Freedom and Feminism: Ensaf Haidar at The Cambridge Union

Felicity Garvey 6 November 2019
Image Credits: Flickr

This is a translation of an interview conducted in French. There may be some disparity in individual wordings; however, the author has maintained the meaning of the responses with all possible accuracy.

Ensaf Haidar, with her free-flowing hair, enjoyed a martini and tonic at the bar prior to our interview.

These small freedoms appeared to be something she took a quiet pleasure in. While she lives with her children in Canada now, she is a Saudi Arabian-born human rights activist and has seen the Saudi government’s strict stance on civil liberties first-hand after her husband, Raif Badawi’s, arrest in 2012. A writer and blogger, Badawi was brought before Saudi Arabian court on charges of ‘insulting Islam through electronic channels’ amongst other things and was initially sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. However, in 2014, his sentence was increased to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes, and a fine – and this is the sentence he continues to serve out in Saudi Arabia. Multiple human rights organisations and activists have championed Badawi’s cause, calling for his release, including the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and Amnesty International. An open letter was signed by 18 Nobel laureates which called upon Saudi academics to condemn the flogging of Badawi. However, none have been as tireless in their campaigning as his wife, Ensaf Haidar.

Haidar’s human rights activism goes beyond just discussions of her husband’s situation, but to encompass the rights of individuals under authoritarianism and her own experiences as a woman in Saudi Arabia as well. Asked about the significance of freedom of speech as a universal right, she responded that “Freedom of expression is hugely important for everyone. Its significance is not just limited to journalists or the media. No, it is very important for us too, as human beings. We have the right to our thoughts, the right to change our minds, to research things. […] difference is a good thing.”

Haidar has been involved in some controversy, as a Muslim woman who has spoken critically of Islam. “All religion is against women.”

She stated with conviction. “It is not just Sharia law. Even Catholicism, Judaism, all the religions. But for me, Sharia is a particular case; us, as Muslims, do not have the right to choose. […] It is not just Sharia, but I do think it is dangerous. I come from Saudi Arabia and I studied the Qu’ran at school, I have an Islamic degree. All the time, it is Sharia. […] Everyone has to be Muslim.”

“Women don’t have the right to work, they don’t have the right to drive. They are like a machine in the home. Look after the children, make the dinner, the home is for women. […] It does not work in this day and age.” It is not just women that this works against, she says. “It is part of why my husband is in prison now – we don’t have the right to a lawyer, the law is just Sharia.”

Another view Haidar holds that has been debated – by other human rights activists themselves – is her opposition to the burqa and niqab. Indeed, last year she joined calls for a ‘Burqa ban’ in Ontario. She elaborated on why she feels so strongly against these coverings with a simple question: “How do women accept being absent all the time?” After being asked about what she says to those who see the ability to wear these coverings as part of freedom of expression, she responded that “it’s not about leaving Sharia, or Islam, or all the religions alone. […] You should be there, and with the abaya or the niqab, you’re not there. Perhaps you’re present, but we don’t know you. You’re hidden. Who are you? You, as a woman, how do you accept that?”

“It’s not about leaving Sharia, or Islam, or all the religions alone. […] You should be there, and with the abaya or the niqab, you’re not there. Perhaps you’re present, but we don’t know you. You’re hidden. Who are you? You, as a woman, how do you accept that?”

Haidar is an avid user of social media, with active accounts on Twitter and Facebook through which she campaigns and raises awareness. However, despite this support, she notes that “Even social media has its dangers. Personally, I have received a lot of [abusive] emails. It’s always people against openness. And there are dangers for people in free countries, democratic countries too. People don’t accept the truth.”

“For me, now, I am in Canada. I have security. When I was in Saudi Arabia, I was not capable of speaking out, not capable of publishing the story of my husband. But now, being in Canada is different. Even with other people, with the public, they understand. It is not the same for everyone, but the majority of people there are very much free.”

She argues that this freedom of expression that she can now experience in Canada is, in particular, “very important for women”.

With regard to recent changes in Saudi Arabian law, whereby women now have the right to drive, employment discrimination protections and the right to travel without the permission of a male guardian, she elaborated that “it is normal for women even in neighbouring countries to Saudi Arabia – like Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait. All the other women in the Gulf drive, they travel, the hijab isn’t compulsory, and they can choose to wear it or not. It is just [Saudi]!” She was clearly pleased that changes were happening, but did not believe they went far enough, adding that “it’s changing, it is good, I am happy for the women – but they must continue to demand their independence!”

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