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Saudi women’s long road towards equality

June 02nd, 2021
topics: Women's rights
by: Pierre Sagnier
located in: Saudi Arabia
tags: Jamal Khashoggi, Loujain al-Hathloul, Mohamed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia, women's rights

Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative monarchy, led by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, tries to project an image of a modern regime, especially towards women, who are subjected to a system in which they are completely under the authority of men. But beyond the nice words the steps forward are minimal, and women who dare to claim their rights are brutally punished.

The final declaration of the last G20 Summit, organised by Saudi Arabia in November 2020, included a special epigraph focused on “Women’s empowerment”. The ultraconservative and wealthy Saudi monarchy wanted to use the event to show the world that it is morphing from one of the world’s most oppressive regimes for women into a modern and open one.

Yet at the very same time that the powerful Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), was giving a telematic speech (because of the pandemic) to the world's leaders about his country’s “efforts to empower women,” Loujain al-Hathloul languished in prison in Riyad, waiting to be judged for having asked for Saudi women’s right to drive.

Women's rights activists persecuted by authorities

One month after the G20 Summit, al-Hathloul - a runner-up in the last Martin Ennals Award who was awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe a few weeks ago, was finally sentenced to five years and eight months in prison, being accused of terrorism and treason. She has become a symbol of Saudi women's rights activism, but she is not the only one to be imprisoned and sentenced for this reason.

Ten more activists were captured along with al-Hathloul. Some of them have also been convicted, while there are others who are still awaiting the court’s ruling in their case, have been released or nothing is known of them . Al-Hathloul has the “benefit" of the fact that her two sisters, Alia and Lina, and her brother, Walid, “are outside Saudi Arabia and so they have space speak up freely,” Khalid Ibrahim, human rights activist and executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GC4HR), explained.

“But many relatives of detainees and prisoners of conscience are in Saudi Arabia and have not been able to speak out, so it’s very hard to track their cases,” he added.

One of the most shocking aspects about the crackdown on the women leading the campaign for the right to drive, which mainly consists of them recording themselves driving in the country and posting the videos on social media, is that they were arrested a few weeks before the Saudi kingdom lifted the ban on women getting behind the wheel.

“The women pushed them to make this reform happen and the reaction to that was to imprison them and label them as terrorists and traitors,” criticizes Uma Mishra Newberry, manager of the #FreeLoujain campaign.

The Saudi government’s retaliation against these women’s  ‘audacity’ to ask for their rights involved more than imprisonment. Al-Hathloul claimed to have been physically tortured, sexually assaulted and held in isolation for long periods of time while in prison.

Besides, al-Hathloul and her siblings, as had been the case with other detainees, have been harassed on social media by the regime’s trolls. “Any time they post the amount of trolling that they receive is immense, and the violence, the level of trolling is pretty aggressive. They’ve even received death threats,” said Newberry.

Al-Hathloul released on parole under harsh conditions

Al-Hathloul was finally released on parole last February under strict conditions. International pressure and, especially, the change of president in the United States are thought to have been decisive in that decision. Last October, Saudi Arabia failed to get a seat in the United Nations Human Rights Council. Five countries were running for four places belonging to Asia and the Arab kingdom lost to candidates with incredibly poor human rights records, such as China, Russia and Uzbekistan.

The election of Joe Biden to the presidency in the US has been also a setback for Riyadh, after years of Donald Trump’s permissiveness towards the abuses of MBS.

But for those who support human rights in Saudi Arabia, this pressure is still insufficient in comparison with the dire situation of women and other activists there. 

Despite her release, al-Hathloul is still subject to a five-year travel ban and was forced to sign a document stating that she cannot speak about what happened to her in prison. She is not allowed to publish her views on social media or speak with journalists. “She effectively is muzzled in a lot of ways, she has no autonomy and it is definitively not justice nor freedom,” Newberry said regretfully. 

Furthermore, her supporters are concerned about her security, as, due to the regime’s aggressive campaign against her, “when some people learned that Loujain maybe went to be released, they were calling for Loujain death upon her release.”

Economic interests stifle international intervention

Saudi Arabia, the main oil producer and exporter of the world, maintains a strong leverage over the international community.

“We’re grateful of course for the support that some of the foreign governments have given, but there are a lot of them that still support Saudi Arabia in terms of arms sales, oil, and money and there’s still so much pressure that could be applied,” said Newberry. “If those governments actually cared about human rights, then they would be pushing far more than they have done so far,” she added.

Unknown number of women imprisoned

In Saudi Arabia, one of the most hermetic countries in the world, where press freedom and transparency are non-existent, there’s no way to know how many women’s rights activists are in prison.

“We can’t put a number. There were tens of them, but those that we have documented are few. Some of them were released, some of them their families didn’t want them to be named. But there were plenty of them at one stage,” admitted Ibrahim of GC4HR.

His NGO has documented some cases of women being incarcerated for expressing their views on social media. He recalls, for example, the case of Amani Al-Zain, who was imprisoned in May 2020 after he referred in a video chat to MBS as “Abu Munshar” (“father of the saw” in Arabic), in relation to the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Istanbul Saudi consulate in 2018, which was ordered directly by MBS, according to a CIA report.

Superficial reforms placate ongoing oppression of women

When MBS was appointed Crown Prince in 2017 by his father, the aged king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, he presented himself as a reformer and promised changes to modernise the ultra-fundamentalist kingdom. But the timid steps he took so far in order to promote women's rights show a limited engagement with real reform.

The driving right petition was only a small change among others that are claimed by women who aim to overturn the oppressive “male guardian” system in force that treats them as incompetent citizens, always dependant on a male figure. Under the current system, women need permission from a male family member (a father,  brother or even a son) in order to get married, apply for a job and more.

Over the last year, the kingdom has eased men’s control over women, who can now drive and make some administrative formalities by themselves, like applying for a passport.

“These reforms seem very good on paper, but very quickly underneath the surface, you understand that they are actually attached to a system of repression, a system of violence that women have been fighting for years inside Saudi Arabia,” alerted Newberry. For instance, she says, “Saudi women are now allowed to drive, but actually to get their driving license they have to go with the male guardian, and if he isn’t accepting of the fact that she should drive, then she won’t drive.”

“There have been some changes but most of them have been an attempt to whitewash of other violations”, she added.

Ibrahim agrees with this diagnostic: “The guardianship system is still in power. So, women are not enjoying their lives because of it, because of the fact that they are not given the opportunity to prove themselves”.

“There’s a culture of depriving women of their rights to select the husband, to select the studies. Sometimes they’re not even allowed to study,” he stated.

This system is particularly harmful to women who suffer from domestic violence. “If they have to go and report anything to the police they have to be accompanied by the male guardian, but in many circumstances, the male guardian is the same person who is abusing the women, so there’s no escape from this,” affirmed Newberry

So, in spite of the rights approved for women over the last years, and in spite of the appointment of some of them as ambassadors as well as other high ranking posts in the regime, “this is not empowerment,” Newberry says. If  MBS actually wants to empower women, as Saudi Arabia vowed to do in the G20 Summit, he should “stop imprisoning them, stop torturing them, let them speak out, let them fight for their rights,” she concluded.

Image: International Labour Organization (ILO)

Article written by:
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Pierre Sagnier
Author
Saudi Arabia
Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul pictured on her way to the state security court in the Saudi capital Riyadh on 10 March, 2021
© Rania Sanjar
Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Bin Salman has introduced some surface-level reforms concerning women's rights, but has continued to persecute activists and largely failed to uplift women's status in the kingdom.
© Thomas Koehler
The 2018 lifting of the ban on women's right to drive has been decried by activists as a whitewash for ongoing oppression of women. Women still require the permission of their male guardian in order to apply for a driver's license.
© Fayez Nureldine
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