The power of protest, Saudi-style: From teen asylum seeker to skirts and wheels

by Heba Kanso | @hebakanso | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 9 January 2019 14:05 GMT

A woman gestures as she drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Image Caption and Rights Information
Saudi women have taken to the internet to protest against a host of restrictions on their lives in the conservative kingdom

By Heba Kanso

BEIRUT, Jan 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The firestorm started by an 18-year-old Saudi Arabian woman seeking asylum in Thailand has shown the power of online protest - a tactic long championed by women in the conservative kingdom.

A social media campaign sprung up hours after Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun posted on Twitter on Sunday that she feared her family would kill her if she was sent back to Saudi Arabia.

Spread by a loose network of global activists, #SaveRahaf tweets prompted Thailand within 36 hours to reverse a decision to force Qunun back to Kuwait and instead allow her to enter Thailand and seek asylum in a third country.

Here are some examples illustrating how Saudi women have used the internet to protest:

- Manal al-Sharif and other activists started a Facebook campaign in 2011 called "Women2Drive" to fight a decades-old ban on women driving cars in Saudi Arabia, which was lifted last year. Al-Sharif was jailed and later released.

- After Saudi police briefly arrested a woman who appeared in a Snapchat video in 2017 wearing an "indecent" skirt and crop top, many Saudis sprang to her defence, lamenting double standards as unveiled foreign women were widely praised online.

- Maryam al-Otaibi was jailed for more than 100 days in 2017 after leaving her male guardians - who can prevent Saudi women traveling, marrying, studying and working - and also posted about it under the popular campaign hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian.

- Saudi women online scorned the government's 2017 decision to grant citizenship to a female robot - a right denied to the children of Saudi women married to foreigners.

- Al-Sharif launched the #Miles4Freedom campaign in 2018, calling on women around the world to log the miles they have driven as part of a petition to the King of Saudi Arabia to end male guardianship and free activists arrested for driving.

- Saudi women took to social media wearing their abayas - a loose, all-covering robe worn in public - inside out in 2018 to protest the dress code, which is strictly enforced by police.

- Saudi women posted photos of themselves stepping on the face veils some are made to wear with the hashtag "the niqab under my foot" in December's latest protests against strict dress codes.

(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.