Saudi Arabia Releases Two Prominent Women’s Rights Activists

On June 27th, news spread that prominent Saudi Arabian women’s rights activists, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, were released early after three years of imprisonment. Badawi and al-Sadah were arrested in August of 2018 and were initially sentenced to five years in prison. Prosecutors within Saudi Arabian-held trials alleged that they disturbed the “public order” by communicating with international actors and human rights NGOs, citing these acts as a “criminal offense” in a report by the Human Rights Watch

Both Badawi and al-Sadah, before their arrest, protested against sexist policies in the country, such as its male guardianship law. Al Jazeera states this law removes a woman’s autonomy, requiring them to “obtain the consent of a male relative” to perform activities such as receiving healthcare, running in office, and leaving prison. These activists ultimately sought to raise awareness about the harm of these policies, challenging the government to rethink its long-held patriarchal practices. Yet, the Saudi Arabian government, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seems to demonstrate little interest in doing so. 

Much of this skepticism stems from the continued repression of activists. Despite Saudi Arabia’s recent initiatives to promote women’s rights, such as lifting its driving ban in 2018 and commitment to promoting fundamental rights in 2021, many demand more accountability for persisting human rights abuses. For instance, though Badawi and al-Sadah received early releases, the Washington Post explains that they were released conditionally. In exchange for their early release, Badawi and al-Sadah were prohibited from traveling, speaking publicly about their experiences, and posting on social media platforms. Similarly, according to CNBC, the government placed similar restrictions on fellow women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. Therefore, even in light of renewed interest in advancing human rights, outspoken activists continue to be imprisoned and prevented from openly criticizing their governments. 

Additionally, accounts in the Washington Post show that former Saudi Arabian prisoners were subject to torture, violating international human rights law. The Washington Post outlines that “nearly a dozen women” came forward and expressed that they were repeatedly “caned, electrocuted, and waterboarded” and faced instances of sexual abuse and harm while in prison, according to Human Rights Watch. Despite these testimonies, the Saudi Arabian government fails to be held accountable despite being a signatory of the United Nation’s 1984 Convention against Torture. Article 1 of this Convention states that torture is “any act by which severe pain or suffering… is intentionally inflicted on a person” in an attempt to intimidate them. Without state compliance under human rights law and entities to supervise Saudi Arabia’s public actors, many activists are left vulnerable with little protection. Should these practices continue to instill fear with no accountability, the government successfully weakens civil society.

Currently, many barriers exist to promote women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. In the following paragraphs, I will break down three pathways to pressure Saudi Arabia’s government, internally and externally, to commit to women’s equality. 

The first pathway would be the external pressure of international actors to condemn Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations. For example, in an article by CNBC, “regional analysts” believe that the recent change in the U.S. presidency – from Donald Trump to Joe Biden – may have influenced early releases of activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul and later, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah. The Biden administration’s more assertive stance on human rights, compared to his predecessor, can play a crucial role in advocating for Saudi Arabia’s full adoption of international human rights laws.

The second pathway would be to create impartial investigation committees to look closely into potential human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch writes that although “Saudia Arabia opened individual trials” to investigate “ill-treatment [of activists] in detention,” domestic courts hid their charges “from the public,” raising uncertainty about the legitimacy of the process. Consequently, correspondents from Al Jazeera assert that much of Saudi Arabia’s investigations purposely exclude external parties to monitor the accuracy of findings. Doing so prevents proper accountability measures from being implemented, resulting in biased trials. Thus, external pressure led by United Nations bodies with civil society groups and NGOs will be pivotal in ensuring that no one is detained because of peaceful resistance. 

The third pathway, most significant yet challenging in the long term, would be the inclusion of women in decision-making in government and higher positions of power. Though some restrictions on women have eased in the past two years – such as the ability to apply for international travel independently – Amnesty International argues that discrimination against them persists in cases about “marriage, divorce, and inheritance, [and] domestic abuse.” Furthermore, empty promises of equal rights will not suffice in a predominantly patriarchal society. Only when women are actively a part of conversations about policies affecting their well-being and their bodies can there truly be justice and peace of mind. 

 In all, the stringent restrictions placed on Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah upon their release signal a long path ahead to achieving gender equality. However, without continued support for their efforts and life’s work within and beyond Saudi Arabia, policies will cease to change.