By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, May 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Two runaway Saudi sisters who won global attention for fleeing to Georgia and pleading online for protection said on Tuesday they were preparing to start new lives in a country where their family could not find them.
Maha, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25, started an online campaign to find a safe haven in April after arriving in Georgia to escape relatives they said abused them, in the latest case to highlight Saudi Arabia's strict social control over women.
"We are thrilled to announce that we are leaving Georgia," the young women wrote on Tuesday from their Twitter account @GeorgiasSisters2, posting a short video of them at the airport.
The sisters applied for asylum in Georgia in April, but said they feared their family could come to the former Soviet republic, which does not require visas, and force them back.
Georgia's interior ministry said the sisters decided to travel to another country while their asylum application was pending.
"Any asylum seeker is free to travel upon his/her decision and willingness," a ministry spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
The sisters tweeted earlier that they wanted their destination to remain secret "for a little while" and thanked all those had who supported them.
"As we settle in our new home and life we will continue to support Saudi women. We will continue our fight against guardian abuse. Many Saudi women supported us and we will never forget it," they wrote.
The United Nations refugee agency in Georgia, which had been following their application process, said it would not comment on individual cases.
Saudi women must have permission from a male relative to work, marry and travel under the Islamic kingdom's guardianship system, which human rights groups say can trap women and girls in abusive families.
The sisters are the third group of young Saudi women this year to attract global attention for seeking refuge outside their homeland.
A teenage girl won asylum in Canada when she holed up in a Thai airport hotel in January to escape her family. Two other Saudi sisters who hid in Hong Kong for six months were granted visas in March to travel to a third country.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced reforms, such as lifting a ban on women driving, and indicated last year that he favoured ending the guardianship system. But he has stopped short of backing its annulment. Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East consultant for women's rights group Equality Now, said it was good the sisters had finally found a country where they could live freely.
But she warned more would follow unless Saudi Arabia changed.
"As long as Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system remains in place, there will continue to be women and girls who take huge risks to flee a country that denies them basic human rights and freedoms," she said. (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. 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 http://news.trust.org)
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