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

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

At the Mango Festival held in Aswan, Egypt

Nada Arafat

ISMAILIA – Every year during the month of July, crowds gather in the mango farms of Ismailia, in northeastern Egypt, to pick the delectable summer fruit during its relatively short harvest season. But this year, as a result of erratic weather patterns throughout March and April, the usual bountiful mango harvest was severely affected with farmers witnessing a precipitous drop in yield. Some 300,000 farms saw an 80% decrease in productivity, leading to a supply shortage in the market and a corresponding 40% increase in the price of mangoes.

The effects of these climate fluctuations could have been mitigated by farmers, yet according to experts who spoke to Mada Masr, the agriculture minister failed to play a role in raising awareness among farmers and in providing agricultural guidance services.

Heatwaves kill crops

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. For germination to occur, the ideal temperature should be between 10 °C at night and 28 °C during the day, according to agricultural consultants. In Egypt, this weather pattern usually occurs in February. Mango trees then flower and the flowers turn into fruits that take 40 days to grow and be ready for harvest, according to Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer.

This year, however, according to mango farmers in Ismailia who spoke to Mada Masr, the beginning of the winter farming season experienced a sudden heatwave followed by another heatwave at the end of March. In both March and April, the temperature dipped to as low as 5 °C at night and as high as 25 °C during the day. Due to these erratic weather fluctuations, the mango flowers that develop into fruit fell before they could mature.

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres or 0.40 hectares) ranges between 6 to 8 tons. This year however, the yield per feddan averaged between just 1 to 2 tons, according to several sources.

Frozen mango suppliers multiply purchases

A farm owner in Al-Tal al-Kebir on the Ismailia Desert Road, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that his farm produced approximately 35 tons of mangoes last year, whereas this year his yield did not exceed 4 tons. He added that many farmers in the surrounding area, which is famous for mango cultivation, experienced the same steep declines in yield.

The limited mango yield and the subsequent hike in prices has also prompted frozen mango suppliers to multiply their purchases from farms in order to capitalize and sell them next year at an even higher price, according to Ali Saqr, an agricultural engineer in a fruit export company, along with a number of other farm owners who spoke to Mada Masr. Mangos can stay frozen for up to two years.

Khaled Eweis, who buys mangoes and stores them in rented freezers then later sells the frozen mangoes to juice and dessert shops, explained to Mada Masr that juice shops usually use the Zebdia variety of mangoes, whereas dessert shops use Keitt mangoes. The latter is expected to be priced at 25 Egyptian pounds ($1.5) this year after having been sold for half the price at the same time last year.

Last year, Eweis bought Zebdia mangoes for 10–12 Egyptian pounds ($0.6–$0.7) per kilo then resold them for 16 ($1) after freezing them. This year, the Zebdia prices ranged from 17–21 ($1–$1.30) per kilo, and Eweis expects that the price after freezing will reach as high as 25 ($1.5).

Photo of an Egyptian man shouldering a basket full of mangoes

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres) ranges between 6 to 8 tons


Threat to water security

This is not the first time that mango production has been hit hard as a result of fluctuating weather patterns. A similar crisis in the mango harvest took place in 2018, and other crops, such as olives, potatoes, wheat, rice and cotton, have also been adversely affected over the last few years, according to Mohamed Fahem, the head of the government Climate Change Information Center. And human-induced changes to global weather patterns as a result of climate change point to increased agricultural challenges in the future.

The deadly heat waves, fires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that have dominated headlines in recent years will only become more frequent in the coming decades, according to a United Nations report on climate change released in August. In its sixth assessment report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called human-induced changes to global climate systems "unprecedented." While the report calls for drastic cuts to the global emission of greenhouse gases, much of the effects of climate change are already locked in for decades to come.

Among the areas most vulnerable to climate change is agriculture. A 2018 report titled Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Changes in Egypt found that climate change can have drastic effects on agriculture through changes in temperature, rainfall, CO2 levels and solar radiation. Meanwhile, a 2020 European Union report also found that climate change will pose a threat to global food production in the medium to long-term through projected changes in daily temperature, precipitation, wind, relative humidity and global radiation.

According to various studies, climate change gradually reduces the duration of spring, autumn and winter, which in turn affects the crops that are cultivated during those seasons. In Egypt in particular, the country's agricultural crop map will likely change as a result of a prolonged summer season, according to a study by former Agriculture Minister Ayman Abou Hadid, published in 2010 when he was heading the Center for Agricultural Studies. The study predicted that grain cultivation will gradually move north from Upper Egypt due to increases in winter temperatures, though it did not give a projected timeframe.

Cold and heat waves

Climate change also increases salinity levels in soil due to rising sea levels, which in turn renders the soil only suitable for crops that can handle high salinity yet still require intensive irrigation to mitigate the salinity levels. At the same time, Egypt is currently facing a threat to its water security due to the changes in rain patterns and droughts as well as the potential effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

According to Fahim, the increased cold and heat waves Egypt has experienced has led to the emergence of new, mutated varieties of pests and fungal diseases that are resistant to chemicals. For example, in 2018, aphids and whiteflies spread due to the shortened winter season, and the accumulation of these pests led to huge losses in potato and cotton yields. Meanwhile, palm trees were harmed due to the appearance of red palm weevils.

How farmers counter mango losses

The severe losses in the 2021 mango yield were hard to avoid, but is there a way to counter them?

Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer, believes that better methods of agriculture, irrigation and fertilization, along with raising awareness among farmers about the dangers of climate change and how to monitor weather fluctuations could succeed in mitigating such outcomes.

However, Egypt appears currently incapable of providing sufficient safety networks to farmers in order to enable them to confront the effects of climate change.

An example of this is apparent in the failure to enforce mechanisms for warning farmers about potential difficulties in upcoming farming seasons. In June, a report by the Center for Agricultural Studies warned about a decline of as much as 85% in the productivity of farms in Ismailia, where mangoes are mainly cultivated, as well as farms in Sharqiya, Suez and Beheira, due to climate change. However, this report only reached about 13 farmers and owners of mango farms, according to agricultural sources who spoke to Mada Masr.

Ahmed Asal, a mango farmer in Qantara in Ismailia, told Mada Masr that there has been no guidance from authorities in helping farmers understand climate change and how to respond to it. "No one told us what to do and we never received any compensation for our losses," Asal said.

Photo of a hand picking a mango from the tree in Egypt

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature

Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua/ZUMA

Agriculture engineers must become climate engineers

Agricultural guidance is a service offered by the Agriculture Ministry to raise awareness and educate farmers about all aspects of farming. The service is usually provided through agricultural engineers who are based in the agricultural cooperatives that exist in every city and town.

Fahim, the head of the Climate Change Information Center, works to play a similar role through his Facebook page and, at times, on various TV channels and newspapers, by raising awareness about weather fluctuations and their effects on agriculture. However, his insights do not have a wide enough audience, particularly at a time when the agricultural guidance is dwindling despite the opening of the Agricultural Guidance Center in Qantara earlier this year under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry.

"Agricultural guidance has been doing a good job lately, but only in the media, not on the ground," said Alaa Khairy,* an engineer at the Central Laboratory for Climate Change. "If they were really working on the ground, farmers would not have lost as much as they did."

More important crops like wheat will be next

What exacerbates the crisis is that those who are harmed the most are small farmers — those who have between 10 to 20 feddans of land — who cannot afford to take preemptive precautionary measures to mitigate erratic weather patterns nor hire experts who can help them make better decisions about how to handle sudden climate fluctuations. Those farmers also cannot afford to provide covers for their fruits during hot seasons, which is one way to prevent crop damage that is quite costly.

This year's crisis is expected to be repeated in the coming years due to the rapid consequences and effects of climate change on global food security. Aside from mangoes, the effects of climate change are projected to affect far more important crops, such as wheat, with reports showing global wheat crop losses due to heat and drought, a particularly worrisome development for Egypt — the largest importer of wheat in the world.

"In the coming period, agricultural engineers must become climate engineers as well," Suleiman said.


Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!