Canada: Saudi Arabian Refugee Fleeing Gender Discrimination Not Welcome in Canada

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1 Oct 1992

The Saudi Arabian refugee known publicly as "Nada" arrived in Canada on April 5, 1991 seeking asylum as a refugee on the basis of gender discrimination she faced in her home country of Saudi Arabia. Despite the violence suffered by Nada in Saudi Arabia for her defiance of institutionalized gender discrimination, Nada's request for asylum has been denied by the Canadian Government. In hiding, Nada is now facing a warrant for arrest and imminent deportation to Saudi Arabia, where she fears she will face further violence for her refusal to live as a second-class citizen.

In Saudi Arabia women do not have access to equal educational opportunities and are only allowed to work in certain professions permitted by the government. Although Nada was interested in sports and physical education, after graduating from high school in 1986, she enrolled in college to study nursing, which is one of the few professions open to women in Saudi Arabia. After a month, however, Nada left the study of nursing, claiming that she and her fellow students were treated badly by school authorities who ordered her not to wear cosmetics or perfume. Nada found employment as a receptionist in a medical clinic, where she faced daily sexual harassment including obscene telephone calls, propositions for sexual favors and other more serious verbal and sexual assaults.

For her commitment to independence and equality, Nada was persecuted in Saudi Arabia by almost constant ridicule, threats of violence, and violence. In Saudi Arabia, women are subject to strictly enforced codes of dress which provide that in public a woman must always cover her head, face and body. Women must also be accompanied in public at all times by a man or boy of the household. Nada refused to wear the veil women use to cover their faces, and she walked frequently unescorted in the streets of her town. In response, men would jeer, spit and throw rocks at her. She was harassed on several occasions by the Mutawwi'in, religious authorities who patrol the streets carrying sticks with which they beat women who are not sufficiently modest in dress or manner. These authorities are responsible for enforcing the social restrictions on women in the fundamentalist Islamic moral code, and they are legally empowered to detain suspects. On one occasion, Nada was surrounded by Mutawwi'in and narrowly escaped arrest by covering herself with a veil and running away. The Mutawwi'in have been known to threaten women with an "inspection of virginity" for violating the dress code or for being seen in public with men who are not their fathers, brothers or husbands. They have even been known to carry out this threat.

Freedom of movement for women is severely restricted in Saudi Arabia and travel outside the country is allowed only with the permission of the senior male in the family. Once Nada decided to leave Saudi Arabia, it took three years for her to get a passport and she had to leave the country accompanied by her brother. On April 5, 1991 at the Mirabel Airport, Nada requested asylum in Canada as a refugee on the basis of gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia. According to this UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Canada is a party, a refugee is a person unwilling to return to his or her country owing to a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. The term "political opinion" has been broadly interpreted in other contexts to include human rights activism. It was also argued by Nada's lawyer that secular women in Saudi Arabia constitute a "social group" subject to discrimination in Saudi Arabia. Article 33 of the Convention prohibits Canada from returning a refugee to his or her country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.

On Sept 24 1991 the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board ruled that Nada was not a refugee under the UN Convention. In writing the decision, Commissioner Louis Dorion of the Immigration and Refugee Board suggested that Nada would "do well to comply with the laws of general application she criticizes... or to show consideration for the feelings of her father who, like all the members of his large family, were opposed to the liberalism of his daughter..." The laws in question are discriminatory on the basis of sex and therefore inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, under which Canada is obligated to condemn discrimination against women in all forms and to pursue by all means the elimination of such discrimination. Discrimination against women is also prohibited by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Nada's application for leave to appeal the Immigration and Refugee Board's decision to the federal court was denied without explanation, and Nada and is now subject to a an order of removal, which would result in her deportation to Saudi Arabia. She is currently in hiding, and a warrant for her arrest has been issued. Unless the Canadian Employment and Immigration Minister Bernard Valcourt intervenes, she will be sent back to Saudi Arabia against her will. An official in the Ministry has indicated to Nada's attorney that among the reasons for refusing to allow Nada to remain in Canada are that there are no 'humanitarian or compassionate grounds' that apply to her case, that there is no evidence that she was persecuted in Saudi Arabia, and that the Canadian Government does not want to criticize the Saudi Arabian Government.

In a statement to the Immigration and Refugee Board, Nada wrote: "I feel defeat, and that I am being trapped in a situation similar to death. Why can't I regain my dignity and personal integrity as a woman and as a human being somewhere else where that is possible?"

What You Can Do: 

Please write to and/or call Mr. Bernard Valcourt, the Canadian Employment and Immigration Minister, and ask him to intervene on behalf of Nada to prevent her deportation to Saudi Arabia and to allow her to remain in Canada. Remind him that Canada holds itself out to the world as a leader in the promotion of gender equality and that the deportation of Nada and the remarks made by Commissioner Louis Dorion in his decision are inconsistent with Canadian obligations under international law and with the spirit of gender equality enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Human Rights. You may also wish to contact the Canadian Embassy in your country and convey your sentiments about this case to them. Please also contact your local media and ask them to publicize the plight of Nada. Letters, faxes, and telephone calls should be directed to:

The Honorable Bernard Valcourt
Minister of Employment and Immigration
140 Promenade du Portage, Phase IV, 14th Floor
Hull, Québec, K1A 0J9
Telephone: 819-994-2482
Fax: 819-994-0448