In one of the world’s most restrictive environments for women, Samar Badawi is a powerful voice for two of the most significant issues facing Saudi women: women’s suffrage and the guardianship system, under which women cannot marry, work, or travel without a guardian’s (male relative) permission. In a landmark case, Badawi was the first woman to sue her father for abusing the guardian system and preventing her from marrying the suitor of her choice. She is also the first woman to file a lawsuit against the government demanding the right for women to vote, and launched an online campaign to encourage other women to file similar suits. The efforts of activists like Badawi helped encourage a royal decree allowing women to vote and run for office in future municipal elections.
You can find that inscription next to the entry for Samar Badawi in the archived list of the State Department’s 2012 International Women of Courage Award winners.
(Samar Badawi with Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton at the awards ceremony for State Department’s 2012 International Women of Courage Award / Reuters)
Just to kind of cut right to the point: She’s in jail now.
While unfortunate, it isn’t at all surprising, for a number of reasons. First of all, the kind of thing that wins you awards in Western democracies for advancing women’s rights is just the kind of thing that lands you in prison in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman has variously touted his efforts to modernize the Kingdom and recently, women were given the right to drive, a historic step for the notoriously conservative monarchy. But “progressive” and “Saudi Arabia” are antonymous until proven otherwise and the fact that Badawi is in jail is a good example of why that’s the case.
It’s also not surprising because her brother is Raif Badawi, founder of “Free Saudi Liberals”, a website whose name translates roughly to “arrest me” in Arabic. I’m just kidding, but you get the point. Badawi questioned the monarchy, promoted progressivism, and just generally poked the proverbial hornet’s nest until he landed himself in prison back in 2014. His 10 year sentence (for “insulting Islam”) came with a bonus gift of 1,000 lashes and a fine of $266,600. Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, was given asylum in Canada.
(Ensaf Haidar with a picture of Raif Badawi, following her acceptance of a human rights prize on behalf of Badawi in December, 2015 / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Earlier this year, Justin Trudeau told King Salman in no uncertain terms that it was about time to go ahead and let Raif out of prison lest Canada should have to, I don’t know, use harsh language or something. Trudeau has been talking about this for a long, long time. Here’s an example:
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) May 7, 2015
Last summer, the Kingdom’s ambassador to Canada said this about the ongoing push to secure the freedom of Badawi:
It’s a [Saudi] court decision. We respect the court decisions here in Canada and we believe that the Canadian friends should respect the Saudi court decision.
In other words: Let it go.
Well, Canada didn’t let it go. Specifically, Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland said the “wrong” thing about Saudi Arabia’s decision to throw Samar Badawi in jail and on Sunday evening, the Saudis recalled their ambassador, instructed the Canadian envoy to Riyadh to leave within 24 hours and for good measure, froze all trade and investments with Canada. Here’s Riyadh’s rationale (or what’s supposed to pass for a rationale):
The kingdom views the Canadian position as an affront to the kingdom that requires a sharp response to prevent any party from attempting to meddle with Saudi sovereignty.
As far as I can tell, this tweet from Freeland, dated Thursday, was the last straw:
Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.
— Chrystia Freeland (@cafreeland) August 2, 2018
More than anything, this speaks to the ongoing tension between what the Kingdom says about the extent to which they’re committed to the liberalization and modernization of Saudi society and what they actually do.
The Raif Badawi situation has been a sore spot for three years running and now, Riyadh looks like they’re going to put the international spotlight back on the issue by turning the imprisonment of his sister into a minor international incident. I’m not at all sure that’s advisable, but something tells me Riyadh isn’t particularly concerned about the optics here.