Quotes About Freedom From Around The World

by Min Straussman

In the United States, July 4 is a celebration of independence and, more broadly, the American value of freedom. But freedom is not only an American story. The desire for political and personal freedom has long inspired people all over the world to fight for their own freedom and self-determination.

Most literally, the word freedom means “the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint.” More philosophically, it refers to “the power to exercise choice and make decisions without constraint from within or without; autonomy.”

Here are 11 freedom quotes that give insight into personal notions of freedom from prominent figures from the US and around the world, including leaders, activists, artists, and writers.


It is our obligation to protect our rights. Rights guaranteed by the Constitution. … These are rights that are familiar and inalienable to us. This is freedom of speech. That is why Ukrainians are not afraid to tell the enemy ‘go home.’ Because they have freedom of thought. They know how to think, see, hear, understand, distinguish truth from lies.
—Volodymyr Zelenskyy, address on Ukraine’s Constitution Day, June 28, 2022


Closely tied to freedom is the concept of rights. A right is defined as “that which is due to anyone by just claim, legal guarantees, moral principles, etc.” In his address, one of many in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Zelenskyy cites some of the many rights that the nation’s citizens are fighting for. He notes that such rights are guaranteed by the Ukrainian Constitution—a notion held in all constitutional democracies.


There is no stability with fear, there is no stability with poverty, there is no stability with silencing, and there is no stability while preventing free opinion and expression and political action.
—Ramy Shaath, speech to the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights, January 26, 2022


Ramy Shaath is a longtime Egyptian-Palestinian human rights activist who co-founded the pro-Palestinian BDS or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement. He spent years in jail in a detention that was decried as arbitrary by the United Nations Human Rights Council and human rights organizations. Upon his release, he spoke to the European Parliament about the importance of freedom for creating stability, a word with a variety of meanings including “the state or quality of being not likely to fall or give way, as a structure, support, foundation, etc.”


When I walked into my first ACT UP meeting, I found a room full of really cranky people, really smart, really funny people who were angry and whose preferred tactic was to go out in the streets and yell about what they were angry about … It was a freedom—being able to say what I thought, without conforming to some organizational line, or way of acting.
—Ann Northrop, interview in Vox, June 14, 2022


Journalist and activist Ann Northrop was one of the founding members of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and she described their unusual approach as freeing, because they did not have to conform, or “comply,” to traditional organizing methods. ACT UP was founded as a grassroots organization working to end the AIDS pandemic. They were known for their radical demonstrations and protests to push for a treatment or cure for the disease at a time when people, particularly members of the LGBTQ+ community, were being stigmatized.


The role of women in the South African scene both as politicians and as mothers, is made so complex, under apartheid. We want our children to grow up to be decent citizens of tomorrow. We want our children to be educated. How do you do it in a country where you have to fight tooth and nail for your recognition as an ordinary human being?
—Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, interview with Diana Russell, 1987


Politician and activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela spent her whole life fighting against the apartheid [ uhpahrt-hahyt ] regime in South Africa. Apartheid was “a rigid policy of segregating and economically and politically oppressing the nonwhite population” (similar to Jim Crow laws) that officially lasted from 1948 until 1994. The word apartheid comes from Afrikaans, in which it means “the state of being apart.”


Religious freedom is actually an expression of freedom of thought. Our various religious traditions have different philosophies and different practices, but all carry the same message—a message of love, forgiveness, contentment, and self-discipline.
—The Dalai Lama, address to the International Religious Freedom Summit, July 15, 2021


One form of freedom is the freedom to practice one’s own religion. The Dalai Lama is no stranger to oppression due to one’s religion, having fled persecution in China as a young child. The spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama describes religious practice as a form of expression, a word that means here “communication of emotion.”


If we want to dismantle oppressive systems that exist, then we have to stop being oppressive to each other.
—Kyle T. Mays, interview with NPR, October 11, 2021


Kyle T. Mays is an Afro-Indigenous professor and Saginaw Chippewa activist who writes about the ways the US government has impeded on the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, such as by stealing land or refusing to honor treaties. In this interview with NPR, he notes the need for coalition amongst different peoples to “dismantle oppressive systems.” Dismantle in this sense means “to disassemble or pull down; take apart.”


When someone takes away your pens you realize quite how important education is.
—Malala Yousafzai (with Christina Lamb), I Am Malala, 2013


2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is known for her dedication to ensuring girls and women have access to education around the world, and particularly in her home country of Pakistan. As a child, Malala was forced to abandon her education when the Taliban took over her town and closed her school. In her memoir, she writes about her realization that education is a form of freedom. The dictionary definition of education is “the act or process of imparting or acquiring knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.”


I can do my own thinking and do not need to repeat the ‘truths’ of the government; I do not need to sound like a textbook. I am not bound to a given answer and have found that there can be many answers. Not only for me, but for everyone.
—Jewher Ilham, interview with PEN/Opp, translated by Christina Cullhed, April 6, 2020


Jewher Ilham is an activist on behalf of her Uighur community, an ethnic minority in China. Her father, Ilham Tohti, is serving a life prison sentence that multiple human rights organizations have spotlighted as unjust and targeted at silencing his activist writings. In this quote, Jewher Ilham celebrates the freedom to have her own opinions—to not be bound, or “under a legal or moral obligation,” to say or think anything.


Democracy has become a woman-to-woman, man-to-man defense of our values. We’re at a sliding door moment, where we can continue down the path we’re on and descend further into fascism, or we can each choose to fight for a better world.
To do that, you have to ask yourself: what are YOU willing to sacrifice for the truth?
—Maria Ressa, Nobel Peace Prize lecture, December 10, 2021


Maria Ressa is a Filipino-American investigative reporter who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. Her work involves documenting allegations of wrongdoing by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. In this speech, she warned against the dangers of fascism, “a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power … and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.” The word fascism ultimately comes from Italian fascio, meaning “bundle,” as in a bundle of rods (an image that has been used to symbolize power). However, the word fascio can also refer to a “political group.”


[F]reedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose—and commit myself to—what is best for me.
—Paulo Coelho, The Zahir, 2006


As we noted in our philosophical definition of freedom, an important element of this condition is the ability to make one’s own choices. Best-selling Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho echoes this idea, adding that commitments, or “pledges; promises; obligations,” are not impediments to freedom when one has the autonomy to decide what their true commitments are.


[While filming Human Flow] I saw that some refugees still held on to the keys to their homes, although we all knew that the entire streets or even the entire cities where they used to live had disappeared. It made me understand the core of humanitarianism, which is tightly tied to human rights and people’s freedoms of expression and development.
—Ai Weiwei, interview in Harper’s Bazaar, November 1, 2021


Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and human rights activist who is known for his striking, large-scale installations and projects that draw attention to oppressed peoples around the world. In this interview, he talks about how freedom of expression is at “the core of humanitarianism,” an ethical doctrine premised on “having concern for or helping to improve the welfare and happiness of people.” The word humanitarianism has been around longer than you might expect: the first records of it come from around 1830.

As you can see from this diverse array of voices, people have many different approaches and understandings of the concept of freedom. It can range from the ability to practice one’s own religion (or no religion), to the opportunity to speak one’s own language, to the right to control land and government. What does freedom mean to you? What’s your definition of freedom?

Min Straussman is a freelance writer and educator from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A frequent contributor to Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com, his work has also appeared in Hey Alma, beestung, and other publications. He lives in Paris. For more by Min, read: Terms For Understanding The Diversity Of Jewish American Life | A Language Of Pride: Understand The Terms Around LGBTQ Identity | 19 Trailblazing Quotes From Women Of Color On The Pursuit Of Suffrage | 15 Earth Day Quotes That Remind Us To Appreciate And Preserve Our World

Read these trailblazing quotes from women of color on the pursuit of suffrage.

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