Rahaf Mohammad Alqunun a Saudi teenager who fled from her allegedly abusive family finally found asylum in Canada, according to reports she has been disowned by her family after declaring her a disgrace who contemptuously disregarded the family’s Islamic traditions. Even though relatively safe in Canada, she is still terrified and worried about her safety as she is receiving dozens of threats daily because she has publically left her family and religion. She has claimed that her family was mistreating her and had been subjecting her to physical violence. When asked why she had fled her home, Rahaf told that she had wanted to be free from abuse and depression, and wanted to be independent. While living with her family she wouldn’t be able to marry the person of her choice and will have to live her life as dictated by her family. She also said that once she was locked in her room for six months for having her hair cut the wrong way. These circumstances forced her to revolt against her family’s traditions; consequently she decided not only to leave her family and country but her religion as well.

She has been received warmly in Canada, but most people back in her own country have shown a bitterly hostile reaction and are furious at her actions, they are calling her a worthless daughter, a rebel and an apostate who has betrayed the family values and religious traditions just for enjoying a western life style. It should be remembered that this is not the first case of this kind; many other women have fled or tried to flee. Saudi Arabia is now viewed as a country where to be a woman means to be a second class citizen. Saudi Arabia will have to look for the causes of this growing hopelessness among women which is in fact a product of systematic abuse and oppression. This resentment can only be removed by ensuring equal rights for women and guaranteeing respect for civil liberties. When a teenage girl escapes her country in this way it raises so many questions about the state of women’s and youth’s right in general in Saudi Arabia. This incident has severely damaged Saudi Arabia’s already tarnished image because of incidents like Jamal Khashoggi’s cold blooded murder and war in Yemen. This incident has understandably hurt the sensibilities of Saudis but the threats of violence and cold apathy for a young girl’s plight points towards an issue of much broader dimensions, the issue of intolerance. Some people condemned Rahaf’s teenage rebellion against family traditions and religion; they have the right to criticize her, but the circumstances and outdated traditions that crushed her dreams cannot be ignored. There is something that these people can learn from the often quoted words of Frederick Douglass, the renowned American abolitionist and orator, “The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes the rebellion”. The circumstances that made her a rebel and made her land in an alien country at a tender age by leaving her parents, siblings and childhood friends behind, do merit some scrutiny.

Today, most Muslim societies in general are viewed as intolerant and repressive; our Pakistani society is no exception. This toxic environment of intolerance is found not just in countries ruled by autocratic monarchs and sheikhs but also in democracies like Pakistan. In our country situation may not be as bleak as in Saudi Arabia, our law grants much more dignity and rights to women and minorities but our societal traditions are equally misogynistic and intolerant. Having a different opinion which doesn’t agree with the conventional narrative can be dangerous, women, people belonging to religious and sectarian minorities feel unsafe and criticizing ‘sensitive’ institutions can land you in deep trouble in addition to becoming exposed to public backlash. Minorities are unsafe and feel forced to escape the country, hundreds of Sikhs and Hindus have left the country for good. Transgender people are feeling ever more insecure and are becoming targets of deadly attacks. It is becoming ever harder for a woman to express her individuality; the state of youth rights is dismal to say the least. Young people especially girls are denied the right to make their own life decisions, the heinous practices of forced marriages, child marriages and honor killing continue unabated.

In such depressing circumstances we need to strive for a just and open society where ‘being different’ should no longer be a crime, a just and open society where no one is arbitrarily labeled a traitor, a dissident or an apostate just for expressing his or her opinion about the state or  religion or about a theory or institution. We, as a society, need to grow mature enough to appreciate diversity rather that fearing it.  A society where unorthodox or non-conformant opinions are provided space for their expression rather than being demonized, emerges stronger and free from hypocrisy, lies and oppression in the end.  No one will have to flee from the country if they are allowed to be what they actually are, and when they are allowed to be free, to express themselves and live their lives the way they want. An open and just society allows no discrimination on the base of gender, age, religious or political opinions and sexual orientation and Pakistan needs to become one.

It is of vital importance for us to learn to treat the ‘other’ or the ‘different’ with grace and we will have to value human dignity of every individual regardless of any differences. We will lose our brilliant minds and we will lose our diversity if we don’t bring about some changes, and if we don’t value mutual coexistence and tolerance. More freedom is what we need, the equal and identical freedom for all. All opinions must be given the right to be expressed however extreme or bizarre they sound; and we need to become mature and tolerant enough to listen to even the most extreme opinions with forbearance because it is only when we have some knowledge of the extremes we can find the cherished golden mean.