Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi national, fled her family and country while visiting Kuwait on Jan. 5. Her final destination was Australia; however, while stopping in Bangkok, al-Qunun faced possible deportation back to Saudi Arabia. It was at that moment that the 18-year-old barricaded herself inside her hotel room and took to social media, explaining her situation, pleading for asylum and eventually amassing support from thousands worldwide. One week later the Canadian government offered her asylum and welcomed her to Toronto.
The daughter of a powerful Saudi governor, al-Qunun had hoped to escape her family and Saudi authorities by resettling in Australia. She renounced Islam using Twitter and described years of physical abuse at the hands of relatives. Al-Qunun also alleged that her family tried to marry her off without her consent.
This event comes at an interestingly complex time for the Saudi relationship with Canada, as well. In August of last year, Canada’s ambassador was expelled from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, and Saudi Arabia summoned back its own top diplomat from Ottawa after Canadian journalist Chrystia Freeland criticized the jailing of two Saudi women’s rights activists.
The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, began his reign as a supposed supporter of women’s rights, giving women the right to drive. However, this past summer, Saudi authorities arrested several women’s rights activists, including those who campaigned against the driving ban, such as Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathloul.
Though male prisoners are subjected to harsh treatment behind bars, but female prisoners are often subjected to sexual abuse and torture as a punishment for their defiance.
Canada’s eagerness to accept al-Qunun’s plea for asylum can be interpreted by some as an attempt to score political points using a woman’s unfortunate situation. Others pointed out the obvious difference in treatment other refugees and asylum seekers received in Canada compared to al-Qunun. The 18-year-old has received countless threats to her life as well as rebuttal from some Saudi women.
Personally, I feel for al-Qunun. She is a young woman who wanted to pursue an education and follow her dreams but was abused and limited by her family and government. When a woman is physically, psychologically and spiritually manipulated and controlled by relatives who use their religion as a weapon, it is an unfortunate yet expected outcome that she would leave that faith. Women who leave their faiths sometimes develop an animosity toward not only the religion of their birth but organized religion in general.
However, Western media loves women and girls like al-Qunun for all the wrong reasons. Their cases are manipulated and espoused not just for women’s rights but also to reaffirm the prejudiced ideas that Islam is an evil religion and that Muslim women need “saving.”
I hope that al-Qunun is given the chance to have a normal life as a young woman in Canada. Although she has expressed interest in helping other Saudi women escape their country, she shouldn’t be thrust into the spotlight of Saudi-Canadian relations, become the de facto face of the “rescued former Muslim” or used by Islamophobes and other right-wing activists to prove their points and further their agenda. Hopefully, she is allowed to live peacefully and will not be used as a political pawn in a much larger game.