News World Rahaf Alqunun pledges to use her freedom to campaign for others after being granted asylum in Canada
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Rahaf Alqunun pledges to use her freedom to campaign for others after being granted asylum in Canada

Rahaf al Qunun believes the number of women fleeing from the Saudi administration will increase. Photo: ABC News
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In a week, Rahaf Alqunun has gone from being barricaded inside a Bangkok airport hotel room to being the most recognised refugee on the planet.

After landing in Toronto on Saturday, she has spent the past 48 hours trying to come to terms with the incredible events of the past week.

The 18-year-old fled her Saudi family while visiting Kuwait, before flying to Bangkok on January 5.

She had a valid visa to Australia, but was detained by Thai immigration authorities as soon as she disembarked from her Kuwait airlines flight.

After being told she was going to be forced to return to Saudi Arabia, the teenager barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and tweeted about her situation.

“I was expecting them to enter the room and kidnap me,” she told the ABC.

“That’s why I wrote a goodbye letter. I decided that I would end my life, before I was forced back to Saudi Arabia.”

In her first interview since leaving Bangkok, Ms Alqunun has spoken about why she fled Saudi Arabia – risking all to start a new life abroad.

“I wanted to be free from oppression and depression. I wanted to be independent,” she said.

“I wouldn’t have been able to marry the person I wanted. I couldn’t get a job without permission.

“The Saudi administration outlines a woman’s life; what job she can hold, what work she can do.

“Women can’t even travel on their own.”

Under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, Ms Alqunun had no legal right to make basic decisions, like obtaining a passport or travelling abroad, without the agreement of her male guardian.

According to Human Rights Watch, in many areas the Saudi state still considers women to be children in legal terms, regardless of age, which is contrary to international law.

‘This might be the agent for change’

Saudi Arabia began an unprecedented crackdown on women’s rights activists in May 2018, arresting dozens of prominent feminists who have campaigned to end male guardianship in the country.

Rights groups accused the Saudi regime of torturing, sexually harassing and assaulting the detained women.

Ms Alqunun said she wants to use her new-found freedom to campaign for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and to call for an end to the male guardianship system enforced by the Saudi regime.

“I think that the number of women fleeing from the Saudi administration and abuse will increase, especially since there is no system to stop them,” she said.

“I’m sure that there will be a lot more women running away. I hope my story encourages other women to be brave and free.

“I hope my story prompts a change to the laws, especially as it’s been exposed to the world.

“This might be the agent for change.”

Teenager disowned by family after fleeing Saudi Arabia

Ms Alqunun’s father holds a powerful position as a governor in Saudi Arabia and on Tuesday her family released a public statement labelling the teenager “mentally unstable”, saying they had disowned her.

“We are the family of Mohammed El Qanun in Saudi Arabia,” the statement reads.

“We disavow the so-called ‘Rahaf Alqanun’ the mentally unstable daughter who has displayed insulting and disgraceful behaviour.”

The family expressed their support behind the “the wise leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Sulaiman Bin Abdul Aziz and his Crown Prince, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman”.

“How could my family disown me simply because I wanted to be independent and escape their abuse?” Ms Alqunun said.

“It really upset me.”

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun has been found to be a refugee.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was found to be a refugee.

Ms Alqunun acknowledged that not all asylum seekers were processed as quickly as she was, saying she felt sympathy for the millions of refugees around the Middle East.

“My life was in danger, but I was lucky that I was accepted so quickly,” she said.

The teenager was overjoyed last week when Australia said it would process her asylum claim.

She went to the Australian embassy in Bangkok on Wednesday, but by Friday her case was still being processed.

With growing concerns over her security and no clear timeline over how long Australia would take, the UNHCR then referred her case to Canada and her visa was processed within several hours.

Ms Alqunun disputed claims by Thai authorities that she had “chosen” Canada over Australia.

“This wasn’t my choice, it was the UN’s,” she said.

“All I wanted was for a country to protect me. So, my choice was just for any country to protect me.”

ABC

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