women and girls like them escape oppression in Gulf Arab countries are taking part in a kind of "Arab Spring for women," says CBC foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed.

Private chat group of women help guide girls and women fleeing oppression in Saudi Arabia, UAE

A network of young women was quietly advising Rahaf Mohammed as she made her risky escape from Saudi Arabia to Canada in January. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)
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A network of young women helping other women and girls escape oppression in Gulf Arab countries are taking part in a new revolution, says CBC foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed.

"It's kind of like an Arab Spring for women," Ayed told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

The Fifth Estate interviewed several members of this private chat group network, who have watched over nearly two dozen escapes by Gulf Arab women to the West. 

In these countries, women and girls are required to have male guardians to give them permission for major decisions like marriage or travel outside the country. 

"If it's not your father, then it's your husband, or an uncle or a brother, or even a son," Ayed explained. "It means that a woman essentially will always have a male in charge of their lives from cradle to grave."

R, whose name is being withheld for safety reasons, says she fled from abuse in the United Arab Emirates and claimed asylum last September in a European country. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Rahaf Mohammed, who made her risky escape from Saudi Arabia to Canada in January, was one of the women the network helped leave. The teen claimed that she endured years of physical and mental abuse at the hands of her family.

One member, R, was one of the people who helped guide Mohammed out of Saudi Arabia and ultimately to Toronto.

Every single step of the journey is "fraught with danger," said Ayed. Those seeking to escape are given advice on how to book travel, and simply make their way to the airport when travel is forbidden without their guardian.

Mohammed, centre, stands with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, right, as she arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Saturday, January 12, 2019. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Members of the private, invite-only network must also take precautions not to put themselves at risk either, as many are still applying for asylum — a process that often takes months or even longer.

R fled the UAE at age 20 and claimed asylum in a European country last September.

"The way R put it is that for freedom, she'll sacrifice anything," said Ayed.


With files from Nahlah Ayed and CBC News. Produced by John Chipman.