Trial For Women’s Rights Activists In Saudi Arabia Renews Calls For Women To Be Released Who Have Been Jailed Since 2018

Women’s activists in Saudi Arabia have been arrested and held for almost three years, but have not been convicted of any of the accused criminal activity. The crimes they are charged with include organizing to promote women’s rights, challenging the male guardianship system, and contacting foreign media organizations. Many human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have made public their disagreement with the holding of these activists in jail.


The leader of the movement against the imprisonment of these activists is one of the accused’s sister, Lina al-Hathloul. She has been vocal about her discontent with the treatment of her sister, the withholding of legal counsel, and the lack of communication allowed between her and her family. She made this issue prominent before the virtual meeting of the G20 summit. Amnesty International encouraged extensively for leaders to not easily believe the theme of ‘female empowerment’ that the host Saudi Arabia was promoting.


There have been significant social changes since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gained power. The women’s driving ban was overturned in 2018, right after prominent women’s activists who contributed to that achievement, such as Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassima al-Sada, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani, were arrested. Additionally, in 2019 there were changes to the male guardianship law, which resulted in women being able to acquire a passport without the permission of their guardian (father, husband, or brother).


However, much of these changes have largely been an attempt to recreate Saudi Arabia’s world image and do not reflect genuine women’s rights interests. Even with the relaxed restrictions on women’s travel, if a man reports a “taghayyub,” the legal complaint filed by men regarding the absentness of a woman, the police are empowered to arrest the ‘absent’ woman and take her to a shelter comparable to a detention centre. In this way, any freedoms that women are supposed to have gained with the Crown Prince’s reforms are in reality quite hollow. Though they have the ability to travel freely, it is taken away easily by any man who chooses to do so. As long as there is a guardianship system in Saudi Arabia, there necessarily cannot be meaningful change that provides women true and substantial rights.


The trial for Loujain al-Hathloul is to resume on Wednesday, November 25th, but has been moved to a terrorist tribunal. There have been various calls to release the prisoners who remain in prison, in total 14 of them. It was the hope that the lack of evidence and the torturous conditions that the women have remained in since May 2018, in addition to international pressure to comply with human rights, would create enough pressure for the Saudi government to release the prisoners. However, government officials rejected any assessments by or calls from international human rights organizations, stating that they will not be “lecture[d]” (BBC News).


The treatment of the women in these prisons is sickening. Not only are they being barred from communications with any legal representation, but their communications with family members have been restricted and international organizations have concluded that they are being subjected to sexual harassment and assault. In addition to this, in the first months of their jailing, they were also whipped and electrocuted. Loujain al-Hathloul went on a hunger strike one month ago to protest her treatment in jail and has not been able to communicate with her family members since. Members of the UN women’s rights committee have admitted great concern over the well-being of not only Loujain but all of the arrested activists.


The hypocrisy of the government of Saudi Arabia being the beneficiary of good press because of the lift of the driving ban and other reforms reeks of injustice and superficiality. Those who were necessary for any genuine progression in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are having their rights and their dignity stolen by those who continue to falsely represent their acts as progressive. These women must be freed, acknowledged as survivors of a sexist and unjust regime, and be allowed to continue the necessary work of broadening women’s rights across the country. To ensure that any reforms are effective, they must be allowed to challenge the guardianship system and criticize legal formalities such as the “taghayyub”.


The failure of the Saudi government to comply with the international human rights organizations’ call for the women’s releases should alarm the international leaders who are interested in forging relationships with this regime.


Keely Bastow