Saudi sisters Maha and Wafa, awaiting help in Georgia, say they fled the kingdom because life had become unbearable because of torture.
The Saudi Al-Subaie sisters, Maha and Wafa, remain in Georgia awaiting an offer from a third country to take them in as asylum seekers.
“We decided to leave Saudi Arabia because life there had become unbearable from the torture. We were threatened and abused daily by our family, father and mother and brothers,” says Maha in an interview with RFI.
The two sisters, Maha and Wafa, aged 28 and 25 respectively, have been making headlines since 17 April when they began tweeting about their ordeal, initially under the twitter handle @GeorgianSisters which was quickly blocked. Their official handle is now @GeorgiaSisters2 .
Escaping the guardianship system of Saudi Arabia, whereby a woman, regardless of her age, is under constant surveillance by an official male guardian, is already a feat of its own.
In the past year, with more and more women taking flight from the kingdom, a new app called Absher - available both on Google and Apple - was introduced to help male guardians limit attempts by any woman to leave.
The system allows a Saudi man to follow the location of a woman and order government documents such as a passport. It also gives the man power to grant a woman authorisation to leave.
According to one interview with the Daily Beast, the girls managed to work around this double barrier. They stole their father’s phone and signed into Absher granting themselves leave from the country and then proceeded with their plan.
How they obtained passports has not yet been revealed.
Strained family ties
In a family of four brothers and six sisters, Maha and Wafa are the only girls to leave.
“We are very close to each other and we are exposed to the same violations” explains Maha.
She was married but divorced seven years ago. She has a nine-year old son from that marriage. But the abuse that both she and her sister suffered at the hands of her family became unbearable, especially in front of her son. “It is worse when my father hits me in front of him,” explains Maha.
The divorce was apparently the moment when things started to deteriorate for the sisters. Maha’s ex-husband accused her of having been unfaithful to him. In response, the family took it upon themselves to punish her for causing them shame. When Wafa started to defend her sister, she too was punished.
“There were many reasons for their abuse and violence, but mostly it was for not obeying their orders, or to prevent us from making our own decisions about personal matters, or still just to vent their anger because we were like their property and could not defend ourselves,” says Maha.
“All my brothers have absolute power from my parents” explains the older sister. “But my eldest brother was the worst”.
She adds that they couldn’t complain to the Saudi authorities about the abuse since their brothers work for the security sector and the government would not protect the two girls.
According to documents seen by RFI, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has promised the Al-Subaie family that the girls will be found and brought back to the Kingdom. Maha confirms that the Al-Subaie tribe is in fact quite powerful. “Our family is big and they can reach the government.” So such a promise by the Saudi authorities serves to send the girls “a threatening message,” she adds.
Dreams of a better life
“Since 2014, the idea of running away was the only solution,” according to Maha. The fact that she couldn’t even leave the house with her son was already infuriating.
But to have him see his own mother being physically abused was too much. “I will not let him see his mother being hit and facing violence.”
Her decision to leave was not an easy one because she had to leave her son behind. “This situation kills me. My son will certainly understand my position,” she adds. He is now living with one of his grandparents.
When the sisters finally obtained passports, they knew they had to run away quickly before anyone found out. Without time to get a visa, the sisters transited through Turkey and crossed over into Georgia. Holders of a Saudi passport do not need a visa to enter Georgia.
The goal was to secure entry to a country which would accept their plea for asylum. In Georgia, they remain unsafe given that anyone from the family can enter and try to take them back to the Kingdom, or worse. “We do not want to be kidnapped or killed,” exclaims Maha.
Waiting in limbo
Their first embassy stop upon arrival to Georgia was that of France. “France rejected us after a week. After that we made several attempts to get out of Georgia and did not succeed.”
When they returned to the French embassy, staff informed them that they had received an email asking for help to search for the young women in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
But that story has added to their determination to find a way out. The French embassy knows that the girl’s lives are in danger. “I do not know why they did not help us”.
That’s when the sisters made the decision to go public on social media with their identities. Soon afterwards, they published photos of their unveiled faces.
The Georgian government has told the sisters that neither their father nor brothers have entered the country. “But we have a large family.” They have already received many threats from online users, particularly from their cousins and possibly their brothers.
Maha and Wafaa have been in contact with the United Nations Refugee agency, the UNHCR. In the meantime, they say they are safe. They are currently awaiting a response from the Canadian embassy.