How Can We Explain The Culture And Faith This Saudi Teen Is Trying To Escape?
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is an 18-year-old from an influential Saudi family. She has decided to renounce her ancestral faith.
At the time of writing, she is holed up in a hotel room in Bangkok waiting to receive asylum in a free country. Her sole source of help is Australian journalist Sophie McNeill, UNHCR officials in Thailand, some lawyers and tens of thousands of people she has never met in person but who follow her on Twitter.
Renouncing Islam is a crime in a nation which only recently allowed women to drive. The suffocating regulation of women’s lives is extreme in the eyes of other nominally Muslim nations where women have served as Prime Ministers, not to mention countries with substantial Muslim minorities such as Singapore where a Muslim woman has been elected as President.
Within Muslim communities the world over, people enter and leave Islam all the time. The idea of them receiving death threats is unthinkable. I’ve had cousins in Pakistan who have adopted other faiths with little more than social sanction. In Australia, writer and broadcaster Sami Shah has announced he's leaving Islam. He isn’t the first. A (now deceased) close family friend of ours, an ophthalmologist, openly espoused his atheism even to his closest friend, a long-bearded imam.
What is it about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that makes it so exceptional?
Is it the veil?
I doubt it. I’ve seen women in Jakarta wearing veils and driving Harley Davidson motorbikes. Across the Muslim communities, there are seriously veiled women working as doctors, lawyers, accountants, academics etc. There are less seriously veiled women as well as women who choose not to veil (including in my own extended family) who work in responsible professions, run businesses and bring up children to be responsible citizens.
The idea of not being able to drive would be an anathema to most Muslim women I know. When she moved to Canberra with her PhD scholar husband in the mid-60’s, my mother insisted on learning to drive. Instead of wearing a veil, she wore a sari.
What is it about Saudi Arabia that makes it different?
Is it the presence of sacred pilgrimage cities such as Mecca and Medina?
I doubt it. The peninsula has only been known as Saudi Arabia for some two centuries. But Islam has been around for some fourteen centuries.
One possible place to start is the year 1744 when a tribal chief named Muhammad ibn Saud accepts the sect of a controversial cleric named Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab. The latter was the founder of a sect we know of as Wahhabism.
It would take volumes to explain Wahhabism and why it was largely rejected and marginalised across the Islamic world. However, it has remained influential in Saudi Arabia and remains the official creed. The strictures of Wahhabism are enshrined in Saudi custom and law which aren’t exactly conducive to women’s freedom.
But before I sound overly judgmental, I should point out that I’ve never been to Saudi Arabia. I can only rely on what I’ve heard from Saudi students studying here, from Australians and others who have worked there and from accounts in books.
Perhaps the best account I found was from a female American Muslim doctor who spent time working in the Kingdom. In 2008, Dr Qanta Ahmed wrote In The Land of Invisible Women – A Female Doctor’s Journey In The Saudi Kingdom. In her first chapter, Dr Ahmed wrote about attending to a Bedouin woman whose teenage son was more worried about his mother’s face being covered than about her receiving proper treatment. Dr Ahmed was philosophical about the whole experience. She writes:
“Nothing was clear to me other than veiling was essential, inescapable, even for a dying woman.
This was the way of the new world in which I was now confined.
For now, and the next two years, I would see many things I couldn’t understand.
Even though I was a Muslim, here I found myself a stranger in the Kingdom.”
So how do we explain the culture and faith that Rahaf al-Qunun is running away from?
UNHCR officials interviewed her to determine the basis of her fears, and on Wednesday determined her to be a refugee. She has now been referred to Australia for refugee resettlement, and the Department of Home Affairs is currently considering her case.
Those same UNHCR officials will have interviewed hundreds of people now on Manus and Nauru, not to mention others who have been in other detention centres. As the Department considers Rahaf's referral, perhaps she, like others before her, will be demonised by anti-immigrant politicians.
But my sister Rahaf can rest assured that there will be plenty of women (and men) of all faiths and none in particular who will do whatever they can to convince the Australian government to grant her refuge and safety.
There must never be any compulsion in matters of belief.