In most parts of the world, women can make their own decisions. Mothers can drive cars and daughters can go to school if they wish. They can even board planes and fly to different cities or countries under their own volition.
But not in Saudi Arabia - a country where Nazia Quazi, a 24-year-old citizen of Canada and India, has been trapped because she's a woman.
In November 2007, Nazia flew to Saudi Arabia to visit her father, an Indian citizen who worked there. But after she arrived, he wouldn't let her leave. He was able to do that legally because in Saudi Arabia women live under a "guardianship system," where men make women's life decisions.
There, women need permission from their guardian to take a trip, to attend a university, to marry, and even to undergo certain surgeries. While guardians are often fathers or husbands, a woman's teenage son, younger brother, or abusive uncle could be the one making her most important decisions.
Nearly three years later, Nazia's still fighting to return home to Canada. There's a chance that her father will allow her to leave Saudi Arabia, but only if she marries her Dubai-based boyfriend - someone her family once disapproved of.
No one knows what will happen to Nazia in the coming week. But Human Rights Watch, three Canadian veterans of the Gulf War, and other organizations, are pressing for her release.
Nazia said that her father, Quazi Malik Abdul Gaffar, deceptively changed her visa, appointing himself her "guardian." Then he confiscated her Canadian and her Indian passports, as well as her driver's license and credit cards. Her mother and brothers, who live in Canada, support her father's decision.
Since then, Nazia said, she has sought various ways out of Saudi Arabia. Last October, Nazia applied for, and received, an emergency certificate from the Indian Embassy, but was told she still needed an exit visa to leave -- an exit visa that her father, or "guardian," would have to sign for. The Canadian embassy in Riyadh recently issued Nazia a temporary passport. But once again, in Saudi Arabia, a valid passport is not sufficient to allow a woman to leave the country.
Representatives from the Canadian Embassy, the Indian Embassy, and the Saudi Passport Office all agree - Nazia needs her father's permission to leave the country. It doesn't matter that she's an adult with a degree in computer science from the University of Ottawa. What matters in Saudi Arabia is that she's a woman.
In 2008, Human Rights Watch issued a report, Perpetual Minors, lambasting Saudi Arabia's guardianship system. We interviewed Fatima A., a 40-year-old Saudi woman living in Riyadh, who cannot board a plane without written permission from her son, her legal guardian. "My son is 23 years old and has to come all the way from the Eastern Province to give me permission to leave the country," she told us.
Human Rights Watch spoke with university scholars who not only needed permission to attend school, but who weren't allowed off college grounds unless they were picked up by a guardian or a designated driver (women in Saudi Arabia aren't permitted to drive). We interviewed a woman whose sister needed approval to have an IV inserted. A mother in Saudi Arabia can't open up a bank account for her child, enroll her children in school, or travel with her children without express permission.
And if a woman's guardian becomes physically violent with her? It will be nearly impossible to have him removed as guardian. Besides, how can a woman file a domestic violence report - a woman needs permission to file a criminal complaint at the police station.
To help Nazia return to Canada, Human Rights Watch contacted the Saudi Human Rights Commission and asked it to intervene. Finally, at the request of the Canadian Embassy, it took up her case - but as of recently, it has failed to develop a strategy for her release.
Three Canadian veterans, who received medals from Saudi Arabia for their work during the Gulf War, have also vocally taken her side.
Marc Brousseau, a marine engineer for the navy, first heard Nazia's story on the radio while driving. He pulled the car over to make a note about looking up more information on her case. "I was thinking of my own girls when I heard her story," he said about his daughters, ages 23 and 25. "It affected me quite a bit. I wished there was something I could do."
That night, the idea popped into his head to use his medal from Saudi Arabia to bring attention to Nazia's plight. Two other veterans, Lou Travis and John Jackson, joined him.
Marc decided to return his medal to the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa as a sign of solidarity for Nazia. It was 10 a.m. when Marc and Lou (Joe lived too far away) arrived at the embassy, built near the Ottawa River and surrounded by a stone and wrought-iron fence. When they knocked on the gate, no one answered. Unable to give his medal to the ambassador personally, last week he mailed it to the foreign minister in Saudi Arabia.
In June 2009, the Saudi Arabian government told the United Nations Human Rights Council that it would abolish the legal guardianship system. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also ratified a treaty supporting women's rights, called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, in 2001. Under this treaty, the kingdom is obliged to stop discriminating against women.
Although the government has taken no steps to carry out its promise, Nazia's parents may possibly be giving her another option. According to Nazia, her mother and brother recently flew to Saudi Arabia, and her family agreed to fly with her to Dubai on May 10 - but only if she marries her boyfriend, who lives there - a boyfriend her family never approved of.
In other words, Nazia can live in Saudi Arabia under the control of her father or leave and get married to the man her family once disapproved of.
Either way, she needs her father's permission.