Canada's acceptance of a Saudi Arabian teenager seeking asylum is sparking debate within that country about loosening laws restricting women's freedom, but also a backlash that could initially repress more women, analysts say.

Experts say a slow march to reforming Saudi Arabia's controversial guardianship laws that give men control over women's lives could also be impeded by conservative families that could curtail their daughters' freedom even more in light of 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun's high-profile dash to freedom.

"There has always been a lot of support to remove the guardianship laws from within," said Bessma Momani, a Middle East expert at the University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs.

"So the two are going to happen at the same time — both domestic repression of women who may be less able to travel now, and also the case of more pressure internally to loosen the guardianship laws."

Alqunun won global attention last week when she fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, Thailand.

She barricaded herself in an airport hotel and launched a Twitter campaign outlining allegations of abuse against her relatives. Her family has denied the accusations.

She arrived in Toronto on Saturday after Canada agreed to a United Nations request to accept her as a refugee, and is expected to address the media there on Tuesday.

So far, Canada's reaction has not produced a formal response from the Saudi government. Canada's relations with Saudi Arabia hit a new low in August. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expelled Canada's ambassador and withdrew his own envoy after Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland used Twitter to call for the release of women's rights activists who had been arrested in Saudi Arabia.

Dennis Horak, Canada's expelled ambassador, said "some conservative families who have very strong controls over their daughters will likely be very concerned about the example that has been set."

But Horak said he has seen signs that there is room for a public discussion in an otherwise repressive Saudi political culture over the merits of guardianship, which subjects women to the control of men in whole host of areas including applying for a passport, travelling and getting married.

During the height of last week's standoff in Bangkok, a Saudi newspaper published an opinion column that openly advocated for guardianship to be abolished.

"Male guardianship over women in Saudi Arabia — or anywhere in the world — is wrong and discriminatory, and all forms of this outdated practice should be abolished," wrote Faisal J. Abbas, the editor in chief of Arab News.

Horak said he's sure the article got the "green light" from Saudi leadership before it was published.

However, the head of the country's state-controlled human rights commission was also quoted in Saudi media on the weekend accusing Canada of meddling in the internal affairs of Alqunun's family with the intent of vilifying Saudi Arabia, Horak noted.

Mufleh Al-Qahtani, the head of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights, said Canada's action was "an attack on the rights of the families of these girls, who are severely harmed by the defamation following their daughters' action that pushes them into the unknown."

Horak, Momani and Thomas Juneau, a University of Ottawa Mideast expert, said the modest reforms enacted by the Saudi Crown Prince represented some progress despite his despotic tendencies, which including imprisoning a record number of political dissenters.

"He is not a democrat. He is not going to make women equal to men … but there is a lot that he is doing to try to remove some of the constraints on women in Saudi Arabia. It shouldn't be exaggerated but it shouldn't be ignored," said Juneau.

That includes removing a ban on women drivers and allowing them greater access to jobs in the public and private sectors, he added.

"The reforms are real. I know MBS is certainly crude and obviously a ruthless ruler but for the average Saudi, life is getting better," said Momani, using the Crown prince's initials.

'But it's just not moving fast enough for a lot of people who are just sick and tired of this medieval system."

Comments

There will, no doubt, be a repressive knee jerk reaction to the flagrant exposure of the Saudi unyielding control over their disfavoured female citizens. Progressives in the outmoded Kingdom, on the other hand, may be able to make some gains. No regime, however despotic, likes to be revealed as ignorant and backward. Recent events have certainly dimmed the lustre of the Saudis' putative wealth - which may no longer be bottomless.

Quite apart from the bluster that Canada has "interferred" in the internal affairs of the al-Qunuun family, or that our offer of refuge was an attack on the rights of families and by extension a defamation, there is the quandary of whether Rahaf's flight from Saudi Arabia's culture of female oppression will have pitched her into the no less deleterious oppression of the "free" world's insatiable appetite for celebrity and titillation.

And by the way, the accusation of defamation against Canada is unfounded. In Law, defamation is defined as the bringing into "undeserved disrepute" a person's/country's reputation. It would be easy to argue that the Saudi reputation for violation of human rights with respect to its egregiously unequal treatment of females is a well estabished fact and the revelation of incidents arising from this fact cannot be defamatory.

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