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“I broadcast the voices of marginalized and non-normative people”

Nazeeha Saeed (She), journalist from Bahrain

By Haithem Haouel
English translation by Yasmine BenSalah

Her atypical career stands out thanks to her opinions, her personal convictions and her commitments to defend human rights without any compromise, including the rights of people with non-normative gender. Nazeeha Saeed is a committed journalist currently living in exile… unable to work freely and safely in her own country: Bahrain. Despite some hardships, she continues to forge her own path, putting her journalistic work to the benefit of freedoms, equality, and the most basic of rights. Her name still echoes in the Arab world: A world where free speech is not easy to achieve, and where freedoms and human rights are often flouted. Nazeeha Saeed confides… without filters.

1-Nazeeha Saeed, since the beginning of your career, you have advocated human rights, as well as the rights of women and minorities, and you fiercely defend freedom of expression through your profession as a committed journalist (notably for so-called intersectional human causes). But who is Nazeeha Saeed?

I grew up in a politically committed family: My mother and aunts fought for women’s rights. The family environment was conducive to meetings and exchanges around human rights since my earliest childhood. My family is politically engaged par excellence, which led me very naturally to be like them. I drew my centers of interest, my convictions, and my profession from this environment. As a journalist initially, I chose to deal with various themes, issues and subjects through journalism and the media. I was made aware of and listened to women and their life narratives from an early age. I learned to listen to others and take action. Journalism has allowed me to shed light on their ills and to learn more about the stakes involved in their rights, the problems they must overcome and the challenges they face. 

2-However, being a journalist in Bahrain must have been a tough job for you ......

Indeed, it is not the most beautiful of jobs to be exercised in Bahrain, and precisely after 2011… When the authorities began to prevent journalists from doing their job properly and to silence them, in particular by taking over the existing media, and also withdrawing the permits of some journalists … myself included.

3- Have you focused solely on women's rights, or have you also dealt with issues relating to other ethnic/ social communities or minorities?

Not directly. I became a journalist in 1999. In 2000/2001, a political change brought about other social and human rights changes, again in Bahrain. These same changes have allowed political activists, or human rights defenders to proliferate, with established and specialized civic organizations, centers and institutions. As a young journalist, at the time, I dealt with current events and subjects relating to their work and to Human Rights. After 3 or 4 years in the job, I was even put in charge of a newspaper column and given a page devoted to human rights news to manage. Women’s rights were important to me, as a politically committed woman and journalist from a politically committed family.

4-You advocate human rights for women and minorities, always through journalism. Do you consider yourself an “ally”?

Many in Bahrain and the Gulf countries, and even in the MENA region and North Africa consider me an Ally because I don’t discriminate: I work without concession with and about everyone on equal footing. “Human rights are for everyone” and it is from this principle that I exercise my profession as a journalist.

5-What is your definition of the word "Ally" in absolute terms?

The term ‘Ally’ is a profound one on which many are building their hopes and expectations. As a journalist, I do my job properly while raising awareness: raising awareness, informing through my journalistic content or through the training that I lead. I’m all about transmitting knowledge and the things I know, and in my opinion, each Ally’s way of operating or being differs, depending on the work they do, or on their own personality or experience, etc. I’m not the only one.. When advocating for a specific cause, it’s always good to be in contact with different allies. Weakened or marginalized communities, including the LGBTQI+ community, consider me an allied journalist, and for me, that is a source of pride.

6-Can you tell us more about the activism landscape in Bahrain? Is there a difference between being an activist in the Gulf (more precisely in Bahrain) and being one in North Africa?

Generally speaking, civil society in the MENA region has long been sealed off by the settlers at first, and then by different authoritarian regimes. The latter have long managed to reduce the impact of civil society and even to eliminate it. Consequently, this gives space to people who work in civil society but who do not defend the rights of underprivileged people, including the LGBGTQI+ community or others who work in organizations for the defense of women’s rights and who are against abortion or equality in inheritance etc. etc. … The result is a civil society that omits minority groups leading to a work that is incomplete. Activists with integrity, awareness and who make human rights the foundation of all their fights, come up against an authoritarian and dictatorial political system, which prevents them from acting or having an impact properly. The Gulf countries are not advanced in terms of Human Rights, compared to North Africa. North Africa, in my opinion, was a precursor, more, thanks to its activists, its civil societies, their stories histories of colonization, and I would even say that Tunisia is the most advanced in terms of Human Rights. Despite the difficulties and new challenges, Tunisia’s existing collective awareness and achievements are unquestionably and by far the most advanced in the Arab world.

7-As a committed journalist, do you ever feel threatened after doing your work?

When I deal with a specific subject, for example, on people of a non-normative gender/ sexuality or when I deal with areas that are taboo, we touch on large fringes of society whose political and religious systems have tried to ignore and shut down their perceptions. Our battles are fought on a legal level, on a social level, and on one related to mindsets. Subjects related to migrants, people from the LGBTQI+ community or even those related to women can cause anger… and with the rise of the rightists, it’s even worse. One is inevitably confronted with a political/legal system and society when dealing with one’s subjects. Personally, I try to do my journalistic work while staying on my guard, keeping my distance and no matter how careful and professional, nothing can prevent us from a hate attack, especially online or on social networks. Often, we are targeted by religious people when we deal with subjects related to bodies, sexuality, and gender. “Haters” who don’t hesitate to call us “Zionists”, “collaborators” or whatever.

8- When did you question your privileges and put them to use in your committed work?

Our privileges, we do not become aware of them overnight… It is acquired over time and emanates from my own person. After 2011 and the Arab revolutions, there was an upsurge of awareness, especially with the emergence of the internet. Activists and journalists became open to the world: they collided, crossed paths and bubbled over. My arrest, my incarceration and the shock felt after this ordeal affected me greatly and at the same time strengthened me. We must protect the rights of all people equally and certainly protect their most basic rights. My privileges didn’t prevent me from being arrested and going into exile… Surely, they weren’t of much use in my country. I certainly have privileges over some people, but far fewer than others. So many hardships have pushed me to get involved, to take part in training courses, to pass on my struggles, knowledge, and skills… to become more tenacious. Hence my interest, among other things, in issues related to minorities.

9-You are at this very moment in exile. You continue to operate while being away from your country. Is your work still as impactful as ever? Or have there been changes?

My exile is due to the fact that my work permit was withdrawn, hence the main reason for my departure. Living abroad allows me to keep on doing my job, and avoid being subjected to any pressure. I broadcast the voices of minorities, people who express their opinions, women, and everyone. In my country, I was constantly threatened with being arrested, with being persecuted… And I started this journey, I committed myself to it and I’m determined to see it through to the end … always. My heart goes out to my family back home. This exile has enabled me to continue to work in safety. Living and working like this suits me: I am at peace and that’s important to me.

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