Saudi Arabia continues to hold more than a dozen women rights activists in jail, months after a crackdown on dissent intensified in May.
Most of them campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions.
In 1990, more than 40 women drove their cars in the capital Riyadh, the first public demonstration against the ban, which is now lifted. They also called for the abolishment of the male guardianship system.
Since then, other similar protests have been held, and the government initiated a crackdown on rights activists this year.
Those under arrest have been branded threats to national security and have been accused of being foreign agents. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the reason for the arrest is to silence the women and prevent others from participating in activism.
Rights organisations and governments around the world have called on the Saudi authorities to release all political prisoners, but to no avail.
Last week, Amnesty International said Saudi activists, including women, who have been arrested in this year’s crackdown have faced sexual harassment and torture during interrogation.
The activists, held in Dhahban prison on the western Red Sea coast, faced repeated electrocution and flogging, leaving some of them unable to stand or walk, the Amnesty International said in a report, citing three separate testimonies.
At least one activist was made to hang from the ceiling and another woman was sexually harassed by interrogators wearing face masks, the United Kingdom-based rights group added.
Yahya al-Assiri, the head of ALQST, a London-based Saudi rights group, said that authorities targeted male human rights activists in the past, but as the “regime became more aggressive” they also began targeting women.
“To justify that, they’re trying to say that [these women] are coordinating with embassies, or foreign countries … To say to the people that they are traitors,” al-Assiri told Al Jazeera.
Many activists have mostly been held incommunicado, without access to their families or lawyers.
Below are some of the prominent women dissidents jailed for demanding basic rights.
Loujain al-Hathloul is a women’s rights activist from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She obtained an undergraduate degree in French Literature from the University of British Columbia in Canada and then pursued a Master’s degree in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
For years, she advocated for the women’s right to drive in the kingdom, and in 2013 actively participated in a campaign where she posted videos of herself driving in an attempt to encourage women to do the same.
With an active social media presence, the 29-year-old had been arrested several times for defying the now-lifted ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia.
لم نعد دولة بمعزل عن العالم وبإمكان أي شخص جمع الحقائق عن واقعنا، لذلك علينا أن نسعى إلى التطوير دون تجاهل آلام أخواتنا والنطق بما يجرحهن ويضلل واقعهن خاصة في زمن نستشعر فيه رغبة من قبل القيادة في إحداث تغيير لواقع المرأة. #CEDAWSaudi #cedaw69
— لجين هذلول الهذلول (@LoujainHathloul) February 28, 2018
Translation: “We are no longer an isolated country, anyone can gather information about what happens here. That’s why we much strive to develop without ignoring the pain of our sisters, we must speak out about what harms them and their existence, especially at a time where we feel that our leadership is invested in creating change for women.”
Al-Hathloul was most recently imprisoned in May 2018, months after King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud signed a royal decree in September 2017 that said women would be allowed to drive “in accordance with Islamic laws”.
She, along with other female activists who had been calling for the lifting of the ban, was instructed not to comment on the decision prior to its announcement, HRW reported.
Two years prior to her latest arrest, al-Hathloul spent 73 days in jail and faced charges of “terrorism” for attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the neighbouring UAE in November 2014.
At the time, Samah Hadid, director of campaigns at Amnesty International in the Middle East, said, “The Saudi Arabian authorities’ continuous harassment of Loujain al-Hathloul is absurd and unjustifiable … It appears she is being targeted once again because of her peaceful work as a human rights defender speaking out for women’s rights, which are consistently trammelled in the kingdom.”
In 2016, al-Hathloul signed a petition with thousands of others calling for the abolishment of the male guardianship system. The following year, she was arrested without charge and was unable to contact her lawyer or family members until she was eventually released shortly after.
In an interview with the Economist in January 2016, al-Hathloul highlighted the challenges women in the kingdom face when they are unable to drive. She said she had dedicated 30 percent of her salary to drivers, and said having to “beg” people to driver her around was “insulting”.
“They [government] told us that we are actually protected, that we have the right to express ourselves freely without being condemned or sent to jail … but in practice it’s not there,” al-Hathloul said.
“They still send us to jail for very normal, rationalised opinions”.
When asked what kind of country she would like Saudi to become, al-Hathloul said “a Saudi Arabia that respects people’s differences and human rights”.
Al-Hathloul has been married to Saudi stand-up comedian and actor Fahad al-Butairi since 2014. Al-Butairi, a prominent comedian who had a large social media following, was also arrested earlier this year.
Samar Badawi, an award-winning activist, is known for her legal battle with her abusive father, who filed a lawsuit against her when she sought refuge in a women’s shelter in 2008.
As a result, she was arrested and spent six months in jail on the charge of “parental disobedience”. She was then released after a Jeddah general court ruled in her favour and transferred her guardianship to her uncle.
Since, Badawi has advocated for the abolishment of the male guardianship system, which among other things, grants male custodians the right to prevent their daughters from marrying, studying, or travelling without prior consent.
In 2011, Badawi filed an unsuccessful Grievances Board lawsuit against the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs for the rejection of her registration for the 2011 municipal elections.
“I learned that we have laws to protect women’s rights, but the woman needs to search for them and to how harness them for her own benefit,” Badawi said in an interview.
She also played an active role in the 2012 campaign to end the ban on women driving in the kingdom, and along with fellow activists, filed a lawsuit against the traffic department for refusing to issue her a driver’s licence.
In March 2012, the United States Department of State honoured Badawi with the International Women of Courage Award for her work and activism.
In 2014, she was subjected to a travel ban and was arrested in 2016 for her human rights work, before being freed on bail.
However, the mother of two was arrested again in July 2018 along with activist Nassima al-Sadah.
“The arrests of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah signal that the Saudi authorities see any peaceful dissent, whether past or present, as a threat to their autocratic rule,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW, in a statement.
Her latest arrest prompted a diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia and Canada after the Canadian ministry of foreign affairs said in a tweet it was “gravely concerned” about the detention of rights activists in the kingdom, including Badawi.
Saudi Arabia accused Canada of “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols”.
Samar is the sister of Raif Badawi, a prominent human rights campaigner sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014 on charges of insulting Islam. His wife and children are naturalised Canadian citizens.
Eman al-Nafjan is a 39-year-old Saudi blogger and activist who was arrested in May 2018, along with Loujain al-Hathloul and five other female advocates amid a government campaign that accused them of undermining the kingdom’s stability with financial assistance from abroad.
Saudi authorities accused the activists of having “suspicious contact with foreign parties”, providing financial support to “hostile elements abroad”.
According to HRW, the arrests are an attempt to silence dissent.
“Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘reform campaign’ has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women’s empowerment,” HRW Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement in May.
“The message is clear that anyone expressing scepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail.”
Rothna Begum, a researcher at HRW, said the government is trying to silence critics, particularly those who champion women’s rights reforms.
“While it’s not clear why they were arrested, today we have seen Saudi press reports come to suggest that these women are traitors and have been arrested because they are undermining the national unity of the country,” Begum told Al Jazeera at the time.
“What we know is that the Saudi crown prince wants to make it clear to all of his citizens that they are his subjects who must be grateful for whatever liberties he gives them, but they must not demand any of their rights.”
The mother of three obtained her undergraduate degree from the University of Birmingham and worked as a schoolteacher and later as a university assistant.
Al-Nafjan then earned her master’s degree from the same university in teaching English as a foreign language.
She began blogging in 2008, writing mainly about social and cultural issues with a focus on women in Saudi Arabia, referring to the system in place as “gender apartheid”, according to the Washington Post.
A few years later, she joined the women’s driving campaign and published articles in western media outlets to shed light on the campaign to allow women to drive in the kingdom.
When the ban on women driving was lifted, she wrote, “The manner in which the ban was lifted seemed too simple to be real.
Initially, I was overwhelmed with my own powerlessness as a woman living in a patriarchal absolute monarchy. Were our efforts the reason the ban was lifted? Or was it a decision that had been made regardless of our struggles?”
Prior to her arrest, al-Nafjan was working towards completing a PhD in linguistics.
Hatoon al-Fassi is a women’s rights activist and writer who was arrested by Saudi authorities on June 24. Prior to her arrest, she had been under a travel ban since June 19.
Considered a leading figure in the women’s rights movement in the region, al-Fassi has long been fighting for the rights of Saudi women, including their right to participate in municipal elections.
Al-Fassi, originally from Mecca, is an associate professor of women’s history at King Saud University (KSU) in Saudi Arabia and at the International Affairs Department at Qatar University.
She secured an undergraduate degree in history from KSU, and in 2000, earned a PhD in women’s history from the University of Manchester.
As a scholar, her work focuses on women’s history and politics.
Her most notable work “Women In Pre-Islamic Arabia”, argues women in the pre-Islamic period enjoyed considerable rights in the Nabataean state, an urban Arabian kingdom centred in modern Jordan, south Syria and northwest Saudi Arabia during the Roman empire.
Women in Nabataea enjoyed more freedom than in Saudi Arabia today because Muslim leaders have misunderstood the origins of Islamic law, her research said.
“One of the objectives of this book is to question the assumption of subordination of women in pre-Islamic Arabia,” al-Fassi said.
وما هي صفات الشيوخ؟ وهل بهذا السؤال نسبغ الكمال على الرجال؟
مقالي يتناول الحق ويوضح مدى خسارتنا في ظل احتكار السلطة الدينية دون النساء ومنظورهن للفقه وللقضايا الإنسانية المختلفة. https://t.co/thNcoE9wJg
— د.هتون أجواد الفاسي (@HatoonALFASSI) June 16, 2018
Translation: “And what are the characteristics of sheikhs? Does this question imply perfection in men? My article deals with the truth and clarifies how much we lose when religious authority is monopolised to the exclusion of women and their perspective on fiqh and the issues that affect humanity.”
In 2011, she joined a campaign called “Baladi”, which called for women’s participation in the municipal elections.
To help women interested in running for election, the Baladi campaign had planned to organise training sessions to educate participants on campaigning techniques and help them create agendas.
“The ministry has stopped us from holding these workshops as they wanted the election programme to be more unified and centralised,” al-Fassi said at the time, according to Saudi Gazette.
“As evidenced by the 250 female members of the Baladi campaign, women have expressed their commitment to elect the best person for the job … Whether it is a woman or a man,” she said.
The initiative’s efforts were blocked again during the 2015 municipal elections.