The Australia-based artist’s work is emblematic of the movement protesting against Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws
The Saudi visual artist Ms Saffaa is a petite woman with cropped hair framing a pixie face. Her mural, plastered on a studio wall at Sydney University’s College of the Arts almost dwarfs her.
It is a riotous mix of calligraphy, graffiti and portraits featuring the women’s rights activists Manal Al-Sharif and Samar Badawi, both part of a nascent movement protesting Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws.
The protest gained steam after the July release of a Human Rights Watch report, which was critical of the laws prohibiting a woman from travelling, marrying or even leaving prison without the permission of a male guardian.
The 39-year-old artist, who moved to Sydney to study at the SCA in 2009, says the inspiration for her art came from continuous run-ins with Saudi authorities over her visa.
A condition of Saffaa’s now lapsed government scholarship required her brothers to fly in to Australia to vouch for her. But it was the hours of humiliating pleading with Saudi bureaucrats in Canberra that fuelled the rage behind her protest art.
“You have to play their game,” she says. “You have to act like the weak woman and say, ‘Thank you for doing this for me, it’s a huge favour.’ You have to play that role in order to get your shit done.”
Saffaa’s posters, featuring a face shrouded in the Saudi shemagh and the hashtag #iammyownguardian, became emblematic of the movement. They were plastered on Saudi streets, retweeted and sold online.
It led Saffaa into a thriving underground online protest scene filled with local and expat Saudi women. Many were housewives, sharing stories of life in the regime. Saffaa says Saudi women defending the laws were generally from the ruling class with ties to the government.
“Those who have really good jobs, really good pay and connections to government have a lot to lose,” she says. “They will tell you we’re content.”
For Saffaa, speaking up has its costs. The artist, who uses only her first name, has suffered harassment and been reported to Saudi authorities by trolls.
“[They say], ‘Let’s all report her, let her rot in jail, let’s see her make art behind prison bars.’ I thought I was immune to online bullying and harassment but it got to me.”
At an exhibition at Melbourne’s Islamic Museum of Australia, the artist was accosted by a man demanding to know why she was exposing Saudi’s dirty laundry to the west.
“Before I could even speak I could feel the anger inside me,” she says. “I was sweating. I felt the heat coming out of my face … a man comes with all his privilege and entitlement, and asks me why am I airing our dirty laundry to the west?
“First of all you’re admitting that it’s shameful, there’s shame behind the question. But you’re coming to me and telling me not to do something, trying to censor me.
“I was thinking, ‘That’s exactly why I make this art, because of people like you.’”
The sneakers-wearing activist uses street art and social media to promote millennial-style political protest that is transnational and cyber-driven but still rooted in the street.
This Sunday, Saffaa will unveil a new street mural in Melbourne’s Brunswick East, a collaboration with several female artists as a tribute to Saudi women. The launch will be hosted by Moroccan Deli-cacy cafe owner and community activist Hana Assafiri, known for hosting public salon-style conversations at her Melbourne restaurants, including the hit speed-date-a-Muslim series.
Saffaa says her work is motivated not only by political injustice but a visceral need for self-expression.
“What the role of the artist is goes back to the question of, what is the role of art?” she says. “It goes beyond trying to raise awa
Part of her activism is borne out of subverting the western framing of Saudi women as victims, rather than as agents of their own liberation. This co-opting, she says, only furthers the infantilisation they were fighting against, with women used as pawns in a cultural battleground of rising Islamophobia.
“Don’t say Saudi women don’t have a voice. We have a voice. You just haven’t been paying attention.”
Saffaa says the fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is part of broader struggle against state authoritarianism, for the rights of all minorities. As a believer, she questions the way the kingdom sought legitimacy through a hardline Wahhabi interpretation of religion.
“There’s so much policing of women’s bodies and even men,” she says. “I think faith is a personal thing and in Saudi they make it a public thing. You have to display your faith everywhere you go.”
• A new work by Ms Saffaa and several other female artists – in tribute to Saudi women and women in conflict zones – will be launched on 4 December at Moroccan Deli-cacy in Brunswick East, Melbourne
This article was originally featured in The Guardian on December 1, 2016.
Sayed Abdellatif’s horizons are low already, and narrowing still.
Where once he could wave to his family through a wire fence, he has been told by guards – without explanation – that the behaviour was a security risk and prohibited.
Now the only time he has with his wife and six children are the crowded hours spent in the overfull and noisy visitors’ area of Villawood detention centre in Sydney; a cavernous and impersonal room where guards wearing black vests and body cameras with listening devices quietly loiter to electronically eavesdrop on conversations. His children must wear brightly coloured wristbands to see him. The wristbands mean they can leave. His wrists are bare.
Abdellatif has watched hundreds of asylum seekers pass through and out of detention: granted bridging visas, protection visas, some deported. He has seen people set themselves on fire in detention, hang themselves and stab each other. Sniffer dogs invade rooms without notice seeking out drugs.
Abdellatif doesn’t count the days – 1,643 – he has been in held immigration detention. He knows broadly it is four-and-a-half years and he knows he remains no closer to a resolution of his case than the day he arrived in Australia.
In that time, he has seen four Australian prime ministers come and go. He follows politics closely and jokes darkly he may see many more. He has not been charged, nor accused of any crime in Australia.
His detention has been condemned by the UN human rights council as illegal, a “clearly disproportionate… deprivation of liberty” from which he should be released and for which he should be compensated; excoriated by the Australian Human Rights Commission as “arbitrary … and unjustified”; and criticised by the Australian government’s own inspector general of intelligence and security for its “lack of coordination and … urgency”
Four times the department has recommended to successive ministers that he be allowed apply for a protection visa. He remains in detention.
Now, new documents obtained under freedom of information legislation reveal the government has known for nearly 18 months that the evidence used to convict Abdellatif in absentia in a mass show trial in Egypt in 1999 – the basis for his detention in Australia – was obtained “under severe torture” and is discredited.
A briefing paper read and signed by the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, in April 2015, two months after a Guardian story, states documents in possession of the department “raise concerns about the legitimacy of the trial”.
“Translations of supreme military court documents and signed statements from witnesses indicate that the evidence used against Mr Abdellatif in the Egyptian trial was obtained under torture.”
But the same document also shows the immigration department seeking to assure the immigration minister that Abdellatif can still be kept in detention without charge or trial, regardless of the legitimacy of his claim for protection.
Department officials recommended that Abdellatif be allowed to apply for a visa, so that it could then be denied to him and the process used to force him out of Australia.
“If Mr Abdellatif was permitted to lodge a valid TPV [temporary protection visa] application, it would be refused as he would not meet the criterion in the new subsection 36(1B) of the [migration] act (which refuses a visa to anyone judged by Asio to be directly or indirectly a risk to security).”
Officials recommended that Abdellatif be allowed to apply for a visa, so that it could then be denied to him
An asylum seeker cannot legally be removed from Australia before their claim for protection is assessed. Therefore, bureaucrats argue to the minister in the briefing, allowing Abdellatif to apply for a visa, only to then reject it, “provides the strongest basis for effecting removal as it reduces the risk of successful litigation and, therefore, is the proposed mechanism to assess Mr Abdellatif’s claims”.
The briefing contemplates approaching Egypt – the only country of which Abdellatif is a citizen or has a right to enter but also the country from which he seeks protection from persecution – to ask that country to request his extradition.
Egypt has made no effort to reclaim its citizen and the briefing notes “securing adequate diplomatic assurances cannot be guaranteed … until thorough consideration has been given to Mr Abdellatif’s security concerns and his specific claims including the risk of harm on return to Egypt”.
On 19 May 2015, the immigration minister granted the Abdellatif family leave to apply for temporary protection visas in Australia.
Abdellatif undertook 22 hours of interviews over four days with department officials in February and March 2016 but nearly a year later is no closer to finding out the outcome of his application.
Abdellatif has no recourse to any appeal while he is detained and while his case remains before the department. It has barely progressed, save for the growing mountain of paperwork that only serves to confirm the Kafka-esque stalemate he is in.
A spokesman for Asio – the agency that gave Abdellatif an “adverse security assessment” on the basis of the flawed Egyptian trial – told the Guardian: “Consistent with long standing practice, Asio does not comment on individuals.”
A spokeswoman said the department “does not comment on individual cases”.
Exile and detention
Abdellatif fled Egypt in 1992, having been tortured under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. In that year, he was arrested from a mosque by the state security investigations service as part of a crackdown on Islamic political opposition to Mubarak’s rule. Since fleeing his homeland, he has remained in exile from his country, living as a refugee in Albania, the UK, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia and – finally – Australia. All of his six children were born during that exile.
Abdellatif and his family arrived in Australia by boat in May 2012. The Australian government assessed his claim for protection and found that he and his family had a prima facie claim to refugee status.
The trial, criticised by rights groups at the time, was later found to have been fraudulent. A three-year Guardian investigation has shown multiple flaws in the case against him and Australia’s handling of that case.
But, beyond the arcane legal machinations, Abdellatif’s case had the misfortune to become a political firestorm at the height of 2013 pre-election debate over boat arrivals. The then opposition leader and later prime minister, Tony Abbott, labelled Abdellatif a “convicted jihadist” and a “pool-fence terrorist”, in reference to the low-security perimeter at the Inverbrackie detention centre in South Australia. George Brandis, now the attorney general but then the shadow attorney general, said he was “plainly a convicted terrorist”.
The Abdellatifs were moved to Villawood. There, Sayed Abdellatif remains. His case has hardly progressed and the systemic flaws in his detention have never been addressed by the department.
In a narrow booth in the visitors’ area of the detention centre, Abdellatif’s two eldest daughters fuss about him, spreading out cake and ma’amoul – a Middle Eastern date pastry – as he sips distractedly at a weak, milky tea served in a polystyrene cup.
His eldest son, now 13, bears a striking resemblance to his father. A child when he came to Australia, he is a young man now, sporting a stubble on his chin and quiet, defiant eyes. A younger brother, now six, can barely remember what it is like to live with his father.
The children are “doing very well, I am very proud”, Abdellatif says of their lives on the outside. But they carry the burden of their father’s incarceration too. School graduations, speech nights, Abdellatif has applied – and been rejected – to attend them all.
A life of exile – all of his children know only displacement – has bound the Abdellatif family tightly together: throughout their incarceration in Australia, members of the Abdellatif family have resolutely insisted they not be forcibly separated. But a bureaucratic sleight of hand saw the family’s situation transmogrify yet again.
Earlier this year, Villawood detention centre’s family compound – where Abdellatif’s wife and six children were housed – was overnight redefined as “community detention housing”.
While the security cameras that had watched them were disabled, and gates unlocked, the Abdellatif family remained in the same house but the change to their detention regime allowed the immigration minister to declare there were no longer any children in immigration detention in Australia.
Now ostensibly free, the change has, perversely, forced Abdellatif’s family further from him. The 10-minute internal route within Villawood that joined the family and the high-security compound is now sealed, forcing the family to thread their way through Villawood’s suburban streets on foot to see their husband and father, now a few hundred metres but an hour’s walk away.
Even in their brief moments of communion, there is a weariness about the Abdellatif family, a resignation that, even as they try to enjoy the few hours they have together as a family, they can never wholly forget their cloistered, confining surrounds.
Abdellatif’s is life spent in limbo, at the mercy of a bureaucratic caprice he can neither question nor predict. Still, after four-and-a-half years, he holds hope.
“I came to Australia not to fight with Australia but seeking protection,” he says. “I am a friend, not an animal.”
The indefinite nature of his detention wears on him, he explains, grinding down his spirit and triggering crushing bouts of depression that he must fight to pull himself from. Abdellatif’s treating psychologist and psychiatrist have both recommended to the government he be reunited with his family in the community “given the significant impact separation from his family in a held detention environment is having on his mental health”.
“I’m wasting my life in this place,” he says of his incarceration. “If I was sentenced, if I made a mistake, I’d pay the price. But I have done nothing wrong, I have nothing to hide.
“Even in jail they have a time, they know how long … but this system is killing hope.”
Abdellatif spends most of his days alone, in his room, a tight, airless cell with a toilet, a single bed and a chest of drawers, and from which, if he stands on a stool, he can see the outside world through a high sealed window. But the view is only of the detention centre’s water tank and the steel fences that hold him in.
Abdellatif speaks haltingly these days. His English, once strong, is getting worse with the isolation of his existence.
Now, he can barely be heard above the din of the visitors’ room. He leans in to speak, first glancing over his shoulder to see who – the guards wearing cameras can appear at any time – might be listening.
Here, we are nowhere, he says. And there are no rules.
“We are out of Australia. We are out of the world.”
The topic of sex seems to always draw a crowd. Sex, Islam and the Arab world seems to magnetize one. The western obsession with Arab and Muslim sexuality seems fixated on harems and hijabs with a sometimes prurient and salacious gaze that fetishizes the exotic other.
Former Al-Jazeera presenter Shereen El-Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel is thankfully not part of the ‘harems and hijabs’ brigade. But her book does delve into the bedrooms of men and women in Egypt and across the region to look at the ways in which sexuality intersect with religion and tradition and is linked to politics and the greater fight for democracy in the region.
Islamic scholar Amina Wadud has been branded both a heroine and a heretic.
Heroine for her academic framework for Muslims in legal and policy reform around the world; heretic for leading a mixed gender prayer in New York in 2005 which made worldwide headlines.
The prayer session propelled the 58-year-old African American into celebrity Muslim reformer status, a position the theologian does not seem entirely comfortable with.
“I try to keep my sense of humour about it,” she said, speaking in Sydney after engagements in Melbourne and Canberra.
“I didn’t play into it. I didn’t stoke the sensationalism of it.
“The time was a little bit comical but I could not live along those lines. I like the basic parts of my life where you have anonymity.”
Asked if the controversy had obscured her long-time activism and scholarship on Islam and gender issues, she said: “I regret things being obscured for any reason. But I do not regret the prayer if that is reason why people obscure things. People have not been pleased with my work for a long time. So the prayer is just a ruse … and … excuse for not listening to what you have to say.”
Dr Wadud is the author of several books, including Quran and Women: Re-reading the sacred text from a woman’s perspective and Inside Gender Jihad: Women’s reform in Islam.
Her central thesis is that for centuries Islam has been interpreted by male scholars which has obscured its essentially egalitarian ethos. This ethos, Dr Wadud says, has inspired her reform work particularly around Islamic family law.
While her religious detractors accuse her of heresy, other criticisms of Dr Wadud involve the charge that she feeds into the never-ending contestation of religious texts which has no purpose in the modern era within a secular framework. However, her books have worked as a framework for Muslim activists, particularly through lobby groups and her organisation, Sisters in Islam in Malaysia.
One of Dr Wadud’s central ideas is that as a believer she accepts the divinity of the Qur’an, however, its readings must always be open to scrutiny and re-evaluation. This is particularly important if laws are to be based on its precepts and have impact in the real world on women’s lives.
Born in the American South, in Maryland in 1952, to a Methodist preacher father, Dr Wadud converted to Islam at university at the age of 20 after a brief stint as a practicing Buddhist.
“I was a practicing Buddhist for a year,” she said.
“I came across Islam and it grew exponentially and I came to an understanding of the universe that worked for me.”
The liberation theology of the black leaders of the civil rights movement and her own upbringing also influenced her.
“My family situation was one where the relationship between social injustice and faith was explicit. You do not oppress. Oppression is against God’s will,” she said.
“I grew up in the era of black consciousness. I lived in a transformative time as a young person- you could hear and feel you had a certain sense of social responsibility – a mandate to fight to remove injustice as it was being established in the context of our lives as African Americans.
“I was brought up in the revolutionary spirit of justice and it was common sense to transfer that in terms of Islam and gender justice.”
Dr Wadud, a devout and thoughtful woman, finds much of the hype around her work distasteful, so much so that at one point she eschewed the label ‘feminist’ altogether.
“There are obviously large sectors of non-Muslim and Muslim population who think Islamic feminism is an oxymoron,” she said.
“I am less concerned now about whether or not I make everyone comfortable in terms of the self designation (of being feminist) than at another point.”
She said the term ‘feminism’ often led people to dismiss her work.
” … I feel a little bit more comfortable in my own skin being able to say feminist. At another point [I would avoid the label] in order to avoid the politics of the discussion and to avoid the marginalisation of my work into those politics,” Dr Wadud said.
This perceived incompatibility is incongruous with her own study of Islamic thought and philosophical thinking.
“They are limiting feminism from its own intellectual and political history,” she said. “They are also limiting Islam from its own egalitarian trajectory.”
Dr Wadud has found crowd hostility toward her more pointed in Sydney than Melbourne, where the largely Muslim audience seemed much more engaged.
Her lecture this week at the University of Technology, Sydney, involved several heated exchanges with young men.
“Some people in the Australian audiences, they come because they’ve heard there is something wrong or bad or evil about me,” she said.
“They come because they will set me straight. When they get here and I don’t say anything outrageous for them to pick up on – they make up stuff.”
Dr Wadud finds arguments with those who have not even read her ideas tiring and is now focussed on reaching out to those who have.
“In the past I felt a much greater responsibility to be understood by as many people as possible,” she said.
“You spent all your time trying to convert people who are absolutely unconvinced about where you’re going.
“Then there are some people who are trying to understand certain things and have a nominal level of agreement and maybe want to go further and engage with your ideas. That’s a more interesting level to engage.”
There have been rumours of death threats, but Dr Wadud is quick to clear the air.
“I never received any death threats,” she laughs.
“There was this thing where people got into saying I had death threats. But I never had anyone actually threaten me.”