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Saudi women could face more repression

2 April 20190 comments

The granting of asylum in Canada to Saudi Arabian teenager Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun may have sparked a backlash in her homeland that is seeing more restrictions on women’s freedom.

Observers say the gradual reform of Saudi Arabia’s controversial guardianship laws that give men control over women’s lives could also be impeded by conservative families looking to curtail their daughters’ freedom further in the wake of Ms Alqunun’s bid for freedom.

“There has always been a lot of support to remove the guardianship laws from within,” said Middle East expert Dr Mara Pringle, of Kent University, in the UK.

“We could see both things happen at the same time – domestic repression of women by their families making it harder for them to travel – alongside more pressure to loosen the guardianship laws,” Dr Pringle said.

Ms Alqunun was the subject of global attention when she fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, Thailand.

She barricaded herself in an airport hotel and launched a Twitter campaign outlining allegations of abuse against her relatives. Her family has denied the accusations.

She arrived in Toronto after Canada agreed to a United Nations request to accept her as a refugee.

Canada’s move has not produced a formal response from the Saudi government but the nation’s relations with Saudi Arabia hit a low in August when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expelled Canada’s ambassador and withdrew his own envoy after Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland Tweeted a call for the release of women’s rights activists who had been arrested in Saudi Arabia.

Canada’s expelled ambassador Dennis Horak said at the time: “some conservative families who have very strong controls over their daughters will likely be very concerned about the example that has been set”.

But there are some signs that there could be a fruitful public discussion in socially and politically repressive Saudi Arabia over the issue of guardianship laws.

During the height of the standoff in Bangkok, a Saudi newspaper published an opinion column that openly advocated for guardianship to be abolished.

“Male guardianship over women in Saudi Arabia — or anywhere in the world – is wrong and discriminatory, and all forms of this outdated practice should be abolished,” wrote Faisal Abbas, the editor in chief of Arab News.

But Mufleh Al-Qahtani, the head of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights, said Canada’s action was “an attack on the rights of the families of these girls, who are severely harmed by the defamation following their daughters’ action that pushes them into the unknown”.

Dr Pringle says that while Prince Mohammed bin Salman may be open to giving women more rights, such as the right to drive a car, he is unlikely to make women equal to men.

“Here’s a man with despotic tendencies, including imprisoning a record number of political dissenters,” Dr Pringle said.

“He is not a democrat. He is not going to make women equal to men.

“There are reforms happening but it’s not moving fast enough for some people,” she said.

During her flight, Ms Alqunun told media that she was afraid her family would kill her.

“I can’t study and work in my country, so I want to be free and study and work as I want,” she said.

She said she had suffered physical and psychological abuse from her family, including being locked in her room for six months for cutting her hair.

The number of asylum seekers from Saudi Arabia has tripled in five years, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UN agency says there were more than 800 cases reported in 2017. There were less than 200 in 2012.

It said a number of Saudi men and women have reportedly fled the Kingdom due to fear of persecution or retaliation against them for political activism.


Laurie Nowell 

AMES Australia Senior Journalist