Saudi Arabia Women’s Rights Activist Sentenced To Almost Six Years In Prison

Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s human rights activist, was sentenced to be imprisoned for five years and eight months after her latest trial, on December 28, 2020. Al-Hathloul has been detained since May 2018, arrested after advocating for women to have the right to drive and for the abolishment of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system.

The activist’s reasons for detainment and planned future imprisonment are based on “pursuing a foreign agenda” and using social media to “harm public order”, according to Sabq, a Saudi Arabia news outlet. After Al-Hathloul’s proposed sentence reached the public’s eye, the U.N. human rights office spoke out about the unjust penalty, along with other organizations. Many believe this event reflects Saudi Arabia’s gender inequality and has been followed with many calling for the system to change, now, more than ever.

Shortly after al-Hathloul’s sentence was announced, the U.N. office posted on Twitter, “Conviction and 5 yrs 8-month sentence handed down to prominent women’s rights campaigner #LoujainAl-Hathloul, already arbitrarily detained for 2 ½ years, is also deeply troubling. We understand early release is possible, & strongly encourage it as matter of urgency.”

While the U.N. speaks out about putting al-Hathloul on parole, many non-governmental organizations are using this event to speak out about immoralities striking Saudi Arabia. The ALQST, a human rights organization, had their executive director, Alaa Al-Siddiq, speak out in a statement on al-Hathloul’s case. Al-Siddiq said, “The more information that comes to light from Loujain al-Hathloul’s trial, the more apparent it becomes how deeply flawed the whole process is … the Saudi authorities are making a mockery of justice, and the international community must call this out.”

The statement references the judicial and criminal justice systems in the country while alluding to the male guardianship system as well. Lynn Maalouf is the Middle East Research director of Amnesty International, another organization that advocates for human rights. Maalouf also spoke out, presenting a call-to-action, “The Saudi authorities must immediately and unconditionally release detained human rights defenders who are being held solely for their peaceful human rights work and launch a prompt, thorough and effective investigation into the reports of torture and other ill-treatment with the view of holding those responsible to account.”

As Maalouf mentioned, al-Hathloul and many other women’s rights activists have spoken out about appalling mistreatment they’ve experienced while detained in the country. Several imprisoned men and women have reported experiencing electrocution, flogging, and sexual violence while in the hands of authorities. These are the cruel and unwarranted responses of Saudi Arabia’s security and leaders that must be addressed and brought to the public’s eye. They are a breach of Saudi Arabia laws, such as the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

There is a clear lack of constraint and authority in the monarchy’s powers, and if these weaknesses in leadership are not addressed, they will continue to allow horrendous mistreating of prisoners and civilians to continue. However, these injustices can’t be fully confronted without looking at the main drivers initiating these challenges. Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship is a system that requires all women to have a male figure determine important decisions they can and cannot do.

Al-Hathloul spent most of her time speaking against the system and bringing awareness to the power this gives to men. It takes away a woman’s right to marry on her own, seek out work, strips away legal guardianship over her own children, and many more basic privileges. The latest progress made towards abolishing the system has been in recent years, as there has been a high rise in activists. In just 2019, the right to travel without a male guardian’s permission was granted to women. However, many are still expectant for the day the system is removed entirely.

Loujain al-Hathloul previously met with the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in February of 2018. Al-Hathloul was later arrested in May of the same year. It is believed that part of her arrest was due to her interaction with the CEDAW and several other international organizations to discuss the women’s human rights issue in Saudi Arabia. Thirteen other activists were arrested alongside al-Hathloul, and five remain within detention, while the other eight are temporarily released.

The outcome of al-Hathloul remains partially unknown. As of now, the activist’s planned sentence remains up to almost six years, however, a month still remains to be able to appeal the verdict. The U.N. human rights organization is one of the only major associations that have spoken out about Loujain al-Hathloul and the persisting women’s rights crisis. Many more will need to be outspoken on the dilemma before any initiative will be made to halt it.