Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, an 18-year-old Saudi woman, was publicly welcomed to Canada Saturday. She had spent a week in a hotel in Thailand, asking for asylum in a Western country, saying that she did not want to return to her allegedly abusive family, whom she says have threatened to kill her.
Whether her family is indeed abusive has not been proven. But two factors make that issue somewhat moot. First, guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia require women to get permission from a father, husband, brother, son or other male relative in order to work, travel, marry, receive certain medical treatments and even to leave the house. This is codified inequality and abuse against about half the population of the country. In principle, that law alone should make all Saudi women eligible for refugee claims in democratic countries. Additionally, al-Qunun renounced Islam, which is an offence punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.
The teen’s arrival was a bit of a media festival, with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland embracing al-Qunun at Toronto’s airport.
The ostentatious greeting was extra-weighted because Canada is in an ongoing diplomatic spat with the Saudis. After Freeland tweeted a criticism of Saudi arrests of civil and women’s rights activists last year, the Saudis threw Canada’s ambassador out of the country and threatened to withdraw thousands of Saudi medical students from Canada, among other responses. The public greeting of a now-prominent Saudi dissident by a senior Canadian government official will be seen as a provocation, and perhaps it was intended as such.
Some commentators note that al-Qunun jumped the queue, not only flown to Canada to make a refugee claim, but accepted immediately as a refugee. The global visibility of her case resulted in a country – ours – leaping to accept her, even while one percent of refugees are resettled in a given year.
Also, some diplomats with Saudi experience are warning that the young woman should not be used as a political football – both because that could put her safety at risk and because it could unnecessarily enflame existing tensions.
David Chatterson, a former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the CBC that he worried about precedents.
“What happens the next time a teenage girl or adult woman from Saudi Arabia flees her family and declares herself to no longer be a Muslim, does that mean automatic sanctuary?” he asked.
Of course, diplomatic idealism is always tempered by economic and other realities. The CBC obtained, through an Access to Information request, evidence that the federal government heard concerns from Canadian businesses about their interests being jeopardized when Freeland’s tweets to the Saudis raised the ire of the kingdom’s rulers. On the flip side, Canada does not have as many economic ties to the Saudis as many European and other democratic countries, and this might give us a little more freedom to criticize. The U.S. president has already stated explicitly that he will not endanger American economic interests by contesting Saudi treatment of dissidents – including the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi.
Of 149 countries rated by the World Economic Forum in its annual report on gender equality, Saudi Arabia came 141st. Canada cannot free every one of the 16 million or so Saudi women, but we can ensure freedom for this one.
Yes, al-Qunun did effectively “jump the queue.” But, at the moment when the whole world was watching, that queue-jumping allowed Canada to take a principled stand for gender equality and for the freedom of – and from – religion.