Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design University of Dundee
Here is a story that caught my attention recently.
As most of us are aware the condition of women in Saudi Arabia is far from ideal, to put it mildly; they are not allowed to drive a car, to make certain decisions such as travelling, getting married or having medical treatment without the agreement of their male guardian (father or brother). In the last of his reports from Saudi Arabia, Edward Stourton – to my mind one of the best BBC foreign correspondents – interviewed Samar Badawi and her husband.
Samar’s story began when she was 14 years old. It was then that her mentally ill and drug addict father started to beat her. Although she had a job and was the only source of income there was no end to the abuse she was suffering so she decided to take refuge in a family rescue center and file a legal case against her father. The case lasted two years during which the father also filed a case against Samar on the grounds of her ‘disobedience’. Not surprisingly Samar lost the case and was faced with a difficult choice: either to go back to her father’s house or to go to jail. Samar, supported by her lawyer (later to become her husband) decided to go to jail, a difficult but perfectly understandable decision, wasn’t the father’s house a jail?
At this point Samar’s lawyer tried all the available legal avenues in order to free her, but to no avail. After seven months he thought that maybe where the law was impotent Facebook and Twitter could do better. So a social network campaign to free Samar started and after only six days Samar was free! For the happy ending to be complete, though, Samar’s lawyer still had to file a law suit against his bride’s-to-be father in order to force him to give his permission for their marriage; the law was on his side this time.
Asked whether all the suffering had been worth it, both Samar and her husband/lawyer were adamant. Throughout their ordeal they were determined to show that the system could be beaten and that their example might help others in a similar situation. I was particularly moved by this story, not only because it is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit but also because in our (often patronising) commentary of events in the Middle East – the struggle for democracy, for a secular society, for human (women) rights – we often lose sight of the comparative dimension. Such contemporary events should be a reminder of our own struggles, of our own suffering, and in the case of women, of the ‘pater familias’ tradition which until a few decades ago made it impossible for women to open a bank account or buy a house under their own name.
Much has been written in the media about the role that digital technology, mobile phones and social networks (Facebook, Twitter) have had in supporting the ‘Arab Revolution’ and I don’t wish to rehearse here the pros and cons; what I found interesting and somewhat ironic about Samar’s story was the fact that Facebook, born in a university dorm for sexist purposes, has served in this case (and in many others in the past) a more noble, liberating cause. It is exactly this power that we need to learn to harness for the benefit of us all.
The interview with Samar is still available at the time of writing.