feminism · human rights · interview · journalism · muslim women

Ms Saffaa, protest art and the fledgling Saudi Arabia women’s rights movement as featured in The Guardian

The Australia-based artist’s work is emblematic of the movement protesting against Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws

I Am My Own Guardian art by Sydney artist Ms Saffaa.

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 movement gave birth to a hashtag, #iammyownguardian, and a petition signed by thousands, part of a growing online campaign protesting against the laws.

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.

human rights

Detaining high-risk terrorism offenders after jail term ends ‘violates human rights’ as featured in The Guardian


Australian human rights groups have raised concerns over a proposed government bill that would allow for the continued detention of “high-risk terrorist” offenders at the end of their sentence.

Under the government’s proposal, a state or territory supreme court will decide if a high-risk offender remains high risk at the end of their sentence.

For a high-risk prisoner to be kept in jail, the court must be satisfied that no other less restrictive measure would be effective in preventing “unacceptable risk” to community safety.

The maximum period for which a continuing detention order can be made is three years and the person must not be detained in the same area as the general prison population .

Human rights groups will present their submissions to an inquiry into the proposed criminal code amendment (high risk terrorist offenders) bill 2016 during hearings in Canberra on Friday.

In one of the written submissions, Prof Ben Saul, Challis chair of international law at the University of Sydney said the scheme violates Australia’s international human rights obligations by characterising continued incarceration as preventative detention.

“Prisons are built for prisoners, not non-prisoners … I am not aware of prison facilities where a person subject to a continuing detention order could be meaningfully separated from, and treated differently than, prisoners,” he said in his statement.

Human Rights Watch said in its submission there was ambiguity around what constituted “high risk”. Terrorism legislation provides for up to 15 years imprisonment for non-violent offences including possessing a “thing”, providing material and resources, or having membership related to a terrorist group.

“Australian law’s overly broad definition of terrorism makes the bill particularly worrisome,” the group said in their submission.

Human Rights Watch said existing laws already provided for control orders that allowed tracking and surveillance of suspects.

The Muslim Legal Network said in its submission the proposed scheme breached human rights obligations by providing for potentially indefinite, arbitrary and punitively retroactive punishment.

Zaahir Edries, president of the Muslim Legal Network, said the measures effectively added a criminal sanction to a prisoner’s sentence without the benefit of a trial.
“Proposing this kind of legislation where there are minimal safeguards and the standards are lowered to prove them poses a dangerous and unacceptable infringement on civil liberties,” he said.

The Lebanese Muslim Association’s submission said the government’s proposed measures were counterproductive and risked creating “martyrs” out of those incarcerated while further alienating Muslim youth.

The office of the attorney general, George Brandis, has been contacted for comment.

This article was first published in The Guardian on 14 October, 2016.

ASIO · asylum · human rights

Sayed Abdellatif’s daughters realise HSC dream but have university hopes dashed- as featured in the Guardian

Front page of the Guardian Australia site.
Front page of the Guardian Australia site.

The immigration department refused to allow Sayed Abdellatif to attend his two eldest daughters’ graduation ceremony.

The contest to arrive at the Year 12 formal in the most spectacular “wheels” is happily embraced by students at high schools across Australia.

For Sayed Abdellatif’s two eldest daughters, it was no contest at all.

The girls arrived at their school formal in a car driven by their very own Serco guards, “like minor royalty”, as the running joke among classmates went.

“Nothing,” the older Abdellatif daughter says, “could be further from the truth”.

“The formal was a struggle,” she says. Special permission was required, strict conditions and curfews imposed; celebrations held under the watchful eye of the omnipresent security detail.

But at least they were allowed to go. “Simple things that are normal for everyone to do, for us it is a struggle.”

The girls are the first students to graduate from high school while incarcerated at Villawood detention centre, a remarkable achievement for two young women who have spent their childhood in the shadowlands of societies all over the world, or held in immigration detention.

Sayed Abdellatif in 1997, aged 26. Supplied.
Sayed Abdellatif in 1997, aged 26. Supplied.

The local New South Wales government school they attended, each day under the gaze of their guards, was the first they had ever set foot in in their lives.

For the two eldest Abdellatif daughters – whom Guardian Australia has chosen not to name or photograph because of their age – school was a dream, a chance at a future, and an escape from a fractured past in which they had known neither peace nor stability.

“It made me angry to see kids who had everything … but they didn’t appreciate it,” the older daughter says. “But it was really challenging, especially learning a whole new language and studying in that language.”

The girls are in Villawood because their father, 44-year-old Egyptian national Sayed Abdellatif, is being held in indefinite detention on a historical Interpol red notice issued in his name, dating from a 1999 mass show trial of 107 men in Cairo. The trial has since been discredited as politically motivated and based on evidence obtained by torture.
The girls are in Villawood because their father, 44-year-old Egyptian national Sayed Abdellatif, is being held in indefinite detention on a historical Interpol red notice issued in his name, dating from a 1999 mass show trial of 107 men in Cairo. The trial has since been discredited as politically motivated and based on evidence obtained by torture.

The girls’ HSC results will arrive imminently, but any hopes of furthering their education at university have been dashed.

The eldest daughter says she put in a request, through the immigration department, to go to university. “But immigration said ‘no, you can’t go to university, it’s a personal choice’ [the request is outside the department’s remit]”.

You have no freedom. Your life is on hold. The more you think about it the more powerless you feel.
Elder Abdellatif daughter

The girls are in Villawood because their father, 44-year-old Egyptian national Sayed Abdellatif, is being held in indefinite detention on a historical Interpol red notice issued in his name, dating from a 1999 mass show trial of 107 men in Cairo. The trial has since been discredited as politically motivated and based on evidence obtained by torture.

A Guardian investigation in 2013 found the major convictions made against Abdellatif – in absentia – were erroneous, and that the allegations were never even made against him in court. That investigation led Interpol to take the extraordinary step of removing those charges from the red notice.

The remaining lesser offences, of membership in a terrorist group (Egyptian Islamic Jihad) and providing forged travel documents, were secured using evidence obtained by torture, court documents show. Abdellatif denies the allegations.

Abdellatif, his wife and six children, the youngest of whom is five, have been in immigration detention in Australia since 2012.

Abdellatif, his wife and six children have been held in detention for more than three years without charge.
Arbitrary detention of Egyptian asylum seeker and his family is ‘clearly disproportionate’,  UN human rights council tells Australia. 


In 2014, the immigration department recommended to the minister that Abdellatif be granted a visa and released into the community; in the same year, an assessment by the inspector general of intelligence and security made clear he was not a danger to national security; and in June this year, the United Nations said his detention was illegal, indefinite and arbitrary, and directed Australia to release Abdellatif and compensate him for his wrongful detention.
However, while Abdellatif and his family have been allowed to submit paperwork in application for visas, there has been no known movement towards releasing them.

Despite repeated questioning from Guardian Australia over several months, the immigration department has consistently refused to comment on his case.

Abdellatif’s wife and six children have been offered community detention, but they have refused to leave Villawood without their father and husband, fearful he will never be released.

They will endure detention together until it is over, they say, with all of its indignities and deprivations.


Sydney's Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images
Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

Sayed Abdellatif cannot leave Villawood.

For his family, every move outside of its high steel fences – to school, to buy groceries, to doctors’ appointments – is made under the conspicuous escort of Serco guards.

This includes their daily visits through rings of security to see Sayed, housed in a separate high-security compound in Villawood.

The eldest daughter says the stress of separation, and the ongoing uncertainty over their futures, has cast a dark shadow over their school year.

She says she almost had a breakdown in the middle of her HSC trials.

“It’s like a rollercoaster. You pretend that everything is OK. Other days you lose it [and] just cry and scream.”

The girls say they can feel their family fracturing under the stress of their detention. Tempers flare often, and sometimes the children scream at each other, or sullenly retreat to their rooms.

“It’s just hard when everyone is in the same situation. [If] one of the family is feeling down, the whole family will follow,” the older daughter says.

The family survives by making jokes to lighten the burden but it doesn’t change the grim reality of a life in limbo.

“We make fun of everything. If you can’t really change it, then no point crying over it. But detention is still detention.”

The contrast between the relative normality of school – notwithstanding the ever-present security detail – and the capriciousness of secure detention is a daily struggle.

“It’s like you have two lives. When you come here [back to the compound] it’s like you are a different person.”

Villawood detention centre.
Access to computers and the internet has been sporadic. Picture: Flickr.

Motivation for school was often difficult to summon, the older daughter says.

“I always thought ‘don’t give up because it will pay off’. But some days I think ‘if it doesn’t get resolved, what’s the point of studying?’. ”

And studying in a detention centre was difficult: the girls had only sporadic access to a computer or printers.

The handful of desktop computers that sit in the communal area of Villawood’s family compound – among the young children running noisily amok and the ceaseless blare of televisions – are shared among dozens of detainees, and heavily restricted.

The younger daughter, who studied economics, says some websites she needed for her schoolwork were blocked, including her student emails that allowed her to access her marks and notes from teachers.

“It’s like a rollercoaster. You pretend that everything is OK. Other days you lose it [and] just cry and scream.”

“All economics websites are blocked. The RBA and the Australian banks are all blocked. That was very frustrating,” she says.

But school was an escape from those frustrations too, a release from the suffocating pressures of life in detention, and the uncertainties beyond. The two sisters say that often they found solace in schoolwork.

The Abdellatif family’s proudest moment this year was the girls’ graduation ceremony. But the occasion was bittersweet: the immigration department refused to allow Sayed Abdellatif to attend.

The girls’ exhilaration at graduating has been tempered by uncertainty around their future. Picture: Moyan Brenn/Flickr

“Since my daughters were young, I’ve always dreamed of seeing them wearing graduation gowns,” Abdellatif told Guardian Australia from detention. “I’m very proud of my daughters for their achievements, but I was also so disappointed that I was denied [permission] to join my family to see my girls graduate.”

The girls’ exhilaration at graduating has been tempered by the uncertainty around their future. Even after their HSC, the sisters have been regularly returning to school, seeking the routine and stability it provides.

They dream of going to university next year. The younger one knows already that she wants to be a lawyer.

But their continuing detention makes that an impossibility.

The young women watch their friends make plans for the future: for study, for travel and adventure.

“It’s like you can’t do anything with your life. You can’t plan your life and what you want because someone is controlling it,” the older daughter says.

“You have no freedom. Your life is on hold. The more you think about it the more powerless you feel.”

asylum seekers · detention · human rights

Asylum seeker in hospital after setting himself on fire- as featured in the Guardian

By  and

An asylum seeker at Villawood detention centre has set himself on fire and is in hospital with serious burns, sparking an investigation by the immigration department.

The male asylum seeker sought protection in Australia along with his family in 2010 and now has six children including a two month old infant.
The asylum seeker’s wife told Guardian Australia she was at a library with her children when she received a call about the incident.

“From what I’ve been told is that it is self inflicted harm and it’s a burn incident,” she said. “There was about 10% burns on his face right down to the left of his neck.”

She said the immigration department has not provided her with further details about the incident or events preceding it.

Her husband had been suffering depression since he was taken to Villawood in January 2015. He made a previous self-harm attempt while in detention.

“He has not seen or touched the newborn child,” she said. “He doesn’t want the kids to even see him in detention. He doesn’t want them to be a part of it.”

The family sought protection in Australia from the United Arab Emirates after arriving on a tourism visa by plane to Australia in 2010. They were refused a protection visa in 2010, and lost an appeal to the refugee review tribunal in 2011.

The man was taken back into detention following an unsuccessful federal court bid. His wife and children were also taken to Villawood detention centre in June 2015, but were released so she could give birth to her sixth child.

The family has exhausted most avenues of legal appeal for their protection claims in Australia.

“Why he did this is because he felt so helpless,” the man’s wife said. “Sometimes it’s too much. I cannot measure it anymore.”

A spokeswoman for Department of Immigration and Border Protection said: “The department can confirm that a male detainee was taken to hospital yesterday 17 September 2015, following a self-harm incident at Villawood IDC.
“The individual is receiving appropriate medical treatment, but his injuries have been assessed as non-life threatening. The department is investigating the matter.”

The incident is the second time a person held in immigration detention has set themselves on fire this week.

On Tuesday Ali Jaffari, a Hazara man in Perth immigration detention centre, also set himself on fire and later died from his injuries.

In May 2014 a Tamil asylum seeker, Leo Seemanpillai, self- immolated after spending 18 months in legal limbo.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.

This article was originally published in the Guardian.  Read the original article here.