For years, Saudi Arabian sisters Reem and Rawan plotted their escape, dreaming of the moment they would leave their cloistered existence in the Gulf State and begin independent lives overseas. Rawan, 18, imagined it would start with a victory dance on the tarmac, while Reem, 20, hoped to play her anthem, Sia’s “Bird Set Free.”
Last week, after six months of being stranded in Hong Kong, the sisters finally got their first, long-deferred taste of freedom, becoming the latest women to slip beyond the grasp of the ultraconservative Kingdom.
As they touched down in the country from which they have obtained emergency visas, effectively securing asylum, the sisters were at last free to sing, dance and celebrate. “It’s like… finally,” Rawan said.
Speaking to TIME in a hotel room before their departure, the sisters, who are using aliases and declined to reveal their new domicile for fear of their family finding them, gushed about the possibilities that lie ahead.
“When I think about the things I couldn’t do in Saudi that I want to do in my new home… [it’s] basically everything,” says Rawan.
She wants to go to college to study biology. Reem wants to finish her English literature degree and write a book about their experience. But first, they want to relish small pleasures unimaginable back home.
“I want to wake up in the morning and take a walk around. This is very simple, but I could not do it in Saudi Arabia,” says Reem.
Ultimately, both Reem and Rawan say they want a “normal life.” Like other Saudi women who have fled the Kingdom, they long for the most basic, yet fundamental of rights: to be in the driver’s seat of their own lives. Under Saudi Arabia’s draconian male guardianship laws, men command their female relatives’ lives, from the way they dress, to whether they can leave the house, to who and when they might marry.
Reem and Rawan are not the first Saudi women to risk death to escape these oppressive constraints. Nor, likely, will they be the last. The sisters are among an increasing swell of Saudi asylum-seekers taking enormous gambles to secure greater freedom abroad—a troubling exodus for the supposedly reformist Saudi government under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, nicknamed MBS.
“I believe those who will do that, who will put their lives on the edge, they have nothing to lose,” says Reem.
And while they wouldn’t encourage other women to follow their harrowing path, (“My story is not really the perfect image of escaping,” says Rawan), they also say they have no regrets.
“I knew that at some point in my life I [would] have to leave,” says Reem. “Because I can’t live in fear anymore, and I can’t live in that prison anymore. I would risk everything just to have this one moment of freedom, to have one moment that I can say to myself: I am alive.”
‘Know your rights and fight for them’
When Reem and Rawan bolted during a family vacation to Colombo, Sri Lanka on Sept. 6, 2018, they knew they might be setting out on a suicide mission. Using a secretly acquired debit card, they bought flights to Australia, with a stopover in Hong Kong. But their two-hour layover stretched into a six-month ordeal after, they say, Saudi consular officials intercepted them at the airport and attempted to kidnap them.
“If I had one message for [women] around the world, I would say: know your rights, and fight for them,” says Rawan.
The sisters fled Hong Kong airport and made their way into the city, where they bounced between 15 different safe houses and shelters, in constant fear that their government, or family, might succeed in pulling them back behind the curtain of gender apartheid.
In Saudi, the sisters say they grew up in a middle-class home that was financially comfortable, but stifling. Dressed in jeans, t-shirts and sneakers, they described feeling erased behind the full abaya they were forced to wear. They say their father and brothers routinely beat them.
As they found themselves increasingly alienated from their religion, Reem and Rawan both hazarded the death penalty by renouncing Islam on Twitter. It was on social media that they also found reason to hope they might one day build a life beyond the Kingdom.
“We knew [of women who escaped] through reading their tweets,” says Rawan. “That’s what really inspired us, because we knew there were girls who had made it.”
Through this online network, the sisters got the advice they needed to strategize their own exit.
“Most of them [said] never do something really crazy, just plan for your escape and … have enough money so you can support yourself,” says Reem. “So that’s why we spent two years planning and saving.”
Reem began putting aside most of the money her university allotted her to buy books. Rawan also scrimped from money her family gave her to buy food and clothes, hiding it under her mattress.
They waited until Rawan’s 18th birthday when they wouldn’t need parental permission for visas. On the night they fled, they took only backpacks with a couple changes of clothes.
If they had known they were going to get stuck in Hong Kong, the sisters say they would have taken more supplies and not put their $4,000 on a bankcard they claim their family cancelled.
“We had very little cash with us. And in the beginning, because we didn’t know how to go around, we just lost money on hotels and taxis. We didn’t know the cheaper way,” says Rawan.
Their first night in Hong Kong, the sisters shared a juice and cake from 7-Eleven. Otherwise they mostly survived on instant Cup Noodles from shelters.
Social media again came to the sisters’ aid as Reem and Rawan connected with an activist on Twitter who helped them find places to stay, and put them in touch with their lawyer, Michael Vidler.
But if smartphones have emboldened Saudi women like Reem and Rawan in their escapes, they’ve also made it easier for men to track their female dependents. Saudi men use a government app called Absher to manage the women they oversee, including setting notifications for any travel. It didn’t take long for Reem and Rawan’s uncle and father to arrive in Hong Kong.
The sisters say local police detained them and tried to force them meet with their male relatives who had filed a missing persons report. The sisters refused, and were eventually released.
While Reem and Rawan were hiding in Hong Kong, the plight of Saudi women made global headlines as teenage runaway Rahaf Mohammed barricaded herself in a hotel room in Bangkok and waged a desperate social media campaign. She eventually secured asylum in Canada.
The sisters say they were encouraged by Rahaf’s success, but also knew they might wind up among the cautionary examples, like Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old who was forced back to Saudi Arabia in 2017 after making it to the Philippines. She has not been heard from since.
Human rights groups say it’s unclear how many women have attempted to leave the Kingdom. But under the day-to-day rule of self-styled liberalizer MBS, the number of male and female asylum-seekers has skyrocketed, from 575 in 2015 to more than 1,200 in 2017.
In the West, the crown prince has won plaudits for moves like lifting the ban on female drivers and broadening the careers available to women. But activists say such superficial changes have accompanied a broad crackdown on dissent, including the jailing of female campaigners who fought for the right to drive, and the silencing of critics like journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was reportedly murdered in a Saudi consulate last October.
“I want people to know that just because some things changed our lives are not getting better. [Under] the male guardianship system…we are just slaves,” says Rawan.
As the plight of women in the Gulf becomes a cause célèbre, Reem and Rawan hope their experience will bolster international pressure and help catalyze change.
“First the male guardianship system should be canceled. Second thing is that they should provide protection for women who are being abused by their families,” says Reem.
As they plan their new lives, the sisters say they might consider advocating for Saudi women’s rights in the future, but know it’s a “big responsibility.” For now, they want to focus on getting settled, and healing from the trauma they have been through. They don’t expect a completely smooth road ahead, but they also remain certain it was worth leaving everything behind.
“People when they hear about Saudi, they think ‘oh they are rich,’” says Reem. “They don’t know how bad life is there and that you don’t have even basic rights. So I will say to them, take my golden cage and give me the sky.”