Ensaf Haidar – Fighting from abroad

‘Be brave, be bold. History is never made by the faint-hearted,’ says a Saudi women’s rights activist to her audience in an Arab Gulf state. These words summarize the Saudi girl power displayed in the documentary Saudi Arabia: A Wind of Change. One of the voices in the documentary is that of Ensaf Haidar, wife-turned-activist of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.

She misses her husband like crazy: Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who is condemned to ten years imprisonment and one thousand lashes for ‘insulting Islam through electronic channels’.

On social developments in Saudi Arabia Haidar, who was granted political asylum in Canada, prefers to give no comment, yet after a while she explains that women are legal minors in the country. And that they should have the same rights as men. She formulates carefully and believes it is up to governments and journalists to evaluate developments in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabian society guarantees to make juicy headlines in the West. Women are prohibited from driving cars. Female adult citizens need a male guardian for many things, such as travelling and obtaining a passport. Although Saudi Arabia has achieved major advances over the past four decades in women’s education, the country still lags behind many other Islamic countries when it comes to employment opportunities. Only one quarter of the female labour force is employed. By the end of 2015, women were given the right to vote and be elected in municipal elections, yet two months later the government ordered that men and women remain separate in local council meetings.

As Raif Badawi tries to change his country from within, the documentary Saudi Arabia: A Wind of Change shows how many women – and men – manage to move within the existing limitations and bring changes step by step. The documentary highlights the obstacles that female citizens encounter in daily life, and provides inspiring examples how girl power circumvents the difficulties. Hilarious scenes underline the absurdity of the country’s gender apartheid. A Saudi female TV talk show host, whose programme is recorded in the United Arab Emirates, uncontrollably giggles on air when a conservative cleric argues that women should not be driving, because when they get a flat tyre, they risk rape by soldiers who step in to help.

Haidar is extremely careful when I ask her opinion about developments in Saudi Arabia. ‘I believe that anybody has the right to express themselves, but they have to respect certain boundaries. I hope someday there will be human freedoms in Saudi Arabia.’ Her calculating response seems motivated by fear of how her answers can affect her husband’s situation. Then she says she doesn’t want to change anything in the country. She just wants the release of her spouse.

By Nicolien Zuijdgeest