By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, April 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Two runaway Saudi sisters said on Friday they have applied for asylum in Georgia but still feared they could be reached by their family and forced back to the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom.
Immigration authorities in the former Soviet republic offered the siblings assistance and security on Thursday, days after the two made international headlines by pleading online for protection.
But the sisters, identified as Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25, said they would rather move to another country where Saudi Arabians cannot visit without a visa.
"We are not safe here and we need to leave as soon as possible," they told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from their shared Twitter account @GeorgiaSisters2.
Georgian authorities placed them in a safehouse guarded by police but the sisters said they feared revenge from relatives whom they accused of beating and abusing them, posting photos of bruises and scratches on social media.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation could not immediately contact the al-Subaie family.
"We can't live a normal life. My brothers, my big family, cousins, uncles - anybody can come here," said Wafa.
"We are a big shame for my country, for my family, for all," said Maha, referring to their escape and appearance in social media videos without wearing headscarves.
On Thursday, Georgia's interior ministry said there were no relatives in the country who posed a danger to two women.
The case is the latest to draw attention to Saudi Arabia's strict social rules, which force women to obtain the permission of a male "guardian" if they want to work, marry or travel.
Human rights groups say the system can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families. The sisters are not the first Saudi women to seek refuge outside their homeland which is one of the world's most gender-segregated nations.
"Women and girls in Saudi Arabia who attempt to flee from the control of their families can face very grave consequences," said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East consultant for women's rights group Equality Now.
"They are in danger of being locked at home for the rest of their lives, severely punished, and may even be killed."
Earlier this year a Saudi teen holed up in a Thai airport hotel to escape her family and won asylum in Canada.
In March two other Saudi sisters who spent six months hiding in Hong Kong were granted humanitarian visas to travel to a third country.
The al-Subaie sisters said they evaded family monitoring and flew from Riyadh to Istanbul at the beginning of April.
In a tweet, Maha said she had to leave her son behind which was "devastating" but she had no other option.
Upon arriving in Turkey, the sisters made their way to Georgia by land, fearing their father could find them in Turkey using Absher, a Saudi Arabian government app allowing men to monitor and control female relatives' travel.
They bought a flight to Belarus - another visa-free destination for Saudis - via Amsterdam hoping to seek asylum in transit, but airport staff in Tbilisi grew suspicious of their convoluted travel plan and did not let them leave, they said.
After an attempt to get a visa for Australia failed due to passport issues, they took to Twitter to appeal for help, they said.
Saudi Arabia denied it had suspended the sisters' passports. The country's embassy in Tbilisi did not immediately reply to a further request for comment.
The sisters said Georgian authorities have been treating them well but they hoped they would be allowed to move on.
"We hope that in the future will live a real life without fear or repression in a safe country, where we can choose what we want to do and try everything that is possible and natural for women to do," said Maha. (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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