All the reports issued by regional and international organizations calling upon the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to recognize women’s rights agree regarding the extent of the restrictions placed upon them in this corner of the world. These restrictions even reach to barring women from driving, from traveling without the presence of a legal guardian, or obtaining legal documents without the consent of a legal guardian who is always, naturally, male.
Some women in Saudi Arabia have broken the mold, however. They have created for themselves a space in which to operate. They have blazed new trails through which they can work on behalf of their community, endeavoring to enable every woman to become a complete, active human being fully capable of shouldering their responsibilities and doing their part independently and in an ideal manner.
Men in the eastern region of the kingdom are more engaged with, and encouraging toward, issues of women’s rights. This owes to a climate of intellectual openness that itself is the result of many factors, both geographic and demographic, according to human rights activist Nasimah al-Sadah. Indeed, according to her, this is what encouraged her to do her part as a human rights activist in the eastern region to which she belongs, and where she resides.
Sadah has been a founding member of the Adala Center for Human Rights for over a year. She is active in both the observation, documentation, and local support committees, as well as the training committee. She had worked in the human rights activist network for some time prior.
Sadah recently spoke to As-Safir about her human rights activism. She pointed out that “embarking on this kind of activism on behalf of Saudi women is, to a certain extent, a novelty. Launching into this realm of activism is a major challenge for Saudi women; they lack both sufficient experience and the necessary audacity. The issue’s sensitivity can be seen in the danger to which [female activists] are subjected. Still, there is a dire need for this kind of activism, to make people grasp its importance and its potential role. I have been encouraged by the response of most of those around me, and in particular of my husband. But for his support and backing, I wouldn’t have been able to get involved with this kind of human rights work.”
Sadah adds further that “words of thanks and grateful glances from other people indicate their acceptance, their sympathy — more than that, their respect — for human rights work. People must have hope. And sometimes, the human rights activist is the only hope for those whose rights have been violated.”
Sadah points to the fact that there are a number of voices attempting to weaken her determination, stir society’s fears, diminish the appetite to pressing for a role for women in society and at home, and to limit activism among women (but not men). Just as, in her words, “society has placed women in the framework of the home and housework. She had to balance between the demands of the home and the family on the one hand, and the requirements of her job, if she was employed. This was in addition to the social functions she was expected to fulfill. None of these different spheres would accept any shortcoming from her in any aspect, and so she is always under a microscope of her peers’ oversight. As for human rights work, which demands a constant presence in the arena, and ongoing work with others, and bearing a continuous responsibility for educating oneself — given all that, these women work under heavy physical and psychological strain. This is in addition to the fact that women in Saudi Arabia find it very difficult to move about, conduct meetings, or interact with men in various places.”
Asked if she encounters opposition from her family or community, Sadah says that she has “confronted wariness from some family members, some were afraid of what the future held in store, at least in the beginning. But it’s nothing compared to the support and encouragement that they offered; they are proud of what I do today. And in the surrounding community I’ve found a great deal of respect. A word or a glance from a mother or wife, from an imprisoned sister or a woman groaning from the humanitarian situation, is enough to make all the trouble worth it.”
Sadah notes that there are many women engaged in the same kind of human rights work in the field, and still others who offer them substantial support. There are those who would like cooperate with her, who wish for her success, but are prevented from doing so by family or security constraints. “Most women’s primary concern lies in her role in the family, concerning issues of daily life. It takes up the lion’s share of their time and energy,” according to Sadah. In her opinion, the novel factor is that ”overall, we need more women's rights activists working in the the legal and not the theoretical field. This comes in the scope of the suffering within the kingdom in general, and the severe scarcity of workers in the truly difficult legal realm and continuing into the area of female women’s rights activists.”
In this context, she explains that “I meet with many women through my various activities; the motivation [I get from them] is the driving force behind my work, along with the help I provide other women in guiding their training. In addition, I maintain ongoing communication with the women and try to deepen their desire to take the initiative, work and educate themselves. I also try to push the women to adopt other causes and work toward them.”
Sadah demands that women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia be permitted to drive a car. Regarding this issue, she says that “we have always stressed and repeated that driving is a symbolic issue for demanding greater rights. If such a simple matter as the right to drive a car is forbidden to us, then that should give you a sense of the extent to which women’s rights are trampled upon in the kingdom. I believe that removing the requirement that women be accompanied by male guardianship, issuing a personal status law, issuing laws to protect women from violence and abuse are other priorities for the human rights movement.”
Besides her human rights work, Sadah also sponsors the Cultural Light Forum, which is nearing the nine-year anniversary since its founding. It aims to stimulate discussion and debate among women concerning their participation in various fields of endeavor, as well as public affairs more broadly. She is also a founding member of the National Communication Council that supports the idea of dialogue and professional networking across the spectrum of Saudi population.
Sadah is one of many women in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia who are participating in public life with men through work and supporting their families. They also engage in community activities, such as the protest movement that broke out in the region nearly two years ago, demanding greater freedoms and rejecting sectarian discrimination.