Saudi Teenager Escapes to Canada


By Lauren Reiser, Sophomore Editor

While gender equality in the U.S. still has a way to go, it has improved dramatically over the last fifty years, and all Americans are guaranteed basic human rights. However, some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, treat women as property and restrict almost all of their personal liberties.

After years of abuse and oppression, 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun decided she had had enough and planned an escape.

In Saudi Arabia, Alqunun lived comfortable and her family was financially stable, but she had no freedoms. When her father left town and she was put under the care of older brother, things took a turn for the worse. Alqunun was treated as property and had no freedom to be her own person. She could not leave the house without her brother or father and could not act or look the way she wanted. When Alqunun cut her hair in a way her family disapproved, her brother locked her in a room for six months. Once, when she removed her niqab, she was beaten and locked up again.

Tired of this abuse and determined to break free,  Alqunun used a friend’s credit card to buy a plane ticket to Australia with a layover in Bangkok and fled her family while they were on holiday to Kuwait. When she arrived in Bangkok, however, Thai officials said they were going to send her back. She spent six nights held in a Bangkok airport hotel, where was resourceful and found a way to reach out. She opened a new Twitter account and started a campaign for asylum. Alqunun tweeted “I’m afraid, my family WILL kill me,” later adding that her family had previously threatened to kill her and considered her to be a slave. She also announced her atheism and rejected Islam, tweeting “They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn’t want to.”

Alqunun quickly gained a large following, with her situation sparking international outrage. Although she was planning on fleeing to Australia, Canda granted her asylum. She flew to the Toronto airport where she was greeted by the Canadian foreign minister and a horde of reporters.

Alqunun’s Canadian asylum will likely further worsen the relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia, which have been poor since Canada’s foreign affairs ministry posted two Tweets calling for the release of imprisoned Saudi-Arabian rights activists. These Twitter messages caused the kingdom to expel the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh and freeze all new trade and investment deals. Additionally, the kingdom ordered all Saudi students studying in Canada to transfer to a different school.

The head of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights has accused countries of encouraging “Saudi female delinquents” to rebel and try to seek asylum. He said the actions were political, not humanitarian.

In a little over one week, Alqunun became a sensation. She gained 176,000 Twitter followers, was on the$ front pages of newspapers around the world and has had GoFundMe campaigns created in her name, which raised almost 13,000 in less than two weeks. Alqunun has also received a number of death threats and was provided with security from refugee settlement workers.

The Canadian government offers refugees financial support for a year and free English classes, as well as refugee settlement workers who will help Alqunun get health insurance, a social insurance number, and a bank account. They will also help her find an apartment in the city.

Now that she is in Toronto, Alqunun says she wants to do “crazy things” she has never done before; she wants to go college, study architecture, and take English classes. Mostly, she is excited to experience what it is like to be a teenager who can act and dress in whatever way she wants. Living in Canada will not be easy; Alqunun will have to learn to speak English, go grocery shopping, and navigate the city by herself, which are things she had never done before.

Sophomore Sam Baghal feels that “[i]t’s hard to think that people could treat girls so horribly. Alqunun’s story is inspiring and makes me feel very grateful that I live in America where I am allowed to act and dress the way I want to.”

As an American girl who has grown up with freedom and equal opportunity, it is heartbreaking and shocking to see how some girls are treated in other countries. Alqunun’s story opens our eyes to the severe restrictions placed on girls and women in religious societies and shines a much-needed light on international gender equality issues.