What it means to be a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia

Activists like Eman Al Nafjan fought fearlessly for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, only to be brutally silenced.

Eman al-Nafjan Eman al-Nafjan
Eman Al Nafjan was arrested in May 2018 and accused of threatening Saudi Arabia's national security [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

I first met Eman Al Nafjan in October 2006, just before she took up blogging and activism. At that time she was still working as an English instructor at the King Saud Bin Abdulaziz University for Health Science (KSAU) located within the heavily guarded Saudi Arabian National Guard compound on the outskirts of Riyadh. I was one of her students.

She immediately struck me as a progressive woman with strong opinions who cared about women’s rights and did not shy away from stating it publicly. I still remember my first class with her – I thought her approach was highly unusual. She had us engage in an open discussion on debatable topics, encouraged us to write on a daily basis and share ideas on topics of our choice. This was something that was unheard of in Saudi schools, where we were not allowed to have an opinion or even question the teacher on any matter that involved religion, culture or politics. Eman taught us the value of freedom of speech and tolerance, insisting that all of us – whether conservative or liberal – expressed our opinions openly. 

Two years later, in 2008, Eman started blogging as saudiwoman.me. At that time, social media networks and blogging websites were quickly becoming popular among Saudis. In a heavily regulated country like Saudi Arabia where the government decides what goes on TV, what news gets covered by the press and what books go on shelves in libraries and bookstores, blogging became a much-needed platform to speak out.

Eman’s blog quickly gained popularity and international prominence, becoming one of the most-read blogs on Saudi Arabia worldwide. It is safe to say that she was one of the pioneers of online activism in my country. She braved writing about taboo topics that many others were afraid to tackle; she frequently posted on the male guardianship law which she called “the abuse system”, she called for an end to child marriage and abuses by the religious police and she even exposed how Saudi authorities were spying on Saudi citizens through social media applications. 

She provided the English-speaking world with a rare, uncensored, in-depth perspective on current affairs in Saudi Arabia. She built a name for herself in the blogosphere and even had big Western media outlets such as the Guardian, the New York Times and CNN approach her to write for them. And she accomplished all that while also pursuing a PhD and mothering four children.  

I must say that Eman’s class was the eye-opening experience that ultimately sparked my interest in activism and blogging. I started feeling more confident about speaking out in public.

As a student at KSAU, I was sometimes given the task of preparing presentations for foreign staff at the Saudi National Guard Hospital to brief them on local culture. My talks would often go into uncomfortable topics like discrimination against women and religious extremism, provoking heated discussions among some Saudi employees, who considered some of my views offensive. On one occasion, after a professor of religious studies filed a complaint against me, the university administration threatened to punish me by transferring me to Al-Imam Mohammed Bin Saud Islamic University if I didn’t “tone my talks down”. Al-Imam University is well-known as the heart of Wahhabism where strict conservative norms are observed.

That did not dissuade me from speaking out. In 2010, I launched my own blog, where I started writing about religious extremism and women’s rights. It wasn’t too long before I received my first hate mail and threats. A year later, the Saudi authorities blocked my blog and neither my readers nor I, the writer, could access it any longer.

Eman did not let me despair. When I set up an online campaign to get the blog unblocked, she helped spread the word and I eventually succeeded in regaining access to it. Yet, I felt compelled to tone down my writings, now that I had experienced the heavy hand of government censorship. 

As I was making my first steps in blogging and activism and experiencing the oppressive practices of our government, the push against the driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia was picking up steam again. I, like many other Saudis of my generation, was not aware of the original anti-ban protest in 1990 in Riyadh led by 47 fearless women. The Saudi authorities had made sure to bury the story, so it would not encourage other women to rebel.

But they did. In 2007, Wajeha al-Huwaider,  a prominent  Saudi activist from the Eastern Province, collected and submitted signatures to the Saudi authorities asking for the driving ban to be lifted. Then in 2008, she filmed herself driving a car on International Women’s Day and posted the video on Youtube. She was harassed and arrested for her actions.

In 2011, Manal al-Sharif followed in her footsteps and also uploaded a video of herself driving. This time, however, it was during exceptional circumstances – the Arab revolutions had just swept through the region. Hence, her call to defy the driving ban had a bigger impact on Saudi youth. 

The Saudi authorities, unaware of the growing number of Saudis supporting the cause, thought that arresting Manal would bring an end to it. But they were wrong. The movement had gained momentum and much attention domestically and internationally and in 2013, Eman and a number of other women and men called for a drive-in protest on October 26.   

I, too, joined the effort and supported the campaign, along with other fellow activists. Even though the protest had to be called off under pressure from the authorities, Eman made an extraordinary effort to expand the outreach of the movement by engaging community leaders, religious figures, social media influencers and writers.

Eman also laboured tirelessly whenever one of the other activists was arrested (whether Manal al-Sharif,  Loujain Alhathlol, Maysaa Alamoudi or anyone else) to campaign for their release by making sure their cases remained in the media spotlight.

She, along with her fellow activists, pushed the public debate forward and paved the way for the lifting of the driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia.    

The arrests of Eman and a dozen other Saudi women’s rights activists in May this year and the smear campaign against them created a climate of fear among Saudis. After news came out that the women have faced torture, such as with electrocution, sleep deprivation, sexual molestation and threats of rape and death, many activists within the country decided to go into “hibernation”.

The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in early October was meant to send a chilling message to all Saudi activists, who had managed to flee abroad. Fear has struck our community but many of us decided to remain vocal and continue campaigning against the barbaric practices of the Saudi government. 

We will continue campaigning for the release of Eman despite US President Donald Trump clearly giving Saudi Arabia a pass on human rights violations. The international community must not do the same; it should take urgent action and form an independent committee under the umbrella of the United Nations that is allowed to visit political prisoners and ensure they are not mistreated. The Saudi authorities cannot be trusted with giving political prisoners a fair trial or respecting the rights of detainees.

This is the least the world can do to help Eman and her fellow activists who have fought so fearlessly and selflessly for the rights of Saudi women.

Meanwhile, I and many other Saudi activists abroad, will not stop exposing the savagery of the Saudi government and the crimes it commits on a regular basis against its own people.  

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