In April 2017 , a 24-year-old Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, tried to flee her home for Australia. Members of her family flew to Manila, a transit stop, and forced her to return to Saudi Arabia. But before she was hauled away, she posted a cellphone video, saying that her family would kill her and begging for help. The video quickly went viral in Saudi Arabia.
Another woman, Alaa Anazi, a medical student, was detained at the Riyadh airport after she asked the authorities when Lasloom’s flight was landing. Protesters had been alerted on Twitter and gathered to support Lasloom.
And this week, a women’s rights activist, Maryam Al-Otaibi, was arrested after she fled her father’s home to live independently in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Fellow activists were soon spreading news of her case on social media sites.
The three cases are part of a campaign by Saudi women, who have been broadcasting daring videos with their cellphones, using Facebook to organize street protests and posting Twitter messages to challenge the very idea of male supremacy in their famously patriarchal society.
The campaign, started by a loose network of activists who have enlisted young, media-savvy women, has gone far beyond earlier protests against the kingdom’s reaffirmed ban on female drivers, and has become a challenge to the pervasive guardianship system. In this entrenched system of guardianship, a male relative — usually a father or a husband, but sometimes a brother or even a son — has the legal right to control a woman’s movements.
What use is the right to drive, the young activists ask, if a woman still needs a man’s permission to leave the house?
Even among some of the activists themselves, there has been surprise at the response. “I’m very impressed; a few years ago I thought I was the only one who thought this way,” said Moudi al-Johani, 26, a Saudi woman who said she was locked up by her family when she returned from Florida during a college vacation.
Ms. Johani’s father was angered by her independence and held her at home against her will for months, she said. She fled last year to the United States, where she has applied for asylum. She was among those who started an online campaign, #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen, which she claimed “has been trending for more than 230 days.”
The online Saudi activists have at times been provocative, with a number of women apparently within Saudi Arabia posting photographs and videos of themselves online after removing their head scarves, often in public. While that would not earn more than a glance in most Muslim societies, in Saudi Arabia these women risk arrest by the religious police, who enforce the kingdom’s ultrastrict, Wahhabi version of Islam.
In one Twitter post, a woman held a sign in front of her face: “I’m a prisoner and my crime is that I’m a Saudi women.”
In the case of Lasloom, who was trying to reach Australia without her father’s permission, the Saudi authorities asked Philippine officials to detain her while her uncles flew to Manila. Before they arrived, she borrowed a phone from a Canadian woman at the airport and recorded her plea for help.
“If my family come, they will kill me,” she said in the cellphone recording. “If I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead.” According to Human Rights Watch, a security official in Manila reported seeing her being taken away with her mouth taped shut and her arms and legs bound with tape. She was put on a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight home with her uncles.
Lasloom’s video quickly went viral in the Middle East, under the hashtag #SaveDinaAli.
The Saudi Embassy in Manila issued a statement calling Lasloom’s return a “family matter.” The Philippine authorities denied returning her against her will.
“Cases like Dina’s case are the direct result of a system that keeps women in a perpetual state of being a minor,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
In his Vision 2030 decree of 2016, Saudi Arabia’s powerful new defense minister and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, called for a more open society. He said that women were an important part of that society and should be allowed to play a greater role.
One of Prince Mohammed’s reforms was to rein in the religious police, sharply curtailing their powers in recent months, which is one of the reasons women are starting to speak up more now.
Moreover, women who campaigned for greater rights in the 1990s did not have the sort of internet tools now so widely available to activists, said a Saudi historian and women’s activist, Hatoon al-Fassi. “We are witnessing a different phenomenon today where more young women are becoming outspoken about deciding their own fates, and going public with it,” Ms. Fassi said.
But activists are quick to note that the social media uprising does not necessarily represent what all Saudi women are feeling. “There are a lot of indicators on both sides,” Mr. Benchemsi said. “You also have religious preachers with millions of followers on social media, so you see some signs of a loosening, but you also see signs of the opposite.”
Johani said that since fleeing last year, her activism has attracted many other young women who want to free themselves from their male relatives. “I get tens of messages every day from Saudi women trying to seek help,” she said, “and every day they literally ask me, ‘How did you manage, how can we get help?’”
But she also gets plenty of hate mail and death threats, she said, from both men and women.