Canadian woman held in Saudi Arabia finally free to marry

After 2 1/2 years held against her will in Saudi Arabia by her father, described as a conservative Muslim who disapproved of her boyfriend, Canadian citizen Nazia Quazi has finally reached Dubai and should be married shortly after midnight tonight.

Her boyfriend, Bjorn Singhal, said in an interview from Dubai that he and Quazi, along with parents from both sides, plan to head to the courthouse there to file a marriage application.

Quazi arrived in Dubai Monday after a years-long ordeal during which she agitated publicly to be released from her father’s control. According to Quazi, her father took advantage of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system — even though he’s not of Saudi descent — and confiscated her travel documents and refused to let her go.

In the last few weeks, however, Quazi Malik Abdul Gaffar seems to have changed his mind. After she and her father touched down in Dubai, Singhal met them at a restaurant.  “I knew she wasn’t even comfortable hugging me” in her father’s presence, Singhal said. “But I hugged her anyways.”

Singhal, 29, said he and Quazi, 24, were nervous talking to the parents about the marriage, but that her father’s attitude seemed to have changed.  “He hugged me, he spoke nicely to my mom. He said, ‘I only wanted the kids’ happiness.’ ”  The father explained that the “kids chose the wrong path,” Singhal said. “I didn’t want to argue with him. Let him blame us as he wants. I just want the marriage to be done and over with.”

The two met at the University of Ottawa library, where Quazi was a computer science student. Singhal, who grew up in Germany and Dubai, had moved to Ottawa for flight training and used to go to the library to read.  He’s currently a flight dispatcher for a company in Dubai that flies supplies into Iraq and Afghanistan for the U.S. military. His dream is to become a pilot.

Quazi’s mother and brothers are from Ottawa. Singhal’s mother and siblings live in Montreal.

Soon after Quazi travelled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2007, her father became her male guardian and confiscated her Canadian and Indian passports. He apparently didn’t approve of Singhal, whose mother is Muslim and father is Hindu.

“Nazia said her father didn’t believe he (Singhal) was really Muslim,” said Shahla Khan Salter, chair of Muslims for Progressive Values Ottawa, which has been working on Quazi’s behalf.  “We believe the male guardianship system of Saudi Arabia is completely un-Islamic,” said Khan Salter, a lawyer by training. “Women have rights in Islam and those rights are being abrogated and taken away by a very narrow reading of the scriptures.”

Singhal said Quazi’s father holds conservative religious beliefs. “He doesn’t like to go to the beached if (women) are not wearing clothes, if they’re in bikinis.”  In the end, Singhal believes, it was the growing media glare that forced him to reconsider. “He cannot stand against the media now,” he said.

Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai (Calgary East), the parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, said it was her father who eventually gave Quazi the permission she needed to leave the country.  “She did get an exit permit, which means the father did give permission,” Obhrai said. “Everything was done according to the law as is required.”

Khan Salter said the ordeal should prompt the question, “What is our government’s duty to us? What does it mean to have a Canadian passport?”

“We did what we could to the best of our ability and I’m very happy to say that … quiet diplomacy works behind the scenes,” Obhrai said in an interview Monday. “It is not in the public view and so it does work and we are very happy to say that she is out of Saudi Arabia and she is in Dubai now.”

Liberal MP Bob Rae (Toronto Centre) called the development “great news” but expressed concern that Quazi still needed her father to agree with her travel plans.

“I think that poses profound problems for the future, because the simple fact is that . . . she is a Canadian citizen and Saudi Arabia has signed any number of international covenants and treaties signaling its willingness to commit to principles of international human rights. There isn’t a single one of those treaties or covenants that would countenance the restrictions on adult women that are clearly such a part of the legal structure of Saudi Arabia,” Rae, the Liberal foreign affairs critic, said in an interview Monday. “These issues will return.”

Singhal says the couple will stay in Dubai for the time being, but he’s willing to move if Quazi wants to return to Canada.  The couple’s whirlwind past is culminating, finally, into a marriage. All the formalities should be finalized by May 12, Singhal said.

“It’s going to be nail-biting experience.”

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