Saudi Arabia´s Reforms | A facade for systematic persecution of women rights activists


Saudi Arabia’s plan of reforms to ease the male guardianship system is a facade for the Kingdom’s systematic persecution of women rights activists

On 15 May 2020, it was the second anniversary of the arrests of women’s human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. Among those arrested were Aziza Al-Yousef and Loujain al-Hathloul, two of the most prominent Saudi women’s human rights defenders. While Aziza Al-Yousef was released on bail in 2019 after serving one year in prison, Loujain al Hathloul remained detained with four other activists: Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Nouf Abdelaziz and Shadan al-Anezi. Their crime? Campaigning against the driving ban on women and challenging the Saudi male guardianship system. Currently, 13 of the arrested women remain on trial while five of them are still detained. All of these women reported mistreatments similar to Loujain al Hathloul’s torture,  including being held in solitary confinement and incommunicado for weeks.

This violent crackdown on activists by the Saudi authorities started shortly before the driving prohibition was lifted and, according to the Guardian, this was not a coincidence. It could be argued that the government used the repression as a clear message for activists: Saudi Arabia is not ready to compromise.

In fact, despite the lifting of the driving ban on the 24 June 2018, there were doubts about the genuinity of these reforms. The driving ban was a flagrant violation of women’s rights to freedom of movement and had a crucial impact on women’s lack of personal independence, especially if seen in tandem with the Saudi male guardianship system. The latter establishes that women are allowed to take certain important decisions only with the permission of their male guardian. The impossibility for women to drive exacerbated the relationship of dependence between women and their “guardian”, notably since 1990, when the ban was unofficially introduced.

The driving prohibition had substantial repercussions on more than one aspect of women’s daily life. The impossibility to autonomously move impacted women’s integration in the country’s society and economic system, as well as their ability to engage in politics. Although the ban has now been lifted the activists who campaigned to end this prohibition are now consequently detained.

The abolition of the ban is part of a broader plan to reform the regulations that govern women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. However, many NGOs believe that the country’s announcement of reforms, which include the lift of the driving ban and the permission for women to travel outside the country without their male guardian, merely as a way to reduce international criticism. In fact, as long as men can still file complaints of “disobedience” against women, and this remains punishable by law, it is clear Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to pursue a genuine improvement of women’s conditions. Moreover, women still require their male guardian’s approval to get married or leave prison, and many human rights activists still remain in prison.

Furthermore, women activists in Saudi Arabia don’t face mistreatment only by governmental authorities but also at home. Maryam al-Otaibi and Moudi Al-Johani reported that they had been locked down against their will in their houses by their families. Maryam Al-Otaibi, a prominent activist on social media, was detained in al-Malaz prison in Riyadh after her father filed a disobedience claim against her, while Moudi Al-Johani, faced detention for “disobeying” her family after her family kept her locked in their home for almost eight months. Among women prosecuted for this crime, there is also Samar Bawadi, who faced several trials after being accused by her father. All of these women were charged with disobedience for campaigning against the male guardianship system.

The mistreatment and prosecution of human rights defenders from Saudi authorities attracted vigorous international criticism and disapproval. Among the human rights violations currently taking place in Saudi Arabia, the prosecution of women human rights defenders stands out the most. The government has failed to hold accountable perpetrators of torture and mistreatment in prisons and to uphold the protection of human rights for women, as its obligations under UN membership require. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s systemic violations of human rights infringe international law and this abuse of human rights has been acknowledged by the UN bodies in a statement released in 2018. The UN Human Rights Council reported that the violations included torture, arbitrary detention, denial of a fair trial and the violation of women’s and children’s human rights. In the same statement it can be read that “as a UN member, Saudi Arabia is obligated to uphold the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.” Furthermore, as a signatory state, the Kingdom is also in violation of Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In fact, in March 2018, a few months before the driving ban was lifted and the women’s rights activists were arrested, the UN CEDAW Committee recommended Saudi Arabia to stop harassing women activists and guarantee their freedom of expression and association.

The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) advocates for the release of all imprisoned women’s rights defenders and calls upon the government to abolish the male guardianship system in its entirety.