The Saudi teen who fled her home and caused an international sensation by defying her family and denouncing Islam has vowed to fight for women’s freedoms in her first public address since she was taken in by Canada.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun captured the world’s attention with a trail of tweets from her hotel room at Bangkok’s airport, where she barricaded her room up after Thai authorities initially barred her from travelling on to Australia.
Her emotional social media posts ignited a #SaveRahaf movement as she fled what she describes as a hostile environment, something she could not call home. Saying she was physical and psychological abuse from her family in conservative Saudi Arabia and prompted quick action.
Following her social media plea, she was granted refugee status and was welcomed by Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland after landing in Toronto on Saturday.
“Today and for years to come, I will work in support of freedom for women around the world, the same freedom that I experienced on the first day I arrived in Canada,” she told a press conference, reading from a prepared statement in Arabic.
In a TV interview On Monday, al-Qunun told the public broadcaster CBC of her family: “My greatest fear is if they find me, I would disappear and I wouldn’t know what would happen to me after that.”
She said that at home, she was “exposed to physical violence, persecution, oppression, threats to be killed. I was locked in for six months.”
“I felt that I could not achieve my dreams that I wanted as long as I was still living in Saudi Arabia,” she said.
But in Canada, al-Qunun said, she has felt “reborn, especially when I felt the love and the welcome”.
Yesterday whilst standing in front of a large Canadian flag at the Toronto offices of refugee resettling agency COSTI (formerly Centro Organizzativo Scuole Tecniche Italiane), al-Qunun denounced Saudi Arabia’s strict male guardianship rules, saying: “I am one of the lucky ones.”
Costi executive director Mario Calla said the agency is helping her find long-term accommodations, open a bank account, obtain Canadian documents, and enrol in English classes, as well as showing her how to get around and teaching her “about life in Canada”.
He noted concerns about her safety, citing online threats and saying guards have been posted at her temporary home.
Following the recent case involving Khashoggi and the thousands of death threats she has received Costi has hired a security guard and plans to “make sure she is never alone,” Calla told reporters. “It’s hard to say how serious these threats are. We’re taking them seriously.”
Canada’s agreement to take al-Qunun comes at a delicate time for Canada-Saudi relations. Last year, the kingdom froze all new investment with Canada after foreign minister Chrystia Freeland called for the immediate release of jailed rights activists.