Toronto — A Canadian embassy booth and another for a private Montreal college were shut down at a Saudi Arabia education fair last week because they were being run by women.
Organizers for the Canadian contingent say three women staffing the booths were forced to leave the fair by the country’s religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, even though they had received permission to be there.
George Chrysomilides, president of the Canadian Education Network, said there hasn’t been an incident like this in the 10 years Canada has attended the event, and he plans to get to the bottom of it.
“From what I hear … the religious police were very rude. They shouted at them in a way that was disrespectful and they shut down the booth, the Canadian embassy booth as well as the LaSalle College booth,” Mr. Chrysomilides said in an interview Monday.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Bernard Nguyen said he was waiting to hear details of the incident that took place last Wednesday.
But the Canadian embassy in Saudi Arabia put out a statement over the weekend, protesting against the actions of authorities in the region.
“Such unprofessional incidents are very damaging to Saudi Arabia’s international reputation,” the embassy said.
“Prior to the event, we specifically inquired whether women staff would be permitted at the exhibition and we were told by the organizers, the Al-Harithy Company, that they would.”
Women in Saudi Arabia are expected to cover themselves in public and are not allowed to work in mixed environments in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
Mr. Chrysomilides said Canadians attending the fair have always followed the rules. When he took his wife three years ago, she donned an abaya, a long, shapeless gown worn over the clothes.
In the past, both men and women from various universities and colleges have jointly staffed the booths in the Canadian pavilion.
This year, there were about 15 postsecondary institutions, including the University of Manitoba and Simon Fraser University, attending the fair in the city of Jeddah in the hopes of wooing Saudi students. Many Saudi women interested in a postsecondary education abroad attended with their families.
Mr. Chrysomilides said because women were running two booths alone this year, the Canadian organizers decided to keep them detached from the main pavilion to show respect for Saudi customs.
“We did everything that Saudi rules require. Why did they have to close it down?” Mr. Chrysomilides asked. “I want to get to the bottom of this.”
According to Arab News, several other participants at the exhibition, including the Ministry of Education of Malaysia, had women at their booths. But the Canadian embassy booth was the most visible because it was at the front of the exhibition.
Mr. Chrysomilides believes that religious authorities acted on their own, and Canada should not necessarily pull out of the annual fair. There are about 2,000 applications a year to universities and colleges from Saudi students, he said.
“There are many Saudi students who want to study in Canada. There are many Canadian universities that welcome them,” he said. “I think this is just an overreaction by the local religious police to the presence of women.” With a report from AFP
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