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Stuck in Saudi Arabia

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In 2007, a young Canadian woman named Nazia Quazi traveled to Saudi Arabia to visit her father for three months. Her father is an Indian citizen who lives and works in Saudi Arabia. Nazia's mother and siblings live in Canada. Nazia, 24, has both Indian and Canadian citizenship but has lived in Canada for much of her life.

Nazia's father has refused to let her leave Saudi Arabia and return home to Canada, which he can do under Saudi law. Nazia says that her father used deception to make himself her "mahram" under the Saudi male guardianship system, meaning that he is empowered to make all important decisions about her life.

Under the system, those designated as "male guardians" conduct everyday administrative affairs on behalf of their female charges, young or old. Women who wish to travel, to seek certain types of medical care, and to work must obtain the consent of their male guardians - who could be a husband, father, brother, or even a son who is a minor. Nazia now lives under the guardianship of a man whom she alleges has abused her during the three years that she has been forced to remain in Saudi Arabia.

In June 2009, during a review of the country's human rights record, Saudi Arabia accepted a recommendation by the United Nations Human Rights Council to abolish the legal guardianship system. However, the government has taken no steps to carry out its promise.

Human Rights Watch and others have been arguing for Nazia's right to return home, but so far, there has been little response from the Saudi authorities. In December, Human Rights Watch contacted the Saudi Human Rights Commission, a governmental body tasked with protecting human rights, including those of women, to ask them to intervene. Finally, at the request of the Canadian embassy, it took up her case. In late February, with the help of a third party, Nazia met with her father, but he refused to let her leave. She says he told her "I will not let you go, no matter what."

The Saudi government needs to lift the guardianship system once and for all to ensure that all women, whether Saudi or not, are able to travel freely and to make their own decisions about where they want to live, and what they want to do with their own lives.

The Canadian embassy in Riyadh issued Nazia a temporary passport, since her father has confiscated both her Indian and Canadian passports. But in Saudi Arabia, a valid passport is not sufficient to allow a woman to leave the country.

The time has come for Saudi Arabia to fulfill its promise to eliminate the guardianship system which, according to the Saudi Human Rights Commission, can turn "into domination and coercion." Saudi Arabia can start now by taking small initiatives to dismantle this system, such as allowing Nazia to go back home to Canada without her father's authorization. This will be a positive move toward fulfilling their promise to Saudi women and to the international community.

Canada also needs to ensure that one of its own citizens is now able to finally return home.

Allan Rock is a former federal Liberal cabinet minister, and currently the president of the University of Ottawa. He is also the chair of the Human Rights Watch Ottawa Committee.