Human Rights in Saudi Arabia
Samar Badawi, here with her her eight months old daughter Joud, is fighting for justice for her husband Waleed Abu al-Khair.
Her husband, human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison, her brother, blogger Raif Badawi, to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison. And she has been in prison herself - just for defending her right to survive. But she goes on fighting - for justice and for women’s rights, and for a better future for her children and the generations to come. She does so by fearlessly challenging the conservative authorities: Samar Badawi (32) is one of Saudi Arabia’s most outspoken and courageous human rights activists. Not to let herself be seen as a victim of circumstances but to go on against all odds makes her a role model for women and men all over the world.
Samar Badawi, your husband Waleed Abu al-Khair, a human rights lawyer, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison basically just for doing his job and defending human rights activists. How does his arrest and sentence impact you?
I was aware of my husband’s work and activism in the field of human rights, so his arrest was something to be expected. I have always been supporting him in his work, we have been sharing the same thoughts and solutions concerning the issue of human rights in the kingdom. His arrest left an empty space in the political sphere no one can fill - except of him.
How do you think King Salman, the new king, will influence the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia?
It has been usual that a new king offers a royal pardon, an amnesty, to some prisoners of the "public right", and some of them are prisoners of conscience. This is what the late King Abdullah did after only seven days in power, and this is what we hope the new king will do in the near future. As for the far future, no one can predict whether there will be positive new conditions or a negative atmosphere. We only hope that we will see progress, not regression.
Your husband Waleed as well as your brother have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. How do you feel about that?
I feel that Waleed deserved to be nominated for this prize because his activism in an oppressive environment is entirely peaceful. And he insists on continuing even though he was sentenced to 15 years. He spent eight years defending human rights calling for peace in his country. For all he has done, I believe this is the least he deserves, and I wish he will win the prize. It will mean a lot to him while in prison.
But how do you live with you husband being in prison? How do you go on with your daily life?
I strongly believe that he hasn't done anything wrong. His cause has always been fair. I can only spend my days continuing to raise his voice, to call for freedom and justice for him and for all the other prisoners of opinion. However, it’s difficult to live alone. To bear the responsibility for everything is heavy. But every day when I wake up, I say to myself: “Today there will be some change for the better.” And if it doesn’t happen that day, I hope that there will be a change tomorrow.
Do you feel that change is happening?
Yes, change is happening, but very slowly and anything that is changing is strongly resisted by the Saudi government. In the last few years we have witnessed an increasing number of activists, who have the courage to speak out publicly. On the other hand, we have seen the implementation of new laws like the one about terrorism, which criminalises basically any critical thought or expression as terrorism. My husband Waleed Abu al-Khair, for example, was sentenced according to this new law of terrorism and “information" crimes, and three lawyers, who criticised the ministry of justice on twitter, serve longs years in prison. Such laws open the door to justify the arrest of any activist for his or her activism. That’s why many activists stop their work because they fear these harsh verdicts. We will have to push for change stronger than ever.
You have shown great courage, when you went to court to file a lawsuit against your father, who had abused you for years. Your father considered this as an act of disobedience againts him, which is a crime in Saudi Arabia. For this you were put in prison.
Yes, I was arrested and sentenced for seven months, starting on the 17th of May 2010.
Can you describe how you felt?
It was a gruesome experience. The worst thing was that I couldn’t see my son for seven months. He kept asking: “Where is my mom?” He was told that I was off for work. Now he is older and understands. I am happy that he isn’t ashamed of me because I was in prison. He said: “I am so proud of having a mom like you.”
Has your experience in prison made you the human rights activist you are today?
Yes, after I was subjected to this injustice and persecution and saw a lot of cases similar to mine in jail, women, who had been arrested because they were fighting for their rights, I decided to start defending women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Fortunately I won my case and got a good human rights support.
Have you always been that rebellious?
I am not a rebel in the exact meaning of the word, but I demanded to get my basic human rights and not to be subjected to discrimination just because I am a woman. You see, I grew up like so many other girls here. My father always told me: “Don’t talk to men, don’t go in the streets, cover your hair!” When I got older I read a lot of books. I started to think: “No, this can’t be right!” And I said: “I want to travel to see the world. I want to make my choices!” But my father just said. “No! No girl in this house can say anything like that!” I insisted. I wanted to have my own future. I wanted to become a judge or a lawyer. But my father just told me: “You will never be a judge or a lawyer. You are a woman. “
What about your mother? Didn’t she support you?
My mother died when I was 13 years old. She was very intellectual. I believe if she had been alive toady, I would have got a lot of support from her.
Talking about women: You have advocated for the rights of women to vote. You were the first person in the kingdom to file a lawsuit for women's suffrage. Today women are represented in the Saudi Shura council. The council merely has an advisory function, but this step could be seen as a sign towards reform. What do you think?
Representation of women in the Shura council is only a formal step. Those women in the council still cannot marry without getting the approval of their male guardian or even having a surgery - restrictions that apply to all women in the kingdom. So I ask: What’s the benefit of letting women be ministers if they cannot even decide about their own lives?
That’s indeed absurd. What’s the logic behind that?
The reason the government deprives women of their basic rights is to be able to take control easily over the other half of society - the men. Thus, the government keeps men busy with the illusion of authority they have over women, to keep them from demanding their civil and political rights as well.
2011 you participated in the women's driving campaign. Since then there has been regular media coverage about Saudi women who risk driving a car, even though if it’s against the law in the kingdom. How effective has this activism been?
There has been good coverage of the activity of Saudi women, who broke the ban on driving. But lately two women got arrested after they tried to drive a car, and according to the information available to us, they have been transferred to the court that is specialized in dealing with terrorism and security cases. The Saudi government believes that these ladies have shown some serious and dangerous behaviour, which requires a trial in a security court. After this incident women stopped any new attempts to drive a car.
Is the crackdown on women really still that strict?
Yes, the situation remains always the same: the woman is deprived of many of her basic rights. If you are a woman, you can’t even open a bank account without the permission of your husband or father. Furthermore a woman is even confronted with racial discrimination.
But haven’ t men started to change as well?
The society in whole is changing to the better, and there are lots of men who support women to gain their basic rights. This is something encouraging.
Talking about the reform of the society and the implementation of universal human rights, which will be a crucial step to take?
The most important step would be that the government presents constitutional reforms, which clearly show the rights and duties of the citizens and that it aims at teaching children the principles of human rights instead of ideas of religious extremism.
What can a country like Switzerland do to improve the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia?
Switzerland is one of the best countries in the world in respecting the international standards of human rights. It hosts a lot of headquarters of NGOs that deal with international human rights, and has good economical relations with Saudi Arabia. So there are innumerable ways for the Swiss government to convince Saudi Arabia to improve its record on human rights.
Why are you staying in Saudi Arabia? Aren’t you scared?
I am in Saudi Arabia because it’s my country and the country of my children, and because I want to strive for the improvement of the conditions of people’s lives, to fight injustice and to achieve justice. I am not afraid of being subjected to injustice myself. I am able to defend myself. But I am afraid that this injustice would affect my children and the generations after us.