Women’s Rights Activists in Saudi Arabia Are Still Fighting to be Free

By Zoya Waliany, AIUSA Saudi Arabia Country Specialist

After 1,001 days away from her family and her friends, Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has finally been released from detention. In the first three months of her detention, Loujain faced sexual abuse and other torture. She also spent several months in solitary confinement.

She was wrongly detained in May 2018, along with other Saudi Arabian women’s rights activists who led the campaign to legalize driving for women in the Kingdom. On February 10, 2021, Loujain was conditionally released from detention. However, she is not yet free.

In December 2020, Loujain was sentenced to a prison term of five years and eight months following an unjust trial in Saudi Arabia’s notorious Specialized Criminal Court. She was charged with “spying with foreign parties” and “conspiring against the Kingdom” for her work promoting women’s rights and calling for an end to the male guardianship system. She now faces three years of probation and a five-year travel ban. Women’s rights activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada are still detained, and will likely be released in June after being sentenced to five years in prison with partial suspension in December 2020. Additionally, Loujain’s family members will also face travel bans. This tactic of penalizing not only the women after release but also their family members is a chilling attempt to silence them from speaking out about the violations they have faced during detention and to stop them from continuing their activism.

Indeed, women in Saudi Arabia can now legally drive, a July 2018 reform that was touted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS) as part of his efforts to modernize the Kingdom. The Saudi Arabian government has introduced other reforms related to women’s rights, including protections against employment discrimination, and an announcement that the government will introduce a personal status law. He even embarked on a world tour to introduce himself as a social reformer. However, these reforms and his global public relations efforts are merely empty gestures. He continues to jail and restrict the actual changemakers who he deems a threat to his control and excludes real women’s rights advocates from the reform process.

Yet, the veneer surrounding MBS, “the great reformer,” is finally starting to crack. This month, President Biden announced the end to U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition engaged in the Yemen conflict, and his administration released an intelligence report that found the Crown Prince ordered the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In November 2020, several lawmakers, including the mayors of London and New York, declined invitations to the G20 Summit in Riyadh, protesting Saudi Arabian authorities’ hypocritical jailing of dissidents and activists. Some also speculate that Loujain’s release could have been a gesture to placate President Biden, who has criticized the government’s human rights record.

But we can’t wait for a gradual implementation of human rights reforms. The Saudi Arabian government continues to arbitrarily detain people and expose them to the risk of COVID-19 in prisons and deny them access to adequate medical care, like Dr. Mohammed al-Khudari, who was detained in 2019 while undergoing cancer treatment. He and his son, Dr. Hani al-Khudari, must be immediately released.

The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered migrant domestic workers, who are mostly women, even more vulnerable to abuse and detention. The government’s disregard for this population has led to the widespread exploitation of migrant domestic workers, including Bangladeshi national Abiron Begum Ansar, who was beaten to death by her employer. Though the government has announced some changes to the Kafala (sponsorship) system, we can’t yet assess their human rights impact, and domestic workers are excluded from these reforms.

We must continue to hold the Saudi Arabian government accountable for its atrocious human rights record.

March is Women’s History Month. Mark this symbolic time by standing in solidarity with the brave activists risking their lives and their freedom to fight for the rights of women throughout Saudi Arabia. Join us in calling on Saudi Arabian authorities to ensure Loujain al-Hathloul’s conviction, probation, and travel ban are quashed, and to hold accountable those responsible for sexual abuse and other torture to which she was subjected while detained. We also continue to urge the Saudi Arabian government to release Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada immediately and unconditionally, and to quash any travel bans imposed on them upon release.

We cannot allow the Saudi Arabian government to silence these activists any longer.

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