OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday that Canada would accept 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun as a refugee after she fled Saudi Arabia for Thailand and launched a Twitter campaign to win her freedom from a barricaded airport hotel room. Alqunun said she feared for her life if she were forced to return to Saudi Arabia. Her father and brother travelled to Bangkok to retrieve her. Alqunun’s ordeal helped shine a light on the plight of women in Saudi Arabia, including its controversial “guardianship” laws, which subject women to the control of men.
Here are five things about what Alqunun was running from:
1. Male stamp required
It can be a father, husband, brother or even a son, but under Saudi law, women need a male guardian’s approval to conduct a variety of tasks to function. This includes applying for a passport, travelling outside the country, studying abroad, getting married or even getting out of prison. “This is a systematic discrimination and abuse of women’s rights. It is something that doesn’t really belong in these modern times,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
2. Running can get you killed
Like Alqunun, some Saudi women have tried to flee, but for many the result has been tragic. In one high-profile case, Dina Ali Lasloom was stopped while trying to flee Saudi Arabia in 2017. She was forced to return and according to activists, she was never heard from again. Robertson said that with the arrival of Alqunun’s father and brother in Bangkok this week, there were fears of a repeat “and that the Saudi Embassy could exercise influence or resources to cause problems.”
3. Reforms are slow
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made international headlines last year when he lifted a ban on women driving. King Salman also issued a decree that required all branches of government to stop requesting that a male guardian’s authorization be required to receive government services. It called on them to review their regulations and prepare a list of things that would require a man’s permission. While Amnesty International noted that the decree might improve women’s lives, it hadn’t been implemented by the end of the year.
4. Fighting from the inside can be futile
Five prominent female activists who have campaigned against guardianship wound up in Saudi prisons last year. Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef were arrested in a first sweep. That was followed by the arrest of Nassima al-Sada and Samar Badawi. She is the sister of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger whose wife lives in Quebec. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes from a whip for writing a blog post deemed offensive to Saudi leadership.
5. Female foreign criticism not welcome
In August, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland took to Twitter to say she was “very alarmed” to learn of Samar Badawi’s imprisonment, noting she was Raif’s sister. “Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responded by expelling Canada’s ambassador and withdrawing his own envoy. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and recalled their students from universities in Canada, including an unknown number of women.
Sources: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Associated Press
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press