Torture, reform and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

Women are being tortured for demanding basic rights in ‘reformist’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia.

AP File Saudi Woman
Today, every critical voice in Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly under threat, but the Saudi women's rights activists are feeling the pressure the most, writes Al-Khamri.[File:AP]

On November 20, Amnesty International published a report detailing how Saudi women’s rights activists, arbitrarily arrested in a government crackdown earlier this year, have faced sexual harassment and torture during their interrogation. Citing three separate testimonies, the rights group said the detainees were held in solitary confinement and faced repeated electrocution and flogging, leaving some of them unable to stand or walk. One of the activists reportedly tried to take her own life repeatedly inside the prison.

Saudi Arabia has a long history of forcefully silencing women who dare to stand up to the kingdom’s unjust laws and patriarchal gender norms. Almost four decades ago in 1990, 47 brave Saudi women were harshly punished by the authorities for participating in a major driving-ban protest – they were arrested and their passports were taken away. Some of them were even sacked from their jobs or expelled from their schools. 

But until recently, despite being abused, harassed and at times jailed, most Saudi women’s rights activists were managing to avoid the full force of the regime’s violence due to their high socioeconomic status. Their skin colour and religious and tribal identity were also playing a role in determining the level of abuse and harassment they were subjected once they were arrested. While undocumented female migrants and poor, underprivileged Saudi citizens were treated abominably in the kingdom’s prisons, Saudi activists from privileged backgrounds were being dealt with with relative restraint.

Amnesty International’s latest report, however, reveals that even a privileged background can no longer protect women’s rights activists from the brutality of the country’s current leadership.

This move towards indiscriminate oppression is a natural expansion of the kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman‘s (MBS) one-dimensional approach to all forms of dissent and opposition.

Stifling all forms of dissent

For years, the Saudi regime has been making a clear distinction between individuals campaigning for social rights without directly challenging or blaming the political system, and individuals who are demanding, or supporting the calls for, holistic political reform and constitutional monarchy. While the regime usually allowed some limited and informal breathing space for the former, the members of the latter group always faced systemic and relentless repression.

This is not the case any longer.


Under MBS’ oppressive and unilateral rule, regardless of their nature and aims, all ground-up efforts to bring about change and social reform are being swiftly stifled. In the eyes of the current leadership, every single organic, bottom-up rights movement is a threat to the authoritarian system – a threat to the survival of the pseudo-reformist, despotic rule of the young crown prince.

The new leadership does not care whether a critic is a woman or a man, from a privileged background or not. Whether someone is trying to improve the Saudi society within the limitations of the current system, or calling for constitutional monarchy. MBS has a “you are either with me, or against me” mentality – no critic, opponent or dissident gets an easy pass under his rule. 

This is why Saudi women’s rights movements, which for the most part demand reform within the existing political system, are facing the worst crackdown since their formation in the early 1990s.

‘Cosmetic’ reforms

The Amnesty report on the torture and sexual abuse of prominent female Saudi activists, which came on the back of the controversy surrounding the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was another blow to the “reformist” image MBS has been working hard to maintain since taking power three and a half years ago.

The testimonies cited in the report not only demonstrated the regime’s indiscriminate brutality, but also showed the world yet again that MBS’ reform efforts, especially on the women’s rights front, are purely cosmetic.


In June this year, the international community welcomed and praised the Saudi leadership’s decision to allow women to drive. While many across the world saw this development as a confirmation of MBS’ reformist credentials, anyone who had been watching the kingdom closely knew immediately that this had nothing to do with giving women more rights and autonomy and everything to do with improving the new leadership’s image in the West and encouraging foreign investment.

After all, using women’s issues for political leverage has long been part of the Saudi playbook. For example, in 2001, just three months after 9/11, Saudi authorities granted women with national ID cards for the first time in the kingdom’s history, in an apparent attempt to gain some favour in the West and protect the royal family. A decade later, in 2011, women were allowed to participate in municipal elections and two years later they were appointed to the consultative Shura council for the first time. Both reforms were implemented not to elevate the status of women in society, but to stop the ideas of Arab Spring from taking root in the kingdom.

Today, MBS is following in the footsteps of his predecessors by making cosmetic and inconsequential women’s rights reforms for political leverage, while forcefully silencing the cries for genuine reform. But he is also going one step further than his ancestors and succumbing to McCarthyism in his efforts to consolidate power. He is accusing all the critics and opponents of his leadership – regardless of social status, political inclination, gender and attitudes towards the monarchy – of treason and he is questioning their loyalty to their country.

MBS, with the help of his father King Salman, has already assigned loyal figures to all important sovereign positions, especially in the judiciary. Since his rise to power in 2015 and amid an escalation of politically motivated arrests in the Kingdom, hundreds of new judges and prosecutors loyal to him have been appointed to important positions. Last year, the Presidency of State Security, a security body overseen by the king, was created to combine the counterterrorism and domestic intelligence services under one roof. This presidency, which is naturally loyal to the current leadership, also has total authority over the fates of all political prisoners.

As a result of these efforts, the “reformist” crown prince has transformed Saudi Arabia into a prison. Under his rule, hundreds of writers, human rights activists (some of them minors), academics, economists, clerics and opponents within the royal family have been arrested simply because they dared to disagree with him. Women’s rights activists were put in jail on trumped up charges of “treason”. Moreover, they were sexually assaulted and tortured during their incarceration.


All this clearly demonstrates that MBS’ blueprint for “reform” excludes the reshaping and rewriting of the social contract between the citizen and the state on democratic grounds, in a way that would ensure active political participation, promote freedom and respect civil, political and women’s rights.

MBS views reform only as a useful tool to help him gain favour with the West and consolidate more political and economic power. Therefore, it should not surprise anyone that the reality on the ground in Saudi Arabia is nothing like the reformist dream MBS has been trying to sell abroad. The “reformist-minded” Saudi leadership is waging a covert war against Saudi Arabia’s already suffocating civil society.

Not the time to call for more ‘reform’

Today, every critical voice in Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly under threat, but the Saudi women’s rights activists are feeling the pressure the most. Unlike male activists in the kingdom, they are fighting against both an authoritarian political system and a patriarchal social structure that keeps women in political, social and legal shackles.

While pretending to implement a reform agenda that aims to elevate the status of women in Saudi Arabia, the current leadership is oppressing women further by classifying any real demand for rights and freedoms – even when they do not threaten the political system – as an attack on national cohesion.

As the Amnesty report clearly demonstrates, every Saudi woman who wants to have a say on her place in society is now facing the threat of not only harassment, incarceration and intimidation, but also torture and sexual abuse.

For this reason, this is not the time to speak of reform in Saudi Arabia. Instead, it is time to speak up about the crisis of legitimacy, oppression, brutality and the shrinking civil society in the country.

Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly going through one of the darkest periods in its recent history, however, all is not lost.

Despite all the torture, harassment and intimidation by the regime, and the pressures of a highly patriarchal society, Saudi feminists are still inventing creative methods to demand their rights and change their lives. They are displaying great resilience in the face of absolute repression and this remains a source of true inspiration and hope.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.