Saudi refugee Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun addresses the media during a press conference in Toronto last month. (Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images)

Social Media: A Buoy For Arab Women Fleeing Gulf

Emirati Hind Mohammad Albolooki has taken up the torch from Saudi Rahaf al-Qunun, whose social media campaign garnered her asylum in Canada

Cases of women fleeing Gulf countries have been thrust into the spotlight in recent months due to the increasing use of social media to publicize their plight.

The latest example to garner international attention is that of Hind Mohammad Albolooki, a 42-year-old mother of four who in October fled Dubai for the Republic of Macedonia due to threats from male family members who learned she was seeking a divorce.

Hind Mohammad Albolooki. (Twitter)

According to a statement by the Macedonian Interior Ministry, Albolooki’s request for asylum was rejected earlier this month due to lack of evidence of “persecution… on the grounds of her race, religion, nationality…or political affiliation.” Government officials said that she faced no “real risk of serious injury” by returning to the UAE, and was given 15 days to the country voluntarily.

In response to the decision, Albolooki launched a Twitter account from which she called on U.S., Canada, Australia and European countries to grant her asylum.

The ordeal comes a month after the now famous case of 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun who fled Saudi Arabia, fearing for her life after she renounced Islam. Canada eventually granted her safe haven following her social media campaign which went viral.

Mona Elswah, a Researcher for the Computational Propaganda Project at the University of Oxford, emphasized to The Media Line the importance of social media for disenfranchised groups in the Middle East.

“All media is strictly controlled by the government and there have been harsh regulations restricting social media, some successful and some not. Social media is the only window left for marginalized people, like women, to speak out. That doesn’t mean they won’t be in danger, but they can still say things, and people outside the Arab world can hear it.”

Both Albolooki and al-Qunun chose to highlight their stories on Twitter, which, according to Professor T. Makana Chok of the New House School of Political Communications at Syracuse University, has certain advantages over other platforms.

“Facebook tends to be slower, Instagram is more visual and Snapchat has a much younger audience. There’s a certain immediacy with Twitter; it’s updated regularly, has a ‘breaking news’ type of format, and is used by the people you need to reach, such as government ministers, activists and journalists,” Prof. Chock told The Media Line.

Al-Qunun created her Twitter account on January 5, the day she fled her country. At the time she had less than 50 followers but currently has 222,000, in contrast to Albolooki who has about 750.

“Rahaf’s story had many interesting elements, namely her context,” Elswah explained. “Her plight came after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as well as the arrests of many Saudi activists. These incidents made people afraid she would face a similar fate.

Prof. Chock attributes al-Qunun’s success to her frequent video posts and updates on her Twitter feed, allowing her followers to develop a “para-social relationship.”

“Although they may not have directly contacted her, they developed an emotional connection. By contrast, Hind’s phone was taken away from her, and although people may feel sympathy for her, they do not have the same opportunity to develop a sense of a personal bond,” she said.

Both Prof. Chock and Elswah agree that a pivotal moment for al-Qunun came when Egyptian-American author and journalist Mona Elthaway translated and retweeted Rahaf’s posts to her own followers, which numbered 315,000. They, in turn, did the same, creating a greatly expanded network.

It may be, then, that in this digital age a cell phone with social media applications can get one a lot farther than a passport.

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