Losing her freedom to defend women’s human rights: Nassima al-Sada

by Alice Dahle, Women’s Human Rights Coordination Group, Amnesty International USA

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that starts on November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until December 10th, Human Rights Day. The United Nations adopted a specific resolution to protect Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) acknowledging that a key challenge for WHRDs is the systemic and structural discrimination and violence they face. Women defenders are subject to the same types of risks as any human rights defender, but as women, they are also targeted for or exposed to gender-specific threats and gender-specific violence. As part of the 16 Days Campaign, Amnesty International USA invites you to take action and stand in solidarity with one of those courageous activists.

Nassima al-Sada is a women’s human rights defender in Saudi Arabia. She has spent much of her life writing and campaigning for the civil and political rights of women and minorities, including the rights of women to drive and to go about their lives without the permission of a male “guardian”. In 2015, she tried to run for office in municipal elections, but was banned from doing so. Because of her activism, she has been repeatedly targeted, harassed and subjected to travel bans.

On July 30, 2018, Nassima was arrested and sent to Dhahban prison, where she was ill-treated and held in solitary confinement from February 2019 to February 2020. She was later transferred to al-Mabahith Prison in Dammam and remains in detention there. She has been denied visits with her lawyer and is allowed just one phone call with her family each week, but no visits in person.

Nassima is one of 13 well-known Saudi female defenders of women’s human rights who have been detained since May 2018. Some of these women have been subjected to torture by electric shock, flogging and sexual harassment. They were also warned not to disclose reports of their mistreatment to members of their families. Several of the women have been conditionally released, but they can be reincarcerated at any time if they resume their activism.

The ban on women driving was lifted on June 24, 2018, and male “guardianship” rules have also been relaxed. However, the women who worked so diligently for these reforms remain in prison. The continued detention of Nassima al-Sada and other women’s human rights activists appears to be aimed at silencing them and discouraging others from making demands for further change.

Nassima al-Sada is fond of animals and is an avid gardener. She keeps a plant in her cell as something to nurture and as a reminder of the life she enjoyed before her detention. She has been held without charge or trial and does not know when she will be free to rejoin her family. Nassima is imprisoned solely for her peaceful defense of women’s human rights. She should be released immediately and unconditionally. You can help by signing a petition here or write a letter calling for her release here.

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