The Saudi teenager who fled her family and was granted asylum in Canada said Tuesday that she was fortunate to have escaped.
But many other young women in Saudi Arabia like her are not able to get away and take control of their lives, Rahaf Mohammed, 18, said at a press conference Tuesday.
“I am one of the lucky ones. I know there are unlucky women who disappeared after trying to escape, or who could not do anything to change their reality,” she said.
“I was not treated respectfully by my family, and I was not allowed to be myself and who I want to be,” she added. “As you know, in Saudi Arabia, this is the case for all Saudi women except for those fortunate enough to have understanding parents. They can’t be independent, and they need approval from their male guardian. Any woman who thinks of escaping or escaped will be at risk of persecution.”
The statements came days after Mohammed – who dropped her family name, al-Qunun – sparked an international incident when she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room in Bangkok, Thailand, to prevent officials from sending her back to her family in Kuwait.
Mohammed said she arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on January 5 after a flight from Kuwait, where her family is. She told CNN she originally intended to fly on to Australia but decided to enter Thailand instead.
Once there, she posted photos of herself and her passport on social media, and said she was seeking refugee status from “any country that would protect me from getting harmed or killed due to leaving my religion and torture from my family.”
In response to the media campaign, Thai authorities allowed the teen access to the UN refugee agency and did not deport her to Kuwait. She was offered asylum in Canada and landed Friday in Toronto.
‘I want to be independent’
Mohammed is one of a number of Saudi women who have fled the country and its laws restricting women’s rights. Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws govern many aspects of women’s lives, and they may not marry, divorce, get a job, have elective surgery or travel without permission of their male guardians.
On Tuesday, Mohammed spoke about her ordeal in Arabic, and a staffer from COSTI Immigrant Services delivered the English translation. She said she wanted to carve her own path in life.
“I want to be independent, travel, make my own decisions on education, a career, or who and when I should marry. I had no say in any of this. Today, I can proudly say that I am capable of making all of those decisions,” she said.
Mohammed also thanked those who had supported her, including Canada, Thailand and the UN refugee agency. She said she would not be doing more media interviews for the time being.
“I would like to start living a normal life. A normal, private life, just like any other young woman living in Canada. This starts with me getting help in my settlement process, and, of course, learning English,” she said.
“Today, and for years to come, I will work in support of freedom for women around the world. The same freedom I experienced on the first day I arrived in Canada.”
After her statement, Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services, told reporters that Mohammed went to Canada as a “government-assisted refugee,” which means “she has the Canadian government’s financial support for typically up to 12 months.”
COSTI plans to support her with temporary lodging, help her understand her rights and obligations as a landed immigrant, help her apply for health coverage, social insurance and a bank account, and teach her how to get around the city and about life in Canada. She will also be enrolled in English classes, Calla said.
“Rahaf is anxious to get settled and to lead a normal life, and we will work with her to make that happen,” she added.
CNN’s Kocha Olarn and Nada Altaher contributed to this report.