Two Saudi sisters who have been hiding in Istanbul for six weeks after fleeing years of alleged abuse by their father are hoping to be granted asylum in Canada.
Dua, 22, and Dalal al-Showaiki, 20, describe their father as controlling and abusive and say he tried to force them to abandon their dreams of independence in order to marry older, religious men.
After years of contemplating their escape, the sisters said they made the drastic decision to flee on June 10 while on a family vacation in Turkey’s largest city.
“We didn’t have, like, anyone to help us,” Dua told The Current, speaking from their 11th safe house in Istanbul. “We didn’t have any choice. Just run away.”
Dalal describes her family life as a “jail” in which she is unable to make her own decisions. “If sometimes my father told us, like, ‘This morning, you can’t go to school at your college.’ I can’t complain to anyone.”
The situation is worse for Dua, who realized as a teen that she was gay. Homosexuality is considered a crime in Saudi Arabia and is punishable by death or flogging.
“It’s so hard for me to live in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “I don’t have any future there.”
During the family vacation, Dua and Dalal say their father seized their passports and money before locking them in a hotel room. When he opened the door to use the bathroom, the sisters say they were ready — wearing shoes and with cellphones in hand — to make a dash for the exit.
“I was running, I don’t know where I must go. But I was hiding in the streets,” Dua recalled.
The recent high-profile getaways of other Arab women — Saudi Arabia’s Rahaf Mohammed, Dubai princess Sheikha Latifa, and Saudi sisters Maha and Wafa al-Subaie — almost thwarted their plan. They said their family was on high alert, attuned to the possibility.
After making their escape, the sisters then reached out to an online network of Saudi women for help.
“I told them that I am on the street. I don’t have any place to go … and they helped me,” Dua said. “They know people in Turkey and they [gave] me their contact.”
The sisters have been holed up in Istanbul ever since, taking to social media to publicize their plight and campaign for asylum in Canada.
Dua and Dalal spend most of their time indoors and move frequently for fear their father will find them and forcibly bring them back to their home country. Turkey is one of a handful of countries that Saudis can travel to without a prior visa.
“He will never stop looking for us, so he can clear the shame,” said Dalal.
She believes if they were to return to their home in the port city of Jeddah, about 90 kilometres east of Mecca, her father would kill them or have them thrown in jail, where they would be subject to torture.
The sisters say their getaway and public campaign has also led them to receive a steady stream of online threats.
Life free of oppression
Asked why they have chosen Canada as their preferred destination, Dalal says it’s because it’s a safe place.
“They support gay people, they support ex-Muslims and everyone,” she said.
“The environment in Turkey is really not safe,” he said, referencing a large number of Saudi nationals who visit the country each year.
The sisters are currently waiting for their application to be processed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is responsible for determining which refugee cases to refer to Canada.
In an email to The Current, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said the office is unable to comment on the sisters’ case due to privacy regulations.
“Individuals cannot apply directly for resettlement to Canada, nor can they make claims at an Embassy of Canada,” Mathieu Genest wrote. “The UNHCR determines which cases to refer to Canada and will request expedited processing when appropriate.”
Asylum seekers whose claims are determined to be eligible will get a hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, he said, which will select “foreign nationals for resettlement who have no reasonable prospect of finding another durable solution.”
Cadman is optimistic their case will warrant an urgent decision by UNHCR and says he hopes the sisters will have a chance at “a life like you and I would consider to be normal.”
“We’ve already heard about the system of abuse, which we know exists in Saudia Arabia,” he told The Current.
“You also have two individuals that have been subjected to physical and mental abuse over a number of years. They’ve also been subjected to sexual abuse by family members in an environment where no care is given to protect them.”
The Saudi embassy in Ottawa did not respond to The Current’s request for comment.
Plight of women’s rights
Saudi Arabia has a long history of brutally punishing those who demand equality, defend women’s rights and advocate for social reform.
It consistently ranks among the world’s worst countries for women’s rights and equality. The World Economic Forum positioned it 141 out of 149 in its 2018 report on gender equality.
The country’s highly restrictive guardianship laws require women to be granted permission from a male relative to work, travel abroad, marry and receive certain kinds of medical treatment.
This past spring, a sweep of arrests targeting individuals supportive of women’s rights and those with ties to jailed activists saw 12 people detained. Women who have stood trial for charges related to their activism have told court they were abused during interrogations.
Asked if they would resettle in another country if it offered them asylum before Canada, the sisters replied they’d be willing to go nearly anywhere.
“If anyone in any country agreed to take us, of course, we’re going to go,” Dua said.