Shahad al-Mohaimeed got up at midnight to leave her hotel room overlooking the blue water of Trabzon, a Turkish vacation town on the Black Sea. Her family picked the hilly, historic port because it offered a seaside break, but within an Islamic society.
Creeping barefoot out of the bedroom, al-Mohaimeed gathered her family’s credit cards, keys, passports, and, crucially, their phones. This would slow them down, she thought, when they tried to follow her.
Her escape had taken a year of planning.
Standing on the road outside the hotel she panicked at the silence. It was the first time in her life she had been outside on her own.
It was also the first time since she was 10 that she had not woken up and put on a full-body covering, either a burqa or a niqab.
“I was 17 and I was so scared, so, so, scared,” she recalls. “I left at midnight, and the night was so dark. I was scared of my brother and my family.”
‘When we decide to leave, we decide to put our lives on the line. Because if we don’t succeed, our families are going to kill us.’
Her routine was mechanical: wake, school, home, sleep, repeat, she said. Don’t talk to, or look at, any man you are not related to. The Quran deemed it indecent, she was told, and her father considered it worthy of a beating.
Under her father’s guardianship, she watched her teen brother spend a $1,600 monthly allowance as he pleased, while she begged for money to buy the most basic products. “I couldn’t even buy anything for my period,” she said. “It was my brother who paid for it, all the time, and he was younger than me.”
al-Mohaimeed‘s mother couldn’t access money she earned at her job either, she said. She didn’t have a bank account. Her husband took it because, in his view, she wasn’t worthy of having her own property. Reflecting on her past life, al-Mohaimeed said bluntly: “That’s bulls—.”
Speaking with INSIDER, al-Mohaimeed described frequent physical abuse from a father who she said regularly threatened to kill her. Infractions like being seen in the company of men who weren’t family would be punished with having her wrists and ankles bound with rope. “My family are an abusive family,” she said.
“There is no support for the beaten,” she said, “even when it’s reported, police are always on the man’s side.”
“When we decide to leave,” she said, “we decide to put our lives on the line. Because if we don’t succeed, our families are going to kill us. It’s shameful to have a daughter leave.”
As well as physical restrictions and social pressure, al-Mohaimeed had to navigate a sophisticated online system to escape. Her father’s phone — the one she stole that night in Trabzon — would have given him access to a Saudi government system called “Absher.”
Absher means “the preacher” in Arabic. It is the state-run system that contains the online expression of Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male-guardianship laws.
The login page of the iOS Absher app in Arabic, asking for a government ID and password. Using Absher, men can do many tasks, including paying parking fines as well as granting women under their guardianship permission to travel. Absher
Many of Absher’s functions are benign and would not be out of place in any local or national government online portal. You can use it to pay parking fines or renew a driver’s license.
Vitally, Saudi men can also use this site to specify when and where women are allowed to fly out of the country and grant or revoke travel permission with a few clicks, rendering specific airports or destinations off-limits.
INSIDER decided to investigate after a flood of interest in Saudi female refugees. The spike was prompted by 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed, whose flight from the kingdom to Thailand became a viral phenomenon.
We have made repeated attempts to contact the Saudi authorities for comment on the system, both directly to the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and via the Saudi embassies in London and Washington.
At the time of publication, none had responded.
The Saudi teenager Rahaf al-Qunun arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport on January 11 after her wild escape documented on Twitter came to an end. Reuters
‘I have 4 hours to leave Turkey before they wake up’
Outside the hotel in Turkey, al-Mohaimeed hoped to find a taxi to take her to the airport, but there were none. So she walked to the nearby hospital to call one. She would board a flight to Australia, she hoped — or anywhere but Saudi Arabia. “I have four hours to leave Turkey before they wake up,” she remembers thinking.
Once she was inside a taxi, it took 20 minutes to reach the local airport, an airstrip offering mostly domestic Turkish flights.
Only at the check-in area did she realize there were no departures until 8 a.m. It would not be enough time.
The Turkish border with Georgia was 113 miles away, via a scenic highway hugging the Black Sea. The former Soviet state, which does not require a visa for Saudi citizens, was the only option she had left. She found another taxi, paid for the ride, and a couple of hours later was handing over her passport to the police at the border, and hoping.
From there she caught a ride to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and found a room in the city with somebody she met. Her plan was to ask for an Australian tourist visa, which can be applied for online.
She was rejected.
Meanwhile, she knew Saudi diplomatic staff members were looking for her, and Interpol had already come calling to her flatmate.
How Absher works
INSIDER spoke with activists and Saudi refugees about Absher, the computer system that makes fleeing directly from Saudi Arabia so difficult. We also obtained screenshots from the site that show how it works.
Absher is Arabic by default, but it can also be accessed in English.
A second screenshot, from deeper inside the website, shows a screen for managing travel permissions.
Four options are displayed for travel permissions:
The alert system is one of the main reasons women trying to flee Saudi Arabia get caught, because it tips their guardians off while they can still be apprehended, according to Dr. Taleb al-Abdulmohsen, a Saudi refugee who fled to Germany.
When the messages were made compulsory in 2012, Saudis criticized them on social media. The Saudi author and journalist Badriya al-Bishr said: “The authorities are using technology to monitor women. This is technology used to serve backwardness in order to keep women imprisoned.” Nonetheless, they continued.
It says: “Sarah number departed from King Abdulaziz Airport on 12-11-2012.”
This message, sent to Hassan al-Hashemi about his wife Muna, says: “Muna left king AbdulAziz airport on 14-11-2012. Number 3551.”
And this one, sent to a man named Khalid al-Shnanah says: “Exit permit for Sala number 7698 expires 25-11-2012.” This most likely refers to permission a guardian gave to a women to travel for a fixed amount of time.
This string of four messages documents two women, called Danah and Fatima, both listed as dependents under a guardian‘s page on Absher, leaving and returning to Saudi Arabia from Bahrain over the King Fahad causeway bridge.
The messages say:
Danah (number 8010) has exited via the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
Fatima (number 4734) has exited via the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
Fatima (number 4734) has entered via the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
Danah (number 8010) has entered through the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
In response to criticism posted on social media, the government made SMS alerts optional in 2014. Later that year officials claimed to have suspended them, but many believe the system still operates.
Fooling the system
Shahad al-Mohaimeed, the Saudi refugee who spoke with INSIDER about her escape from Turkey, says she now gives advice to those planning to flee, particularly on getting travel permission and avoiding the MOIJawazat SMS alerts.
“Steal the father’s phone one night before they fly to make sure it’s working,” she said from her new home. “Sometimes it doesn’t work, or the father has his phone with him all the time, so some girls can’t.”
Leaving Saudi Arabia through an official checkpoint is a risk. This is the Abu Samra border crossing to Saudi Arabia from Qatar. Reuters
Another Saudi refugee, who used only the first name Salwa, told the BBC she used this technique to flee the kingdom.
Yasmine Mohammed, a prominent women‘s-rights commentator, told INSIDER some women changed the phone number linked to their guardian‘s Absher account so the alert SMS message would come to their phone instead.
Even after navigating the technical side, the journey remains difficult and risky.
Refugees, including Rahaf Mohammed, cite the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, who made it to the Philippines in April 2017 but was apprehended by her family and taken back.
About a week after she was caught, Bloomberg reported she was being held in a Saudi correctional facility. Her current whereabouts are unknown.
“There used to be no girls paying attention to asylum, now they all know about asylum, and they know about escape plans,” he said.
“Now they have more chance of being accepted abroad and have more knowledge of the process and evidence to get asylum.”
“Social media is showing women getting out, smiling, surviving, happy, encouraging other women to get out,” she told INSIDER. “It’s falsifying the rhetoric Saudi women have been hearing all these years.”
Within Saudi Arabia, guardianship laws are also changing, but very slowly.
They have made some changes, according to Human Rights Watch. These include no longer requiring women to provide a guardian‘s permission to work or needing to bring a male relative to identify them in court.
In April 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told all Saudi government agencies that women should not be blocked from getting government services because they don’t have guardian consent, unless regulations require it.
Life is hard, but she cannot go back
In Tbilisi, al-Mohaimeed met another refugee, who had also fled from a strict Islamic country. Through this connection, she was put in touch with human-rights activists, who referred her to the UN. She was granted refugee status and, ultimately, a home in Sweden.
She declined to give a precise location, citing safety concerns.
But she cannot go back. Even as a 12-year-old, al-Mohaimeed struggled to see the logic in believing God would punish her for exercising freedom of thought. “I didn’t belong to this life,” she said. “I hated it with all my heart.”
She worries about her friends back in Saudi Arabia, some of whom she says are detained in what Saudis know as “protection houses,” the same sort of facility that reportedly now houses Dina Ali Lasloom.
“I’m still sacrificing by living here in Sweden,” she said. “But it’s now who I am. I have seen a lot of things and it’s what has made me. I can deal with anyone.”