Rahaf al-Qunun, a Saudi teenager who was recently granted asylum in Canada after a viral social media campaign saved her from deportation back home to her allegedly abusive family, promised to use her new-found fame for the empowerment of other Saudi women in her first interview since arriving in Toronto on Saturday morning.
“I wanted to be free from oppression and depression. I wanted to be independent,” she told ABC News. “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.”
“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 continued. “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.”
Qunun fled her family on January 5, but was stopped en-route to Australia by Thai immigration authorities and had her passport taken by Saudi diplomats. After being told she would be forced to return home, she barricaded herself in a hotel room and desperately took to Twitter.
“I was expecting them to enter the room and kidnap me,” she recalled. “That’s why I wrote a goodbye letter. I decided that I would end my life, before I was forced back to Saudi Arabia.”
A gigantic social media response prompted intervention from the United Nations and allowed her to remain in Thailand until her asylum application was granted. According to Qunun, abuse or worse likely awaited her if she were sent home. Speaking to reporters on Monday, she said her older brother, who under the country’s male guardianship system had complete legal authority over her life, had previously beaten her for removing her niqab and once locked her in a room for six months after cutting her hair in a way that he didn’t approve of.
Qunun’s father, who serves as a governor in Saudi Arabia, released a public statement from the family on Sunday announcing that they had disowned their “mentally unstable” daughter over her “insulting and disgraceful behavior.” Qunun said she was “really upset” by her family’s public statement, but that she was glad to be in “a country that respects human rights and the dignity of a person,” and where she could finally live her life in freedom.
Watch video of ABC News’ interview with Qunun below.