Saudi Arabia: Release women human rights defenders now!
Since May 2018, authorities in Saudi Arabia have arrested some of the country’s most prominent women human rights defenders. These courageous activists have peacefully advocated for the right of women to drive, an end to the male guardianship system, and for justice and equality. They have done nothing wrong, have not been charged with any crime, and should be released immediately and unconditionally.
- What can I do?
- What is the latest update on the situation?
- Who are the women human rights activists detained in Saudi Arabia?
- Why are women human rights defenders being targeted?
- Why do governments carry out smear campaigns against women human rights defenders?
- What is the broader context in which the persecution of women human rights defenders is occurring?
- Can we have an impact?
- Where can I find more information on this topic?
It has been more than half a year since the sweeping wave of arrests in Saudi Arabia which included prominent women human rights defenders Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef.
State media accused Loujain, Iman, and Aziza of forming a “cell,” posing a threat to state security for their “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric.” A related hashtag describing them as “Agents of Embassies,” along with a graphic showing the faces of six activists, were circulated on social media and in Saudi Arabian print and broadcast media. Such smears campaigns are a tactic used worldwide to try to discredit activists. They remain behind bars and have not been charged with any crime. If charged with an offense, Amnesty International fears they could face up to 20 years in prison.
In early August, the wave of repression continued, and women human rights defenders Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada were detained. They continue to be detained without charge.
Also in August, the Saudi public prosecution called for Israa al-Ghomgham and four other defendants to be executed for offences that relate to their participation in protests in Saudi Arabia's Shi'a majority Eastern Province. Israa is the first woman to be sentenced to death simply for participating in protests. Her next trial date is in mid-January 2019.
In total, more than a dozen women human rights defenders have been detained, and they remain in prison without charge.
In November, Amnesty International reported that several of the activists had reportedly faced sexual harassment, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation in Dhahban Prison.
Women human rights defenders are peaceful activists who identify as women, as well as people of all genders who peacefully advocate for gender equality. At least a dozen women human rights defenders have been arrested since May 2018 in Saudi Arabia.
Loujain al-Hathloul one of the most outspoken women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. In 2014, she graduated from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver with a degree in French. She is well-known for her campaigning against the driving ban and the campaign to end the male guardianship system. In 2014, she was detained for 73 days after she attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates. Loujain al-Hathloul also went on to stand for election in Saudi Arabia in November 2015 – the first time women were allowed to both vote and stand in elections in the state. However, despite finally being recognized as a candidate, her name was never added to the ballot.
Iman al-Nafjan is an activist, blogger, linguistics professor, and mother of four. She was one of the leading campaigners for women’s right to drive and the campaign to end the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia. She has previously been harassed and interrogated for her human rights work and activism for women’s rights in the country. She defied the driving ban in 2013, and has been harassed and interrogated for her human rights work.
Aziza al-Youssef is an activist, retired professor, mother of five, and grandmother of eight. She is a prominent women’s rights activist who has been working tirelessly to support women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She repeatedly defied country’s driving ban, and has been harassed and interrogated for her human rights work. In 2016, she delivered a petition signed by 15,000 people to the royal court, demanding an end to the male guardianship system.
Samar Badawi is an activist and mother of two. She has been repeatedly targeted and interrogated by the Saudi Arabian authorities for her human rights activism. In 2014, she was subjected to a travel ban and was arrested in 2016 for her human rights work. She is the sister of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website for public debate. Raif’s wife and children are Canadian citizens and live in Quebec.
Nassima al-Sada is an activist, human rights educator. and mother of three. She has campaigned for civil and political rights, women’s rights, and the rights of the Shi’a minority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia for many years. She stood in municipal elections in 2015, but was banned from participating. She has also campaigned for the right of women to drive and for the end of male guardianship system.
The space for civil society to peacefully advocate for human rights is shrinking all around the world, and that includes in Saudi Arabia. People who advocate for freedom, justice, and equality in countries including Saudi Arabia often do so in an environment where they are demonized and restricted in their work. Many human rights defenders are smeared, threatened, physically attacked, criminalized and sometimes even killed, just for daring to stand up to those in power.
The threats to women human rights defenders are compounded because they are targeted both for who they are and what they’re advocating for.
In most parts of the world, including Saudi Arabia, women are considered less worthy because of their gender, or because they work on issues related to gender and sexuality. They’re more likely to be seen as not fitting in with social norms and expectations. They’re at greater risk of violence, sexual attacks, and harassment. They’re all too often the target of sexualized smears and of being judged by the value of their “honour” when they speak out.
Women human rights defenders are often ignored, dismissed, and silenced. Their extremely courageous, cutting-edge work continues to be underrepresented and insufficiently recognized by mainstream society, policy-makers, and the media.
Women human rights defenders need special recognition of their work, a safe space to work in, and specific protection to meet their needs.
Loujain, Iman, Aziza, Samar, and Nassima are incredibly courageous. Without special recognition of their work, a safe environment, or sufficient protection, they have spoken out in support of gender equality in a country that up until June 2018 was the only country in the world to forbid women from driving. In a country where patriarchal systems of oppression are firmly in place, these women have stepped outside of traditional gender norms and national laws to advocate for justice and equality. And for this, they have been arrested. In many countries, women human rights defenders are arrested to silence their voices, and to deter other activists from publicly speaking out.
This sort of public smear campaign conducted against the women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia is a tactic often used by governments in an effort to discredit activists and silence dissent.
Stigmatization and smear campaigns are commonly used by many countries to delegitimize human rights defenders and undermine their work. Typically, authorities and others in power make statements tarnishing their reputations. HRDs may be publicly (and falsely) accused of – among other things – being terrorists (often facilitated by excessively broad legislation), defenders of criminals, unpatriotic, corrupt, “foreign agents”, “fifth column” spies, “enemies of the state” or of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and opposing national or moral values. In highly polarized societies, stigmatization can have the effect of inciting government sympathizers against human rights defenders, putting them at further risk, even of physical attacks and killings, at the hands of pro-government armed groups or other non-state actors, for example. Learn more here.
The arrest of women human rights defenders is part of a broader crackdown in Saudi Arabia on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman continues to promote his ‘reforms’ to the international public, while silencing anyone at home who dares to question his policies.
Saudi Arabia has been in the news for touting its “reforms” including allowing women to drive. Reforms cannot come at the expense of human rights, and they cannot come at the expense of the lives and wellbeing of women human rights defenders.
In 2015, jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was publicly flogged. Public outcry—including concerted campaigning by Amnesty International—drew international attention to his case. Raif has not been flogged since.
Saudi officials monitor social media and are sensitive to international pressure. This is why Amnesty International’s actions directly target the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Ottawa and official Saudi government social media feeds to:
- Let Saudi authorities know that the world is watching;
- Keep the issue in the public eye; and
- Continue calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the women human rights defenders.
- Sign our e-action – and then share it broadly!
- Collect print petition signatures at events
- Regularly Tweet at Saudi authorities
- Take action on the case of Israa al-Ghomgham