A young Saudi woman who arrived in Canada after a dramatic escape via Thailand has said she hopes her story encourages other women to break free from the stifling controls imposed on them by the conservative kingdom.
Rahaf al-Qunun’s desperate bid for freedom gripped the world when she used social media to prevent her repatriation from Bangkok airport to Saudi Arabia where she alleged she would be killed for fleeing her abusive family.
She was offered asylum by Canada after her pleas for international help sparked a media frenzy and prompted diplomats in Bangkok to intervene with support for her cause.
“I hope my story encourages other women to be brave and free,” the 18-year-old told Australia’s ABC news channel, in her first interview since arriving on Canadian soil.
She added that she hoped her successful escape would also prompt the reform of Saudi Arabia’s draconian “guardianship” laws that restrict women’s freedoms, and rights to travel and work.
“Women in Saudi Arabia are treated like children, even if they are 50 or 60 years old. They treat women terribly. They aren’t free or equal to their male counterparts,” she said.
In one of many tweets published while she barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to avoid being forced back to Saudi Arabia, Ms al-Qunun claimed that her family had locked her in a room for six months for cutting her hair.
Canada stepped up to offer her asylum after the United Nations agency for refugees (UNHCR) ruled that her case was genuine.
She told ABC that she felt like she was being reborn when she landed at Toronto airport at the weekend. “It was something amazing and I felt overjoyed,” she said.
“There was a lot of love and hospitality, especially when the [foreign] minister welcomed me and told me I was in a safe country and had all my rights.”
Here is our interview with @rahaf84427714 https://t.co/Hfn5nJVkJH @4corners @abcnews
— Sophie McNeill (@Sophiemcneill) January 15, 2019
Ms al-Qunun said she took the enormous risk to flee so that she would be “free from abuse and depression” and could live an independent life.
She said that she had been “really upset” by the subsequent decision by her family to disown her. Her family have not responded to her allegations of abuse.
In a separate interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, she said she planned to pursue an education, get a job and “live a normal life.”
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Ms al-Qunun was initially trying to reach Australia to claim asylum when she was stopped by Saudi and Thai immigration officials at Bangkok airport.
Australia began to process her case after UNHCR intervention but Canada stepped in after concerns that the paperwork was taking too long while she was still in a vulnerable position.
Ottawa’s decision comes at a delicate time in Canada’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Tensions over Canada’s demand last year that Riyadh release jailed rights activists led to Saudi Arabian freezing new trade with Ottawa and forcing many of its overseas students there to return.