On the morning of August 18, 2017, Rana deboarded her Saudia Airlines flight in Munich, Germany, bleary-eyed and clutching a small leather bag. Her husband, a near stranger whom she had married two days earlier, in Riyadh, with the stroke of her father’s pen, marched ahead of her. As the couple approached passport control, he reluctantly handed Rana her passport, which he had taken before landing. Rana stole a glance inside to insure that the note she had scribbled in the airplane’s bathroom was still tucked between the newly minted pages. The line crawled forward. Rana’s heart pounded. A German officer processed her husband’s paperwork, then waved Rana over. Rana slid her documents to the official on other side of the glass window. Inside, a short plea, written in English, read, “i want to apply for asylum.” And then, in shaky German, “mein Mann weiß nicht”—“my husband doesn’t know.”
The moment had been a lifetime in the making. Rana’s earliest memories were dominated by the violent fits of her father, whose abuse once drove her mother to run away, with Rana, then just a toddler, in tow. The experience served as an early lesson on Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal norms. Rana’s mother, under pressure from her family, abandoned her hopes for a divorce and returned to her husband. Later, she explained her reasoning to Rana: it is better to suffer abuse inside a respectable marriage, she said, than to live as a woman in disgrace.
At school, Rana chafed under long hours of religious instruction, which taught her to fear hellfire and respect men as fundamentally superior. At Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, a brief phase of online activism landed her at the disciplinary office, where the administration threatened police action. Later, while trying to help a friend suffering from domestic violence, Rana was rebuffed by authorities for attempting to file a police report. After college, Rana’s hopes for a career as an English translator were repeatedly blocked by her father, who considered the prospect shameful. She was eventually able to start a small phone-repair business with several female friends, but she was soon confronted by her worst nightmare: her parents arranged for her marriage. On their first meeting, her young suitor informed her that he’d expect to start having children immediately, and that she would devote herself to child-rearing. “I saw him, and I saw the end of my life,” she told me.
Rana, who was twenty-four at the time, was still unwilling to surrender. “I realized there would be no future for me in Saudi Arabia,” she recalled. “I had no choice but to find a way out.” In this, she made her new husband an unwitting accomplice: he agreed to take her on a honeymoon, giving her an alibi to obtain a passport and travel documents—something no Saudi woman can do without the permission of her wali, or male guardian. He’d even been accommodating when she suggested that they travel to Germany, which she’d identified, after extensive research, as the best asylum destination in Europe …
Khashoggi’s death and Qunun’s near capture have left Rana and her friends feeling more vulnerable than ever. “M.B.S. has showed us he can do anything he wants,” Leena said. “The world let him get away with murder. So things are worse for us. He feels stronger, not weaker, now, like no one can touch him.” The women frequently trade off apartments, spending the night in groups rather than sleeping alone. They also continue to avoid all semblance of activism or political speech—a partial win, perhaps, for M.B.S. But none of their precautions can shake the constant fear of their government’s reach. “We’re not like the people escaping war in their country,” Rana says. “When they come here, the bombs are behind them, they are safe. But not us. The danger follows us …”
Sarah Aziza is a writer covering gender, human rights, and migration. She splits her time between New York and the Middle East