The Silencing of Saudi Women and the Fear of Free Speech

Reuters: Amnesty International activists called for the release of activists at the Saudi embassy in Paris

by Deborah Rookey, Office of Public Witness Young Adult Volunteer

Free speech is anything but guaranteed in 2019’s Saudi Arabia. Since being named to the throne in June of 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken dramatic steps to consolidate power and silence dissension within the kingdom. At a surface level, many of his reforms appear to move in the direction of progress. In the past two years, the country has lifted the driving ban on women and allowed  more women to enter the workforce.[1] He also announced an ambitious Vision 2030[2] program to modernize the country. However, under this surface, bin Salman has placed harsh restrictions on protestors, reporters, and any other form of possible expression against his regime.

Particularly at risk are Women’s Rights Activists. In May of 2018, 11 women’s rights activists were arrested and held for months without charges. These activists have reported that they were tortured and sexually abused while in detention.[3] When the women were finally told their charges, they included such acts as applying for a job at the United Nations. While some of these activists were provisionally released after 10 months, four are still in prison.

This suppression of activists seems to be at odds with the vision bin Salman appears to have for his country, as he allows for some reforms that are considered extremely liberal by others in the country, such as the reopening of public movie theatres. Many of the women who were arrested and tortured were taken for protesting the ban on women driving, even though the arrests happened after the ban itself was scheduled to be lifted. The Saudi government did not take issue with the things the women were protesting for, but rather the act of protest itself.

If the real crime in Saudi Arabia is not defying gender restrictions or any other social policy, but free speech itself, then the Crown Prince’s actions against reporters, such as the abduction and killing of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi indicate a disturbing agenda. According to the Project on Middle East Democracy, “reminiscent of life in the Soviet Union, many Saudis have become afraid to say anything negative about the government, even at private social gatherings or at home with their families… Today, the Saudi media… shies away from anything that could be construed as diverging from the official line.”[4] Sadly, the Saudi government not only silences internal voices, but other governments as well. As The Guardian reported, Bin Salman understands Saudi Arabia’s value to the US as a commercial partner, and this value has prevented the administration from criticizing its trading partner. After Khashoggi’s killing, the president dismissed the CIA’s conclusions on the event and spoke of Saudi Arabia as a “Great Ally” to the United States.[5]

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, the definition of terrorism has been broadened to include referring to the king or the crown prince in a manner that ‘brings religion or justice into disrepute.’ In July 2017, four Shi’a men were executed for participating in anti-government protests. [6] In late April 2019, Saudi authorities carried out a mass execution of 37 men, the majority of them from the Shi’a minority, At least 15 of these men were sentenced to death based on “confessions” they reported were extracted through torture, and one man was convicted of a crime that allegedly took place while he was under the age of 18.[7] Guardianship laws still require that women have their male guardian’s permission to take a job outside the home, travel internationally, or enroll in school.[8] Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the women’s rights activists arrested in May 2018 and named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential figures of 2019, remains in prison.

While the situation in Saudi Arabia seems bleak, there are actions that we in the United States can take to move things forward. Earlier this year, the New York Times ran a story on a U.S. woman who was stuck illegally in Saudi Arabia, unable to function in society or leave because her ex-husband retained his legal guardian status over her. After international coverage and outrage, Saudi officials took action “within hours” to grant her residency.[9] This is but one case, but it underscores an important point: the Saudi government responds to the media it cannot silence. If we work to elevate the names and voices of the women’s rights and other activists in Saudi Arabia, we assist them in their fight.

These are the 11 women activists who were detained in May 2018. Seven have been temporarily and conditionally released:

Aziza al-Yousef

Iman al-Nafjan

Dr. Ruqayyah al-Muharib

Amal al-Harbi

Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi

Dr. Abir al-Namankani

Maysaa al-Mane’a

These four remain detained:

Maya’a al-Zahrani

Nouf Abdulaziz

Shadan al-Anezi

Loujain al-Hathloul

As Americans, we can elevate the voices of these activists through a number of means. Click here to send a letter to your congressional representatives about H.R. 2037, The Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Accountability Act, which will demand transparency around the current detention and treatment of activists in the kingdom, as well as further investigate the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Additionally, you can share articles and statements by and about the activists, using hashtags such as #FreeLoujain, #FreeNouf, and #StandWithSaudiFeminists. The enemy of oppression is free speech, and these critical voices will not be silenced.










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