Saudi Arabia: The Courage Of One Woman Speaks For An Entire Nation

Samar Badawi was one of several women just honored at the International Women of Courage Awards. But her personal courage has been displayed in her native Saudi Arabia, potentially the most misogynist country in the world.

Samar Badawi between Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton at the 2012 International Women of Courage Awards (State Dept)
Samar Badawi between Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton at the 2012 International Women of Courage Awards (State Dept)
Dietrich Alexander

Samar Badawi looks a little forsaken on the big stage in Washington. Shyly, she listens to the noble words a world-famous figure is saying about her: "You are making a difference. And we thank you for that." Then suddenly the small woman in black who hails from the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah is standing between Hillary Clinton and the world's other most powerful woman, Michelle Obama.

Clinton's words were part of the ceremony honoring those who won International Women of Courage Awards. Since 2007, ten women from around the world, selected from possible candidates whose names are sent in by U.S. embassies, are invited to Washington for the award ceremony. In 2012, other award winners came from Burma, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Colombia.

Each of these activists deserves an article like this one written about her: all the award-winners fight against discrimination, crime, corruption, and terror. But within this group of strong women, Samar Badawi is special because she manages to live – survive – in Saudi Arabia, which is probably the most misogynist country in the world.

Her life story is that of an oppressed woman treated sadistically, with every effort made to break her spirit, running headlong into the wall of Saudi society. She sued her own father – nothing short of a revolutionary act in country so corrupt, with its cronyism and nepotism, and so rigid, with its system of moral police and women watched over by guardians.

The 31-year-old divorced mother of a 10-year-old son has even sued the government in her fight for the right of women to vote and to drive cars. "Samar is a fighter, courageous and strong enough to take such a step. I take my hat off to her," Saudi blogger and medical student Omaima al-Nadshar says.

To get some idea of the extreme pushback from Saudi men but also the elite that Badawi faces, a brief look into her daily life in this absolute monarchy is instructive. This is a country where every female, girl, teen, wife, grandmother, must have a male accompany her when she goes out in public. She cannot sit in a car without the guardian, go to a restaurant, much less on a trip.

A Saudi woman is dependent on a male guardian – father, husband, uncle, brother -- for virtually everything. She needs his permission to marry or to get divorced; to go abroad; to receive an education; even for something as banal as opening a bank account.

Not to go along with this is dangerous for a woman. In 2009, for example, a father had his daughter committed to a mental institution because, against his will, she wanted to marry someone from a different tribe. The system leads to some strange configurations – as Wajeha al-Huwaider, a divorced woman, says: "If I want to marry again, I'll have to ask my son's permission."

As a fighter on her own, Samar Badawi has by now had a lot of experience of Saudi's male-dominated world. She has been arrested, sued, thrown into jail. Her crime: as a divorced woman of 30, and a mother, she didn't obey her father, who -- as an independent psychologist working for a family protection organization ascertained -- was a drug-addicted paranoid psychopath with 14 wives.

"My mother died of cancer when I was 13," says Badawi. "My father beat me regularly, yelled at me all the time, once even threw me out of the house." Even after marriage and motherhood, he was constantly trying to run her life.

Getting divorced was already no small matter, since in Saudi Arabia it's seen as a sign of rebellion against the patriarchal structure. It also meant that she was forced to move back into her father's house, where the verbal and physical abuse started all over again.

Locked up

Then came the day when she couldn't stand it anymore. She took her child, went to a women's shelter, and ended up suing her father. Badawi's brother took her side, which is why she won the first court case. Her father appealed, and the second case was heard by a very conservative judge. Badawi was sent to prison.

Meanwhile, however, the case had won the attention of the international media. An Internet campaign was launched. The global campaign to free Badawi lasted for seven months, and in the end she was released and turned over to the care of an uncle.

"I went into jail a broken, wounded woman," says Badawi. "But I emerged from it victorious, so proud of myself for having gotten through the ordeal. I had a lot of time to think about my father's injustice, that dreadful judge, and of course my son – those were the times when I would weep."

Samar Badawi's fight is far from over. In fact, one could make the case that it's just begun. For no sooner out of prison than she took up her next project: voting rights for Saudi women. She started last April, and a few months later King Abdullah announced that in 2015 women would be allowed to vote in local elections and that they would be eligible to sit in the Shura, the country's Consultative Assembly.

It is not known to what extent Badawi's commitment to the cause played a role in this revolutionary development. It is, however, clear that Badawi doesn't think it's enough. She wants to be able to drive, and has applied for a license. She pesters the Jeddah authorities about it on a daily basis, and writes complaining letters to the Ministry of the Interior.

Her arguments aren't very difficult to understand. "I'm a working mother, and I don't have a chauffeur," she says. "What is more dangerous: getting into the car of someone I don't know or sitting behind the wheel of my own vehicle?"

Badawi no longer has to fight alone: many women support her, and have turned the battle for the right to drive into a campaign called "Women to drive." They drive illegally, mainly at night, have themselves filmed doing so and then put the videos on the Internet. They risk legal trouble and punishment for this – driving women are sentenced to ten lashes.

Badawi has also driven, and has the support of her second husband Waleed Abu Alkhair, a Cambridge jurist and human rights activist. "Our laws are fine," Badawi says. "What's missing is legal awareness and women with self-confidence." King Abdullah should be proud to have subjects like her.

Read the original article in German

Photo - U.S. Department of State

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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