ISTANBUL — Dua and Dalal AlShowaiki spent five years planning their escape from Saudi Arabia. In early June, they finally had their chance during a family vacation in Istanbul.
When their father went into the hotel bathroom, asking his second wife to watch the young women, Dua told her younger sister to get her shoes on. They grabbed their phones, left their hijabs behind, and ran for it.
“Despite our dire situation — we have no money, we have nothing, we're just out on the street — but I was laughing, saying to myself, ‘Look at what I've done,’” Dua, 22, said. “Later on, we understood the gravity of the situation, the disaster we’re in.”
They were escaping a life they describe as brutal. The sisters say they were beaten on a regular basis and prohibited from going anywhere without a male guardian and full veil. And they say they were about to be forced to marry men they’d never met, one of whom was more than twice their age.
But days after their escape, they found themselves in another crisis: trying to survive on the streets without passports or money, and writing desperate pleas for help on social media.
“Later on, we understood the gravity of the situation, the disaster we’re in”
They were working against the clock: If they didn’t find a country to resettle them, their father could find them and take them back to Saudi Arabia. There, they believed, they would face punishment, and possibly death, for their defection.
“I felt both afraid and nervous. All I could think of is that my dad is just gonna suddenly appear in front of us,” Dalal, 20, said.
The AlShowaiki sisters’ father, meanwhile, denies all allegations of abuse and forced marriage, and says he doesn’t know why his daughters fled. But the sisters say they couldn’t do simple things when they were younger, like watch TV or play outside, and they had to be fully covered. When they talk about their childhood, they physically cringe at the memories.
“I was maybe 9 or 11 years old. They had me wear a hijab, a niqab, and even an abaya. There’s something called an abaya that covers you from the head down,” Dalal said. “I never lived my normal childhood, being able to go out and play.”
“I wake up every couple of hours to check the windows and check on my cell phone”
Now, more than two months since their escape, the sisters are still in hiding in Istanbul, spending nearly 24 hours a day in a secret location. Their story, meanwhile, has spread across the world, highlighting the oppressive life that Saudi women and girls can face. Guardianship laws have historically required women to receive permission from a male guardian to travel, marry, work, or in many cases, just leave the house.
According to Dua and Dalal, Turkish authorities have said their father and Saudi government officials are offering to pay people to find their location. The Saudi Consulate in Istanbul did not respond to VICE News’ requests for comment for this story. And their father denies these allegations, but Dua and Dalal are terrified. Throughout the night, Dua looks out her window checking for suspicious cars.
“I wake up every couple of hours to check the windows and check on my cell phone,” Dua said. “I’m always afraid. I’d tell Dalal, ‘Look at this car that just passed: Of course, our dad must be in it. There’s a big black SUV. Of course it must be someone from the [Saudi] embassy,’” referring to the same embassy where journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered last year.
“I would be asleep and I dream every night that my father came and entered the room and found us,” Dua said.
On Aug. 2, the Kingdom announced changes to the guardianship system that would allow anyone over 21, male or female, to apply for a passport and travel without the permission of a guardian. The announced changes also allow women to officially register births, deaths, and divorces. But how these new rules will be interpreted remains ambiguous until they’re put into practice later this fall. And some restrictions remain — namely that women will still need permission from their guardian to get married, one of the main causes for women running away in the first place.
While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has purported to modernize parts of the Kingdom, by allowing women to drive and lifting the travel ban for women in addition to amending the guardianship system, he’s also escalated his campaign to track down and target dissidents abroad, something Dua and Dalal fear.
“What we have seen over the last 12 to 18 months is a crackdown on dissidents,” Dua and Dalal’s pro bono lawyer, Toby Cadman, told VICE News. “A crackdown on female activists. There are a number of high-profile female activists who have been thrown in jail. Many of them have been beaten, tortured. So to suggest that we are looking at a different era in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, if it wasn't so serious, it would be laughable.”
“We’re talking about two young women who could be killed at any moment”
According to Human Rights Watch, women often flee due to domestic violence, political repression, and forced marriage, and that number is growing. Nearly 800 Saudis applied for asylum in 2018, up from just 195 in 2012, though UNHCR does not track how many of those individuals are women.
Dua and Dalal say none of their friends have escaped, but many women in Saudi dream of freedom.
“No girl in Saudi Arabia accepts this life that men are controlling them. A girl makes no decisions about her life, even a trivial one; a man controls that,” Dalal said. “I would never accept that for myself. I know that I have rights. For me, this is hell.”
Family members and friends have sent them messages on WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Twitter, telling them to go back to their home. When their father's second wife sent them a message, asking them to meet her in Egypt, where she lives, Dua and Dalal rolled their eyes.
“It’s bullshit,” Dalal said. “I’m not stupid,” her sister added.
The sisters are in a race for resettlement against their father’s efforts to get them back, which they say includes the Saudi government.
“For me, I know that Saudi Arabia will try to send us back, 100%. That is for sure,” Dalal said.
They’re now registered with UNHCR and are under United Nations protection, but that does not include personal security or an official safe house. The Turkish Ministry of Interior granted them each an International Protection Applicant ID, so they’re not at risk of being deported. Cadman is trying to get them asylum in a third country, but they have yet to be resettled.
“We’re talking about two young women who could be killed at any moment,” Cadman said. “And if they are… that will be on the conscience of the U.N., the Turkish authorities, and these countries for failing to respond to these pleas for help.”
“I’m so tired. I just want to be safe”
Dua and Dalal say every additional day they’re in Turkey is a day their life is at risk. They say if the Saudi Embassy or their family finds them, they won’t return to Saudi Arabia.
“I will kill myself. Before they kill me, I will kill myself,” Dua said. They’ve gone as far as planning how they would end their lives, believing the alternative is worse.
But, there are moments of levity. They dream of skateboarding outside of their bedroom, playing instruments without being punished, continuing their studies, and going to Eminem concerts. They obsess over their hairstyles and tease each other. When they talk about their dreams for the future, more than anything, they just want peace of mind.
“I’m so tired. I just want to be safe,” Dalal whispered.
Until then — despite the risks — they continue to remain vocal.
“If I die, or something happens to me, I will have left something,” Dalal said. “A presence, an image. I exist.”