'I Spoke Out Against Saudi Arabia. I Fled and Fear They'll Kill Me'

From an early age I noticed I was treated differently because of my gender. I am my parents' only daughter and the oldest of four children, but I believe both my family and society as a whole never respected me as much as my brothers.

I was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but was able to travel a lot because of my parents line of work. Throughout my childhood I experienced lots of different cultures. I saw how differently women were treated around the world. I became resentful of the limitations females faced in my own country.

I have always questioned things. I was always the troublemaker in school and at college. I always asked controversial questions and debated other students.

My views are seen as controversial in Saudi Arabia. I simply do not agree with the narrative that women should be limited in any way based on their gender. I believe the country's discriminatory gender-based laws mean women are treated like third class citizens. I believe everyone has the right to wear whatever they want and that nothing a person wears can justify any kind of violence.

Moudi Aljohani
Moudi Aljohani, 30, is a Saudi-born women's right's activist who fled the country in 2016 and currently lives in the United States. She helped found the #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen movement aiming to abolish male guardianship in Saudi Arabia. Moudi Aljohani

By the end of high school, I knew I wanted to travel to the United States for college. I was promised that if I behaved like a "good girl", meaning someone modest, who doesn't talk back or have any ideas which contradicted my parents' values and culture norms, I would be able to study abroad.

Despite achieving excellent grades, I wasn't able to travel abroad directly after high school. My parents felt the way I was thinking and behaving was still unacceptable, so I spent my time at college focusing on studying and keeping myself to myself.

I studied law. I thought by understanding the legal system in Saudi Arabia, and digging a little deeper into how the law works, I could find ways to seek justice for women. I now believe there is virtually no way to get legal justice for women in Saudi Arabia, because of how the country's legal system works. I believe there are too many obstacles and ways women can be oppressed.

I began anonymously campaigning in my early 20s. I was still in college during the Arab Spring, when a series of anti-government protests spread across parts of the Arab world in 2011, with social media playing a significant role in certain areas. I began posting on a Facebook page about unjust gender-based laws and sexism in Saudi Arabia. It felt like an electronic revolution for women.

It took me years, but I eventually persuaded my family to let me travel to the U.S. to complete a masters degree in law. I was in my early 20s, but women in Saudi Arabia are treated like minors for their entire lives because of strict guardianship laws. I had stopped arguing with them, stopped expressing my controversial or "taboo" thoughts. They still weren't 100 percent convinced, but they let me go.

When I arrived in the U.S. in 2014, I tried to keep a low profile. I avoided some Saudi students, who I suspected may be moral vigilantes. I had heard stories of many women abroad who lost their places at university based on reports from these moral vigilante students students. For example, if they had been seen in a club or with men who weren't family members. Even if they were heard debating controversial topics, some women were sent home.

I suspect there was a student watching what I was doing, following my movements and social media activity, then reporting to my parents if I was doing things which did not align with their values back home. If you are a Saudi woman, you typically have to adhere to a certain standard of modesty and morality. If you do not, you are seen as being westernized, and anything to do with being westernized is off limits.

I was attending events organized by the school, which were also attended by other Saudi students. I was not presenting myself like a modest Saudi woman, according to the country's standards. I believe this was reported back to my parents. I also believe one of my female friends was sending private images to my parents.

My parents contacted me and told me they missed me, they asked me to come visit them back in Saudi Arabia. When I returned home in February 2016, it felt like an ambush. I found out that I was not going back. My parents told me I had brought them shame. They thought I had been brainwashed by the West.

After returning to Saudi Arabia I felt extremely depressed. I was very sad; I cried all the time. When I thought about being denied my right to education, being punished for just being myself, I became angry. I felt the pain and the gut punch of losing all my rights.

My anger was enough to start campaigning more boldly. I created different groups and started social media campaigns with other women in Saudi Arabia to abolish the guardianship system, which at the time meant women had to obtain permission from their male guardian for basic activities like getting a job or traveling.

Initially I was still anonymous, I tried to hide using a VPN to mitigate the risk to my safety, because in Saudi Arabia human rights campaigners are often imprisoned or silenced for expressing views critical of the government.

My campaign began to receive attention from the western media and various human rights organizations. I was warned that I was on a list of activists suspected of being responsible for the campaign. At the same time, I heard rumors of a crackdown targeting women's rights activists and knew this was getting serious. I thought I needed to run while I could.

I needed my guardian's permission to leave the country, so I convinced my family to let me attend a friend's wedding in Bahrain and obtained electronic permission from my family to leave the country.

I took a flight to New York, stopping off in London on the way. I chose countries I thought would not cooperate with the Saudi government if I was discovered.

I was extremely scared, every time I relive this moment in my mind it is hard. I had to think like a detective. I bought an extra phone and discarded my other one in an airport trash can.

I sought asylum in the United States, but it's been really hard to start over in a new place. I feel like I'm too foreign for my home and I am too foreign for the West.

Ever since I made my Twitter public, showed my face and name to the world, it has been a nightmare. Since moving to the U.S. I have had to move to three different states because of the harassment I have faced. Pro-Saudi activists recognise me on the street and call me names. They accuse me of ruining their daughters by making them rebel against them. They accuse me of all sorts of terrible things. Online, I've received non-stop sl** shaming and violent comments.

I receive messages daily from people hoping I die. People say: "We wish you would die, you should have been killed, your family should have been killed, you're lucky you're alive." I've been receiving that on a daily basis ever since going public with my activism.

It makes me feel terrified. I am very scared of what the reaction will be to every single word I say. The anti-immigration movement is on the rise in the U.S. and it has created fear and uncertainty for me. I think if I return to Saudi Arabia I will probably be killed, executed or just disappear.

I miss my family and I wish politics and religion did not separate us. Speaking up for women's rights carried severe consequences. However, somebody had to do it. I felt I did not have any other option other than speaking up.

For now, I'm living in hiding and keeping a low profile, I don't even go out anymore. I've stopped socializing. Ever since I spoke out against the Saudi system, my life has changed. I don't feel safe anywhere.

Moudi Aljohani, 30, is a Saudi-born women's right's activist who fled the country in 2016 and currently lives in the United States. She helped found the #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen movement aiming to abolish male guardianship in Saudi Arabia.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Monica Greep.

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