Solidarity with jailed feminists in Saudi Arabia

June 22, 2018

In the weeks leading up to Saudi Arabia’s lifting of the ban on women driving, scheduled for June 24, Saudi officials went on the offensive, rounding up and arresting leading feminist activists. This attempt to silence dissent flies in the face of the supposedly more liberal image that the Saudi regime and the U.S. government have tried to cultivate under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

In an effort to expose this hypocrisy and organize international pressure on the Saudi government to release these women’s rights campaigners, activists are making the call for an International Day of Solidarity with Saudi Feminists on June 24. Here, we reprint the call to action.

AFTER NEARLY three decades of struggle for women’s rights as well as feminist campaigning in Saudi Arabia, the ban on women driving will be lifted on June 24, 2018. This came as part of wider reforms that the government introduced in September 2017. It aimed to dismantle some of the longstanding restrictions on women’s freedom of mobility and access to public spaces. Yet, the long overdue decision addresses a mere fraction of what Saudi women have demanded and fought for in the last three decades. These include lifting restrictions on women’s participation in the labor market and ending the male guardianship system, among other demands. The current government, like its predecessors, has responded to these demands at least until 2016 by claiming that Saudi society is conservative and that social change should occur slowly and from within: it cannot be imposed. Doing so has provided a blanket cover for the government to crush all attempts at building independent civil society organizations.

Saudi women's rights activist and political prisoner Loujain al-Hathloul
Saudi women's rights activist and political prisoner Loujain al-Hathloul

Welcome as this latest policy change on women driving is, it disproportionately benefits women of privileged backgrounds, leaving the social conditions of the majority intact at a time when social change is most urgent. Indeed, domestic violence, for instance, has severely affected women’s lives, with 53 percent of Saudi men reporting in 2003 that they have hit their wives. Issues of domestic violence have come to national attention lately, with the highly publicized cases of several women who tried to escape the Kingdom in the last year. Leaving the country is one of the few viable options available to victims of domestic abuse, at least for those who can afford it. Yet the government has tried to
prevent them from doing so. Some, such as Amna al-Juaid, have disappeared, and their fate is yet to be known.

Government-affiliated institutions such as the King Khalid Foundation launched various campaigns denouncing domestic abuse and encouraging women and children to call the domestic violence hotline. Despite these media campaigns, Saudi authorities continue to treat domestic violence as a private matter that should be dealt with inside the home. Other than continuing to live with their abusers, which most victims do, women can seek government protection, in which case they are placed under state custody in what amounts to prisons, where abuse and cruelty is prevalent.

The main issue that does not receive as much attention as the driving ban is that women in Saudi Arabia are still legally treated as minors incapable of independent living. Despite the aforementioned reforms, they remain legally dependent on their male guardians: a woman cannot go to college, get a job, live on her own, leave the country, or even receive life-saving obstetric and gynecological medical procedures, without the approval of a male guardian. Women, in fact, cannot even be released from prison without the written approval of a male guardian.

AS JUNE 24 approached, and excitement inside the country became palpable, Saudi authorities cracked down on feminist activists and campaigners, both women and men, who have led the fight for the basic right to drive a car. Some were rounded up and thrown in jail on May 15 while others were placed under a travel ban shortly after. Another wave of arrests followed on June 6, adding to the precarity that Saudi Arabian citizens have to endure. This has cast necessary doubt on the so-called reforms that many in the international community have referred to as “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring.”

The first wave of arrests included such prominent figures as Azizah al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Ibrahim al-Mudaymeegh and Mohammad al-Rabea, as well as Abdulaziz al-Meshal and another person whose name has not been announced yet.

Aziza al-Yousef is a retired university professor and a longtime activist in both the My Right, My Dignity campaign and the ongoing campaign to end male guardianship. In 2016, she attempted to deliver to the Shura Councila 14,700-signature petition against the guardianship law, which was not met with any meaningful response.

Loujain al-Hathloul is a Saudi women’s rights activist and social media figure. Having actively and publicly challenged the driving ban in 2014, and championed the campaign to abolish male guardianship laws, this was not her first arrest.

Mohammad al-Rabeah is an activist, a writer, and a longtime supporter of women’s rights to drive and to abolish the male guardianship system. He also ran a forum, Tawasul, that hosted intellectuals from all over the world to discuss domestic and regional issues.

Eman al-Nafjan is a blogger and women’s rights activist. Starting in 2011, Eman was the main organizer of the October 26 My Right, My Dignity campaign against the driving ban, whereby dozens of women took to the streets and challenged the driving ban by driving their cars and publishing online videos of themselves driving. She continued to face harassment and questioning several times since then.

Ibrahim al-Modaymeegh is a former legal adviser to the Council of Ministers and a lawyer who has represented many political and human rights activists. He was the defense attorney for al-Yousef, al-Nafjan, and many other women’s rights activists. In 2014, he represented al-Hathloul before the Specialized Criminal Court–a court formed in 2008 specifically to deal with terror suspects–when she was detained for trying to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia.

Abdulaziz al-Meshal is a businessman who was not, in fact, involved in any kind of activism. All he did was co-sign a funding application for establishing the center for women survivors of domestic abuse. A mere signature on that application was enough to have him labeled a traitor.

The next wave on June 6 included Nouf Abdulaziz, a human rights activist and a writer whose articles and essays were published in the Saudi feminist website, Noon al-Arabyiah. After her arrest, her friend Mayya al-Zahrani, published a letter that Nouf had written and intended for publication only in case she was arrested. This, in turn, led to the arrest of Mayya herself.

IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING the arrests, state-controlled media launched a campaign of character assassination, labeling these activists as “traitors” and “agents of embassies.” They did so presumably because some activists are alleged to have contacts with international human rights organizations and media outlets. Such campaigns of character assassination are not new: In the aftermath of the 1990 protest against the driving ban, the Saudi government circulated pamphlets in which it denounced protesters as “wh*res who are backed by communists and secularists,” in reference to their husbands. This is a level of state repression that does not only target activists but also their family members, many of whom were put under a travel ban.

The reasoning for and timing of these arrests illustrates just how bleak the prospects of actual reform are in the country. It is a government effort to erase, once and for all, the historical struggle to lift the ban on driving and the efforts of the women and men who were at its forefront. This way, the government can claim to be the one and only agent of progress and change in the country. Second, it is an attempt to crush the ongoing feminist movement to end the male guardianship system and set a limit on further progress toward gender equality. Lastly, that the government targeted the activists merely for submitting a formal application to establish Amina (Safe) a society for the protection of survivors of domestic abuse shows its own insecurity and weakness. By arresting these activists, the new government is declaring any attempt to challenge these conditions of subordination, discrimination and abuse, and, importantly, speaking out about them, a crime. It is a crime because it supposedly tarnishes the image of the “new” and “more-equal” Saudi Arabia that the government is working hard to promote internationally. Indeed, exposing the daily realities of abuse and subordination that women across Saudi Arabia have to endure threatens the Saudi government and exposes its reforms for what they really are: an attempt to present the Kingdom in a more modern, liberal light, without fundamentally changing oppressive social relations.

In order to recognize these activists and the sacrifices they have made, we, the undersigned feminists and activists in Saudi Arabia, along with their allies abroad, are calling for an International Day of Solidarity with Saudi Feminists on June 24 and demanding the immediate and unconditional release of all feminist prisoners.


Amelia Horgan, postgraduate representative, National Union of Students (NUS), UK
Ariel Gold, national co-director, CODEPINK, U.S.
Bassem Tamimi, a Palestinian activist, Palestine
Caren Kaplan, professor, author of Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above, UC Davis, U.S.
Chloe Manahan, chair, Labour Youth Ireland, Ireland
Cinzia Arruzza, national organizer, International Women’s Strike, USA
Danny Postel, assistant director, Middle East and North African Studies Program, Northwestern University, U.S.
Dave Zirin, sports editor, The Nation, U.S.
Demita Frazier, original writer and signatory, Combahee River Collective, U.S.
Eden Ladley, incoming LGBT+ officer (Women’s Place), NUS, UK
Emily Chapman, vice president (Further Education), NUS, UK
Eve Ensler, author, The Vagina Monologues, U.S.
Frieda Afary, producer, Iranian Progressives in Translation, U.S.
Hala Aldosari, a Saudi scholar in women’s health, human rights activist, Harvard University, U.S.
Hareem Ghani, women’s officer, NUS, UK
Heike Shaumberg, regional editor of Latin America journal in Argentina, with solidarity from the historic abortion vote
Ilyas Nagdee, Black students’ officer, NUS, UK
Issa Amro, Palestine human rights defender, director of Humans of Hebron, Palestine
Ivana Bacik, senator, Labour Party of Ireland (Dublin University), Ireland
Iyad El-Baghdadi, writer and activist, Kawakaabi Foundation, Norway
Jane Stewart, National Women’s Seat, Unite Executive Council, UK
Jess Bradley, trans officer, NUS, and activist, Action for Trans Health, UK
Khury Petersen-Smith, activist and research fellow, Institute for Policy Studies
Leah Rea, international secretary, the Socialist Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) North of Ireland, UK
Lindsey German, author and national convenor, Stop the War Coalition, UK
Lola Olufemi, outgoing women’s officer, Cambridge University Students’ Union, and incoming National Executive Council (Women’s Campaign 2nd Place), NUS, UK
Dr Louise Irvine, member of Council of the British Medical Association
Luisa Morgantini, former vice president, EU Parliament, human rights activist, Italy
Luke Humberstone, outgoing president, NUS Scotland, UK
Madawi al Rasheed, a Saudi professor of social anthropology, King’s College, UK
Medea Benjamin, co-founder, CODEPINK, U.S.
Malia Bouattia, former NUS president, and former president of the NUS Black Students’ Campaign, activist with Preventing Prevent, UK.
Manal al-Sharif, Saudi women’s rights activist, co-founder #Women2Drive, author of Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening
Mariel Whelan, activist, Galway Feminist Collective, UK
Minh-Ha T. Pham, professor, author of Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender and the Work of Personal Style Blogging, Pratt Institute, U.S.
Mona Eltahawy, feminist author and activist, Egypt/USA
Mona Kareem, writer, U.S.
Rachel O’Brien, disabled students’ officer, NUS, UK
Rachel Watters, women’s officer, National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI), UK
Rebecca Solnit, writer, U.S.
Sarah Lasoye, incoming national women’s officer, NUS, UK
Shuwanna Aaron, Scotland women’s officer, NUS, UK
Tithi Bhattacharrya, national organizer, International Women’s Strike USA, UK
Yasser Munif, professor, Emerson College, Boston, U.S.
Yinbo Yu, international students’ officer, NUS, UK

Further Reading

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