A Test of Canada's Gender Equality

A SAUDI Arabian woman known publicly as Nada is in hiding in Canada. A warrant for her arrest has been issued. If arrested, Nada will be deported to Saudi Arabia, where like all women in Saudi Arabia she has been forced to live her life as a second-class citizen.

In rejecting Nada's claim to refugee status on the basis of gender discrimination, the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board Commissioner Louis Dorion 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 that Commissioner Dorion recommended to Nada prohibit her, because she is a woman, from studying what she wants. They compel her, because she is a woman, to cover her head, face, and body in public at all times and to be accompanied in public at all times by a man or boy of the household.

Nada is a strong and independent woman. In Saudi Arabia, Nada was persecuted by almost constant ridicule, threats of violence, and violence because she refused to wear the veil women use to cover their faces and because she often walked unescorted in the streets of her town. Men would jeer, spit, and throw rocks at her.

She was also 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 legally empowered by the state to detain suspects. 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.

Finally, unable to live anymore under such oppressive condi-tions, Nada decided to leave Saudi Arabia. It took her three years to get a passport, and she had to leave the country accompanied by her brother. When she arrived in Canada on April 5, 1991, Nada requested asylum as a refugee on the basis of gender discrimination. In a statement to the Immigration and Refugee Board, Nada wrote: "I am being trapped in a situation similar to death. Why can't I regain my dignity and personal integrity as a woman a nd as a human being somewhere else where that is possible?"

The answer to Nada's question, in short, is that gender discrimination is not what Canadian authorities consider to be a question of human rights. Human rights activists who have defied oppressive regimes are generally considered to be refugees when they leave their country as a result of persecution for their activism.

YET the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board ruled that Nada did not qualify as a refugee. Her belief in gender equality was not considered to be a "political opinion." One of the reasons the Ministry gave to Nada's attorney for refusing to allow her to stay in Canada was that the Canadian government does not want to criticize the Saudi government.

There has been no reluctance on the part of the Canadian government to criticize the Republic of South Africa for its racial apartheid. Why the reluctance to criticize the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its gender apartheid? Isn't gender discrimination as abhorrent as racial discrimination?

The restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabi constitute blatant discrimination, in violation of fundamental international legal principles of equality enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and many other United Nations treaties on human rights.

Canada's own Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that all persons are equal before the law and have the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on race, ethnic origin, religion, or gender. If Nada's claim of persecution had been based on grounds of race, ethnic origin, or religion, would she have been granted refugee status by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board? It's not too late for the Canadian government to right this wrong and demonstrate its commitme nt to gender equality.

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