Saudi Arabian activist Samar Badawi has been selected as one of this year's recipients of the prestigious International Women of Courage Award. The prize is handed out by the US State Department and honours 10 extraordinary women from all corners of the globe. Badawi gained international recognition in 2010: she challenged Saudi Arabia's extremely restrictive guardianship system by suing her father. She has also filed lawsuits against the government demanding the right for women to vote and drive vehicles.
By Karima Idrissi and Jannie Schipper
Badawi's most recent campaign has been for the right to drive. She requested a driving licence from the motor vehicles authorities in Jeddah, where she lives. After the request was officially accepted, Badawi rang the ministry every day for two months to find out the status of her application.
She says the response was rude and unpleasant. She then filed a complaint with the interior ministry. It is the latest move in the fight being waged by Saudi women in their battle to be allowed to drive. They have also tried petitions and driving cars, which has led to a number of arrests. Fellow activist Manal al-Sharif, who was arrested last year for driving a car, has also filed a complaint with the interior ministry.
Right to lead your own life
Samar Badawi says driving a car is a symbol of the wider right to freedom of movement for Saudi women: "Women can't go onto the streets alone nor can they go to government offices to arrange official documents, including a passport," she says. Badawi tells Radio Netherlands Worldwide, "I think the state wants to deny women the right to travel because that would open the door for other rights." Saudi Arabian women are not allowed to leave the country unaccompanied.
Badawi has personal experience with fighting for the right to lead one's own life. In 2010 she became global news when she ended up in prison without a proper trial. She was jailed because she had failed to obey her father, even though she was a 30-year-old woman with a child.
Father versus daughter
In Saudi Arabia, men control the lives of women: fathers have control of their daughters until they marry and husbands have custody of their wives. If a woman divorces, her father is once again legally responsible for her. Badawi says, "My mother died when I was 13. My father beat me, verbally abused me and threw me out of the house." Even after she married and had a son, her father continued to interfere in her life. Eventually, she divorced and had to move back into her father's house, where the cycle of abuse started again.
She eventually took her son and moved into an abused woman's shelter and started legal proceedings to strip her father of custody rights over her. In turn, he brought a case against her for disobedience. Her brother was also named as a defendant in the case as he supported his sister. Among other things, she was 'accused' of signing a petition calling for women to be allowed to drive. After the initial charges were dismissed, the angry father tried again. The second time around he drew a conservative judge who ruled in his favour and Samar Badawi was imprisoned, without ever facing a proper trial.
She was freed after a seven-month global campaign and she was given into the custody of her uncle. Not long after that, she hit the headlines again; this time she audaciously demanded the right to vote. That was in April 2011: a few months later the Saudi monarch announced that woman will be given the right to vote and run in municipal elections as of 2015. Women were also given the right to be appointed to the Shura Council, a consultative body that advises the king.
Spanner in the works
Badawi is now waiting to hear whether the courts will hear her complaint about her driving licence. "If they don't hear the case, I will demand to know the reason why," she says. She counters the religious and social arguments against driving a car with religious and social arguments for women being allowed to drive: "I am a mother and I work and I don't have my own chauffeur. Which is more dangerous or more likely to lead to licentious behaviour, me getting into a car with a complete stranger or me getting behind the wheel of my own car, by myself?" According to Badawi, men are usually the spanner in the works: "women want to be independent and drive but the husband, the father or the brother is afraid of the authorities or what people will say."
That’s no longer true of her. She has been supported in all the legal battles by the human rights lawyer Walied Abou Khair. She has since married him, again against the wishes of her father. She says, "My husband is my comfort and my support. When I got behind the wheel of a car on the first big women's driving action day on 17 June, he encouraged and supported me."