This is not the first time that two Saudi sisters have fled their country and faced tragedy

The mysterious deaths of two Saudi women in Sydney weren’t the first time two sisters from the kingdom had requested international help, or the first time their stories had ended in tragedy.
NSW Police have appealed to help the public understand Asra Abdullah Al-Sahli, 24 years old, and Amal Abdullah Al-Sahli, 23 years old. The bodies of the women were found in their beds in the southwest Sydney suburb of Canterbury on 7 June with police confirming their identities on 27 July.
and two other sisters found in New York the previous year, also drew international attention.

Reem and Rawan tried to flee to Australia

Saudi sisters Reem and Rawan. source: AFP, Getty / Anthony Wallace

Two Saudi sisters, aged 18 and 20 – using the aliases Reem and Rawan – fled their family while on vacation in Sri Lanka in 2018. They had hoped to reach Australia to seek asylum but were stranded in Hong Kong where they say Saudi consulate officials intercepted them in An attempt to get them to return to their homeland against their will.

The sisters made a public plea for their safety and in the end it was done .
Attorney Michael Fidler represented them at the time and is now based in the United Kingdom. He told SBS News that his clients were “extremely afraid” they might be sent back to Saudi Arabia.
“They were very clear in their minds, what will happen to them. At the very least, they will disappear and be imprisoned,” he said.

Both women said that chronic physical abuse by male family members led them to flee and renounced Islam.

man looking out the window

Like Michael Fiedler, Reem and Rowan. source: AFP, Getty / Anthony Wallace

In response to the Sydney case of sisters Asra and Amal, Mr Fiedler said he could imagine the fear they would feel if their asylum application was refused. He said his clients, Reem and Rawan, were so afraid that he feared they would take “extreme” measures if they were refused transfer to a safe place in a third country.

“I can imagine the despair of families and hope. It is very tragic,” he said.

“All we want is to go to a safe place in a third country without ever having to fear that the Saudi authorities and our family will find and kidnap us,” Reem and Rawan said in a statement at the time.

Rotana and Tala were found dead in New York

Two women's passport photos

Tala (left) and Rotana. attributed to him: US police

Asra and Amal’s deaths in Sydney are similar to those of Rotana Farea, 23, and Tala Farea, 16, in New York in 2018. The two sisters’ bodies were found in the Hudson River, tied together at the waist with duct tape. Their deaths were ruled a suicide.

NYPD Chief of Detectives, Dermot Shea, said authorities were told at the time that the sisters had made statements that “they would rather harm themselves, and commit suicide, than return to Saudi Arabia.”

It was not possible to verify reports that Rotana and Tala had applied for asylum in the United States. SBS News received no response to inquiries sent to the US Department of Homeland Security.

In Australia, a lawyer who worked with Saudi clients and did not wish to be named due to concerns about the client’s safety, said there was a “great fear” within the community of Saudi nationals that they would not be recognized as refugees and forced back to a conservative kingdom.
No matter how they died, the lawyer said, Asra and Amal “escaped from a system in which women were treated like children.”

“Whatever happened to these women was incredibly tragic, but the ultimate cause is the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia,” they said, adding that if one of the sisters is gay, they are in grave danger in Saudi Arabia.

SBS News confirmed that Asra and Amal had been seeking asylum in Australia but their reasons for seeking asylum remain unknown. last week Amal claimed she had applied for a protection visa in Australia “on the grounds that she was a lesbian but was rejected because she could not describe the gay events she went to in Sydney in sufficient detail”.

Mr Fiedler said it would be “really upsetting” if that report was true and would require an urgent review to see if the authorities had failed the sisters.

Everything that happened to these women was incredibly tragic, but the ultimate cause is the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia.

A lawyer based in Australia

The Home Office previously told SBS News that it does not comment on individual cases.
Asked about the human rights issues that Australia recognizes when it comes to processing protection visas for Saudi nationals, a spokesperson for the ministry said: “All protection visa applications are evaluated on an individual basis, in relation to contemporary country of origin information.”
Of the 190 people from Saudi Arabia who applied for protection visas in Australia in the five years between 2017/18 and 2021/22, more than 130 were granted.

SBS News has contacted the Saudi Consulate General in Australia for comment.

Why do women want to leave Saudi Arabia?

Rasha Younes, Human Rights Watch researcher on LGBT rights in the Middle East and North Africa, said that women in Saudi Arabia generally have reasonable grounds to seek asylum based on their daily lives, even without taking sexuality into account.
“The rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender women in Saudi Arabia are stifled,” she said. “A man controls a woman’s life from birth to death.”

Under “guardianship” rules, a woman in Saudi Arabia must obtain the consent of a male guardian to marry, leave prison, or receive certain health care.

Women in a shopping center.

Every woman in Saudi Arabia must have a male guardian. source: GT / Eric Laforge/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

Ms. Younes said every Saudi woman should have a male guardian, usually a father or husband, but in some cases, a brother or even a son, who has the power to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf. She said the system makes adult women “legal minors who can’t make decisions for themselves.”

“They regularly have difficulty conducting a range of transactions without a male relative, from renting an apartment to fighting legal claims,” ​​she said.
“The effects of these restrictive policies on a woman’s ability to pursue a career or make life decisions vary, but largely depend on the goodwill of a male guardian.”

Human Rights Watch’s 2021 Global Report noted that women still face discrimination in relation to marriage, family, divorce, and decisions regarding children, including child custody. Men can also sue their daughters, wives, or female relatives under their guardianship for “disobedience.” This can result in women being forcibly returned to their guardian’s home or imprisoned.

Ms. Yunus said that women who do not have their guardian’s consent for things like traveling, studying or going out of the house may live in fear for their lives if they act against their wishes.
“Despite reforms on issues such as domestic violence, there are very few practical protection measures for women to be able to seek redress in cases of violence by their guardian or others,” said Ms. Yunus.
Saudi Arabia does not recognize or permit same-sex marriage, and while there is no explicit law criminalizing homosexuality, judges use uncodified principles of Islamic law to punish people suspected of having sexual relations outside marriage, including adultery and extramarital affairs and homosexuality. , and other “immoral acts”.
In one example, a blogger from Yemen was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for 10 months for “cybercrime” after he posted a video on Twitter saying he supported equal rights for all “including gays” in 2020. He said he was forced to He was subjected to anal examinations and beatings to force him to “confess that he is gay”, he said .
“Individuals exercise extreme self-censorship to survive their daily lives,” said Ms. Younes.
This year, Saudi authorities asked Disney to remove “LGBTQ references” from the Marvel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness movie due to a short scene in which one character refers to her “mother.” When Disney refused, the film was not shown in Saudi cinemas.

According to the state-run Al-Ekhbariya channel, toys, clothes and rainbow-coloured pencils have been seized from stores as part of a crackdown on homosexuality.

But haven’t things changed?

In recent years, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was named heir to King Salman five years ago, has been credited with spearheading a series of social reforms. It included ending travel restrictions on women, which now means those over the age of 21 can obtain passports and travel abroad without a guardian’s permission.
Saudi women are no longer banned from concerts and sporting events and in 2018 gained the right to drive.
In a kingdom where women can often be seen in full-length black clothing including a niqab to cover the face, they no longer have to wear a headscarf, which aside from encouraging work, has partially increased the popularity of short haircuts.

Getting more women into work is a key component of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform plan to reform the Saudi economy, make it less dependent on oil and attract foreign investors and tourists.

A woman in Saudi Arabia cleans a car engine at a quick service garage in the city of Jeddah on May 26, 2022.

Women have been recruited to work in a quick service garage in Jeddah after a nationwide campaign to bring more women into the workforce. source: GT / Fayez Noureddine / Agence France-Presse

Ms Yunus acknowledged that the reforms, which also include allowing women to participate in politics and respond better to domestic violence, were a step in the right direction, but said they were “incomplete”.

“Women still need their guardian’s permission to do more [tasks]She said.
“The guardianship system needs a complete reform if Saudi Arabia is serious about ending discrimination against women.”

For example, Ms. Yunus said that while women no longer need permission to work, the government does not penalize employers who need permission. Employers must also set up separate offices for men and women, and enforce a dress code for women.

In recent years, Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of trying to cover up its human rights abuses by courting celebrities and hosting major events, particularly in the wake of the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Prince Mohammed denied ordering Khashoggi’s killing but said he took responsibility for it and fired the officials involved.
“There is definitely an attempt to ‘wash images’ in Saudi Arabia,” Ms. Younes said.
“The Saudi government has spent billions of dollars hosting major entertainment, cultural, and sporting events as a deliberate strategy to demonize the country and as a widespread human rights abuser.”
Saudi Arabia recently launched a controversial bid to create its own golf tour with a prize of $255 million, and it’s underway. .
New South Wales Police said in a statement last month that it had not yet been able to confirm how Asra and Amal died.
Anyone with information that could assist investigators is urged to contact the Burwood Police Station at (02) 9745 8499 or Crime Stoppers at 1800333000.
Readers seeking mental health support can contact Beyond Blue at 1300 22 4636. More information is available at supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

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