Women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia
In May 2018, a number of prominent Saudi women’s human rights activists were arrested. They had been peacefully advocating for years for the right of women in the kingdom to drive, as well as broader reforms related to the repressive male guardianship system. In the days and weeks that followed, more of their fellow peaceful activists were detained as part of the Saudi authorities’ crackdown and smear campaign.
Under Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship, women are restricted from independently making a number of everyday decisions without first obtaining the permission of their male guardian – whether it be their husband, brother, or father, or other male relative. Until June 2018, restrictions on women’s actions also extended to driving. While some saw the lifting of the ban on women driving as a step towards gender equality in Saudi Arabia, several underlying events indicated the kingdom’s reluctance to embrace gender equality. Before the lifting of the ban, Saudi authorities warned women’s rights activists to refrain from making public statements regarding this policy change. The government also detained several prominent rights defenders without charging them, or on the basis of false accusations.
In October 2018, a group of UN human rights experts, called upon Saudi authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all women human rights defenders. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the actions of the Saudi authorities against these women human rights defenders and we call on them, as a matter of urgency, to immediately release and drop the charges against all of them,” the experts said.
In August 2019, Saudi Arabia announced that new legal changes would allow Saudi women to obtain passports without requiring the approval of a male relative, to benefit from protections against employment discrimination, and to register the births of their children.
Even as the government mandated these changes, it continued to hold women’s rights defenders in detention and now two years have passed. Currently, 13 women’s rights activists remain on trial facing prosecution for their human rights activism. Of the 13, five remain in detention.
While the eight other activists have been temporarily released, they all continue to face trial and many remain at risk of being sentenced to prison under anti-cybercrime legislation for their human rights work. At least 10 activists have endured a range of human rights violations while in prison, including torture, sexual abuse and other forms of ill-treatment. For the first three months of their detention, the women were held incommunicado with no access to family or lawyers. Several have also been subjected to lengthy spells in solitary confinement.
“Saudi authorities are directly responsible for the wellbeing of these women and men in detention. Not only have they been deprived them of their liberty, simply for peacefully expressing their views, they are also subjecting them to horrendous physical suffering”. Said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, in a report of torture and sexual harassment of detained activists. However, there has been a lack of credible and effective investigations into the women’s claims of torture and ill-treatment and no perpetrators have been held accountable.
Also the international community reacted to this repression. Three dozen countries, including all 28 EU members, Canada and Australia, have called on Riyadh to free the activists. In March 2019, 36 countries at the UN HRC issued a joint statement calling on Saudi Arabia to release women’s rights defenders.
“In prison, many suffered mental and physical anguish – including torture, sexual abuse and solitary confinement. Scores of others, though released, still face trial based on charges relating to their peaceful activism. Saudi Arabia’s ‘reform drive’ cannot be considered credible as long as these women and other peaceful activists are still being targeted for their work.” said Lynn Maalouf.
Saudi Arabia has silenced human rights defenders for decades and detention of activists is deeply concerning. As a member of the UN HRC, it is important that Saudi Arabia be held to high standard when it comes to its commitment to human rights.