Samar Badawi, Symbol of the Saudi Anti-Male Guardianship System
In late July 2018, Samar Badawi was one of the latest women arrested by the authorities in Saudi Arabia. There has been an intensive crackdown in the Kingdom on human rights defenders in general, women’s rights activists specifically, and clerics among other categories. Coming from an abusive family background, Badawi is a recognized women’s rights advocate who has fought against the country’s male guardianship system, the driving ban and male authority in general.
Courageous and bold are the words best able to describe Samar Badawi and her constant fight for justice and rights for women. It started with her abusive father, whom she charged in 2009 with “adhl”, a term of the Islamic jurisprudence meaning that he made it hard or impossible for her to get what she wants, here her right to marry the person she wanted. Her father accused her of disobedience under the male guardianship system, which grants men the power of decision regarding then lives of the girls and women in their family. She was entirely under the authority of her father, her mother having died of cancer when she was only 13 years old.
In Saudi Arabia, the international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) among others has established that fathers are prompt to resort to justice in order to bring women under their rule,. In several cases, judicial rulings have disregarded women’s individual rights to privacy, the right to choose one’s spouse freely, the right of parents to a fair hearing in determining access to their children, and exposed women to abuse. Christoph Wilcke, a former senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a report published on October 18, 2010, that: “Saudi judges have elevated a father’s authority to a pillar of law. […] The result of unquestioned fatherly authority far too often has been family strife and unwarranted suffering for the adult children.”
In Badawi’s case, she ended up being jailed six months in Jeddah in 2010, after missing several dates relating to the charge of disobedience. But thanks to a local and international support campaign, she was eventually released and her guardianship transferred to an uncle who accepted her marriage. She had previously been married to prominent jailed human rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair, with whom she got a daughter called Joud, before separating in 2015 for personal reasons. She also has a son who is four years old from a second marriage.
Through her personal situation, Badawi became a symbol of anti-male guardianship’s advocacy in Saudi Arabia, and is considered to be one of the “first women to petition Saudi authorities to allow women to drive, vote and run in municipal elections,” according to Human Rights Watch. In March 2008, before the trials, she had left her father’s home for a women’s shelter and from there, launched her case to strip him of guardian status. In her case, she claimed her father had physically abused her since she was a teenager and that he refused her the right to marry. This involvement towards justice and rights could have been bred in her family, as her brother Raif Badawi is a writer, dissident and activist.
In 2012, Raif was arrested by the Saudi authorities for “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and brought to court on several charges, including apostasy. Still in jail today, he was condemned in 2013 to spend seven years in prison and to be administrated 600 lashes, a sentence increased in 2014 to 10 years, 1,000 lashes and a fine. He has a wife, Ensaf Haidar, who is also a human rights activist with a dual Saudi-Canadian citizenship and who is very close to her sister in law, Samar.
Samar Badawi is considered by her friends, mostly local and international activists, as a brave woman. Adam Coogle, HRW’s senior researcher for Saudi Arabia, told Fanack Chronicle that “Samar was a tremendous friend of HRW over the years.” “We have nothing but respect and admiration for her work and courage over the years,” he added. “She has committed no recognizable crime, but her government has jailed her merely for her work to improve human rights in her country.”
It’s apparently difficult to see her boldness at first sight, because her attitude is humble and even shy despite earning several international awards such as the International woman of courage in 2012 from the US State Department, and the International Hrant Dink Award in 2015.
When Khalid Ibrahim, executive director and co-founder of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) met Badawi at a United Nations Forum for human rights NGOs, he remembers she came up to him and asked him to read her speech instead.
“One of her speech sentences was very powerful”, Ibrahim told Fanack Chronicle. “She wrote that if you put every peaceful voice in prison, who will be left? Only terrorists will remain. She is like that, she thinks about the people, she is so brave, honest and hard-working. She tried in a very hostile environment to defend women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, to allow women to drive a car and move freely.”
She was indeed part of the 2012 driving campaign from women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia with prominent activist Manal al-Sharif, who was detained 10 days in 2011 after posting on Youtube a video of her driving a car. Back then, Badawi was not arrested, but four years later, in January 2016, she was detained at least partly in connection with her alleged role in managing a Twitter account campaigning for the release of her former husband Waleed Abu Al-Khair. “Samar Badawi’s arrest today is yet another alarming setback for human rights in Saudi Arabia and demonstrates the extreme lengths to which the authorities are prepared to go in their relentless campaign to harass and intimidate human rights defenders into silent submission,” said Philip Luther, the director of the MENA program for the international organization Amnesty international, on their website at the time of her arrest. In 2014, she was forbidden to travel, and to attend other international events.
Despite two relatively calm years, politics have now brought her back to prison with other women’s rights activists, as part of the Saudi authorities’ breakdown on dissidents and human rights defenders. “Samar’s arrest is the latest in a series of recent arrests of prominent women’s rights advocates who have put their freedom on the line to advocate for an end to gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia”, Coogle told Fanack Chronicle. “It is also emblematic of a larger crackdown on peaceful dissidents and advocates in Saudi Arabia since Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince in mid-2017.” Women’s rights activists are perceived as dissident voices that defy MBS’ authority and portrayed as “traitors” in high-profile campaigns in Saudi media outlets and on social media, although they bring no immediate danger to the authorities.
With an angry voice, Ibrahim told Fanack Chronicle that he felt “sad because we don’t know where she is, on which charges she is being held, and she is has no access to her teenage daughter or a lawyer”. From sources he preferred not to publicize, Ibrahim learned that “she has had a very lengthy interrogation that could be described as torture, to get from her the names of younger, more anonymous human rights defenders and to know why she is that respected in the international community.”
Alas, only Canada reacted to her imprisonment. “Canada granted asylum to Samar’s sister-in-law Ensaf Haider a few years ago, and she has done a lot to raise the profile of her husband’s case, and by extension Samar”, Coogle explained to Fanack Chronicle. On August 3, Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland called for the immediate release of prisoners of conscience on Twitter. In return, Saudi Arabia gave the Canadian ambassador in Riyadh 24 hours to leave the Kingdom and recalled its own envoy to Canada.
Meanwhile, Samar Badawi remains in jaild. Like many other Saudi activists and dissidents, her fate is unknown.