Social media users today rallied around the cause of two Saudi sisters stranded in Hong Kong following a gripping CNN exclusive that revealed how Saudi officials had moved to block their attempt to escape a life of repression and abuse.
What’s more, the sisters themselves appeared to make their first foray into Twitter this afternoon, a move that echoed the social media campaign mounted by Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the 18-year-old Saudi woman who was finally granted asylum in Canada last month after finding herself stranded in Bangkok following a similar escape attempt.
CNN’s story chronicled the two sisters’ — identified by the pseudonyms Reem and Rawan — decision to flee what they described as abuse at the hands of their family, and the prospect of a life in which their goals and desires would forever be subjugated to those of the men around them.
Reem and Rawan, 20 and 18, respectively, told CNN that their family had subjected them to the strict Islamic expectations surrounding what it meant to be a “good girl,” and the their brothers were encouraged to beat them because it would make them “better men.”
While the abuse wasn’t constant, they said, it only reinforced the notion that life for women in Saudi Arabia was tantamount to “slavery.” Both ultimately renounced Islam, an offense punishable by death.
The sisters finally acted on their desire to flee during a family vacation to Sri Lanka, booking a flight to Melbourne by way of Hong Kong.
What was meant to be a two-hour layover, however, has since stretched into a five-month ordeal. Upon disembarking at Hong Kong International, the sisters were held up by two airport employees, and learned that their onward flight had been canceled at the “explicit request” of the Saudi consulate.
Saudi consular officials soon arrived, taking their passports and trying to coerce them into returning to the Kingdom, even calling Australian immigration officials to have their visas canceled.
Representatives of the Australian and Saudi consulates in Hong Kong could not be reached for comment by Coconuts Hong Kong today.
The sisters decided to take their chances in Hong Kong, where they remain. Their lawyer, Michael Vidler, alleges that “they were the subject of an attempted kidnapping in an international airport in a restricted area.”
Hong Kong police confirmed to CNN that they were investigating the allegations. Reached for comment by Coconuts HK today, police would only confirm that the “Request for Police Investigation” was being pursued by the New Territories South crime division, and declined to comment further.
Twitter users, meanwhile, were quick to praise the sisters’ bravery following the story’s release today, while others called on the international community to come to their aid.
“Surely there must be some country who has both a desire to fight for basic human rights and a desire to thumb their nose at Saudi Arabia, who could help these poor women stranded in Hong Kong for the last 5 months,” one user said.
Another took SriLankan Airlines to task for its ground staffer’s alleged role in blocking the pair, asking, “Has he been fired?”
Yet another, in an apparent reference to the asylum case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, wondered aloud “could Canada step up yet again?”
Indeed, the parallels between al-Qunun’s case and that of Reem and Rawan are unmistakable. Al-Qunun, 18, also renounced Islam, and attempted to flee repression and abuse at the hands of her family by booking a flight to Bangkok while on vacation in Kuwait.
Once there, she holed up in an airport hotel to avoid deportation, and took to social media saying she feared returning to Saudi Arabia. She quickly became a cause célèbre in the West, with Canada ultimately offering her asylum last month.
In yet another parallel, Reem and Rawan appeared to take their first tentative steps into social media today, with an account called @HKsisters6 tweeting this afternoon, in English and Arabic, that it belonged to the pair.
“We are the two Saudi sisters in Hong Kong,” one of the tweets reads. “When we arrived here, officials of the Saudi Consulate attempted to kidnap us at the airport.”
“Our passports have been invalidated by the Saudi Gvt, which has prevented us from leaving and we think is an attempt to force us to go into the Saudi Consulate. We do not want to face the same fate as Mr Jamal Khashoggi,” reads another, referring to the slain dissident and journalist who was murdered inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
The veracity of the account could not be independently verified by Coconuts HK as of press time.
Meanwhile, a local rights NGO, Justice Centre Hong Kong, released a statement today saying it began helping Reem and Rawan shortly after their arrival.
“Our team have been helping them stay safe and supporting them to begin their recovery from their experience in Saudi Arabia where they were subjected to gender-based violence,” the statement reads.
Editor: A previous version of this story contained a quote from a Justice Centre HK statement that has since been removed at the request of the organization over concerns for the safety of the two sisters.