#FreeSaudiWomen: Discourse vs. Reality for Women’s Rights Defenders

Since 1977, March 8th has been celebrated as the International Day for Women’s Rights. Each year, it provides the occasion to showcase the tenacious vigor—as necessary as ever—of thousands of people across the globe who fight for equality between women and men.

For years, FIDH has denounced the disastrous fate of the courageous Saudi women who strive to enjoy the most basic rights. They have fought against a system of male guardianship which grants their fathers, husbands, brothers, even sons, power over key life choices, including working and traveling. They have protested to have the right to drive, to speak to foreign press, to create human rights associations.

Loujain Al-Hathloul, Aziza Al-Youssef, Nassima Al-Sadah… These women have been secretly tortured and imprisoned for ten months and are now awaiting trial for unspecified charges. This is the heavy price they pay for having resisted the oppressive policies of the Saudi regime.

Projecting a progressive image

On February 23, 2019, Saudi Arabia appointed its first female ambassador, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, to represent the Kingdom in the United States. Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s accession to power in January 2015, other women have been appointed to prominent governmental positions. This is part of Prince Mohammed’s careful cultivation of a reformist image on the international scene. He has led the implementation of some measures that ease restrictions on Saudi women: they are now allowed to drive, can officially access government services without being required to obtain a male guardian’s approval, and may attend football matches in stadiums or go to the cinema.

But does this progressive discourse accurately represent Saudi women’s reality?

> On June 24, 2018, the Royal Decree authorising women to drive came into force... 
...yet, Loujain al-Hathloul, Hathoon al-Fassi, Eman al-Nafjan, Aisha al-Manae, Hessa al-Sheikh, Madeha al-Ajroush, Walaa al-Shubbar and other women human rights defenders involved in the right to drive campaign were arrested around May 15, 2018. They were about to talk publicly on the lifting of the driving ban; the government accused them of treason and conspiracy against the State. Some of them are still detained and face torture—including sexual violence—in prison. The contradictions of Saudi reforms, especially when it comes to women, could not be better illustrated.

> In February 2017, King Salman issued a decree allowing women to access government services without being required to obtain a male guardian’s approval...
… however, the male guardianship system is more entrenched than ever, as illustrated by recent revelations about male guardians’ use of mobile application, Absher, to prevent women from leaving the country. Two prominent leaders of women’s fight against the male guardianship system are currently detained: Aziza al-Youssef was arrested on May 15, 2018, and Samar Badawi, the first woman to have invalidated her father’s authority as a wali al-amr—a guardian—was arrested on June 30, 2018.

> Women are now allowed to give public concerts, go to the stadiums or to the cinema…
...but they face hefty sentences for peacefully protesting against the regime and denouncing human rights violations on social media. Israa al-Ghomgham has been detained since December 8, 2015: her case became public when the Saudi public prosecution called upon the court to apply the death penalty, the first Saudi woman who risked facing execution following non-violent protesting.

Since the end of 2017, the crackdown against all forms of dissent, in particular that of women human rights defenders, has gone from bad to worse. Entirely incoherent with the progressive discourses and cosmetic announcements of Saudi rulers, the continued discrimination against women and girls and the ongoing repression and torture of women’s rights defenders strongly discredits the reform process launched by the crown prince. Behind a smokescreen of ostensible liberalisation, Saudi Arabia remains a particularly repressive authoritarian regime, which consistently violates women’s rights and systematically targets anyone attempting to criticise its rulers.

For more details, read our last report

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