Do not forget the jailed Saudi women’s rights activists

Saudi Arabia has paid lip service to women’s rights while imprisoning the very women who have campaigned for them.

Demonstrators from Amnesty International stage the protest on International Women''s day to urge Saudi authorities to release jailed women''s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Azi
Demonstrators stage a protest to urge Saudi authorities to release jailed women's rights activists outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris on March 8, 2019 [REUTERS/Benoit Tessier]

It has been two years since Saudi Arabia intensified its crackdown on women activists and many of those jailed are still languishing in prison.

On March 4, Lina al-Hathloul, the sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, 31, who campaigned against the ban on women driving in Saudi before being arrested at her home in May 2018, told a symposium of human rights organisations in Geneva, that Loujain has once again been denied access to legal representation.

According to Amnesty International, al-Hathloul has been tortured and mistreated while in prison. In August 2019, her family said she rejected a proposal to secure her release from prison in return for a video statement denying that she was tortured. During her first court appearance in March 2019, she was charged with promoting women’s rights, calling for the end to the male guardianship system and contacting foreign organisations including the media, other activists and Amnesty International.

The Saudi government lifted the ban on women driving in Saudi in the summer of 2018 and pledged to “relax” male guardianship laws in July 2019.

But all this has coincided with the jailing of the women activists who had championed the campaign. In the world of logical politics, if a demand is addressed positively, then those who called for it ought to be “normalised” in the eyes of the government (if not recognised as champions). In Saudi, the opposite has happened.

The crackdown on female activists by the Saudi government reached its peak when the authorities arrested and detained al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef on May 15, 2018. Al-Nafjan and al-Yousef were temporarily released in March 2019 on the condition that they attend future court hearings. 

Other leading women’s rights advocates and feminist figures were also arrested. These include Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, who were arrested on July 30, 2018, and remain in jail; Nouf Abdelaziz, who was arrested on June 6, 2018, and remains in jail; Hatoon al-Fassi, who was arrested on June 27, 2018, and granted temporary release in May 2019; Shadan al-Anezi, who was arrested in May 2018, and remains in jail; and Amal al-Harbi, who was arrested in August 2018, and was granted temporary release in May 2019.

Human Rights Watch says the charges against these women are limited to their human rights activities and lack substantiation or evidence. Both it and Amnesty International reported to have acquired evidence of ill-treatment, sexual assaults and abuse against some of these activists. 

While the campaign to end the driving ban for women gained the most international attention, these women activists have been working to bring all of Saudi Arabia’s deeply enshrined patterns of discrimination and exclusion to an end. 

They have made tireless efforts to protest against their lack of freedom with grassroots-level mobilising and campaigning against the male guardianship system that limits women’s freedom of movement.

Most of these women have also engaged in contesting a socio-economic regime of law and order that is constructed to prevent women from participating in society and the economy, to fundamentally disempower them to the maximum extent.

While there is a movement of women and men calling for reforms in Saudi Arabia, a large proportion of this movement consists of women activists who are fearlessly spearheading causes like the arbitrary detainment of political prisoners, freedom of expression and participation in public life. 

Some have received international recognition for their struggles. Samar Badawi, for instance, was awarded the 2012 International Women of Courage Award by the US Department of State, recognising among other things her role in bringing a lawsuit for women’s suffrage. She remains in prison.

On May 21, 2019, PEN America, the non-profit human rights literary organisation, awarded Nouf Abdelaziz, Loujain al-Hathloul, and Eman al-Nafjan the “2019 PEN America/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

Activists have been imprisoned arbitrarily, without due process or fair trial. The use of sexual abuse and torture against jailed women is more than just ill-treatment, and should rather be seen as a weapon that is designed to serve as an aggressively chilling warning to other women not to walk the same path. 

This is a particularly effective deterrent because many women activists are care providers to children and immediate family members. By separating them from their children and families, the Saudi government is hugely increasing the price paid by women for feminist activism.

Observers might argue that feminist movements in Saudi Arabia have gained traction and that imprisoning women and treating them so brutally has only led to a heightening of support for their causes

However, it remains highly dangerous to engage in this sort of activism. In societies where civic space is restricted, and where opportunities for organising and engaging peacefully in social action are nonexistent; these activists become vulnerable to isolation because associating with them and their causes carries severe consequences. 

If Saudi Arabia was serious about relaxing its restrictions on the freedom and autonomy of women, the safe spaces in public spheres necessary for women to participate in public life and to lead and engage effectively would exist. No such spaces exist. 

“Femisecution” is a combination of persecution and prosecution of female voices within our societies, because of what they are: independent voices who aim to help women claim their rights and status within a society which is topped by oligarchic and discriminatory classes.

Women’s activism in Saudi Arabia is a movement that not only brings hope, but also challenges an outdated “social contract” that has been proven to be a tool for de-development and exclusion that damages everyone, not just women. 

Jailed Saudi women activists are the first layer of such a social movement in their country – to let them fade away in jail, means, among other things, the killing of the movement, and of hope. 

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