On March 13, a trial began in Riyadh’s Criminal Court. The court was closed to the public, and both the charges and a definitive list of the accused have not been announced.
What we know is that the defendants are among the most prominent feminist activists, scholars and writers in Saudi Arabia; that they have been in prison for the past year and have reportedly been tortured; and that although they have been branded “traitors” in the press, they are guilty of nothing other than advocating for women’s rights.
In fact, this prosecution seems to be at cross-purposes with official policies to grant women a larger role in Saudi public life.
Half of all university students in Saudi Arabia are women. As part of a strategic plan to make the economy less dependent on fossil fuels, championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the government has said it wants to increase women’s employment. It has progressively opened more private professions and government posts to women. Legal reforms have also been enacted: in recent years women have been allowed to run in municipal elections, to own and operate their own businesses, and to drive.
Yet Saudi rulers remain intolerant of all dissent and independent political mobilization; the prosecution of women’s rights advocates shows what a narrow vision the authorities actually have of women’s (and indeed all citizens’) participation.
Al-Hathloul is a renowned feminist activist who has called for an end to the guardianship system, which puts women under the power of male relatives. In 2014 she was jailed for two and a half months for filming herself attempting to drive from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia, where women were then not allowed to drive.
Eman Al Nafjan has a master’s degree in teaching English from the University of Birmingham, in England. She is the author of the Saudiwoman’s Weblog, a pioneering blog that was one of my own references for learning about women’s experiences and rights in the country.
In her last published article, Al Nafjan wrote about her reaction in 2017 to the news that women would be allowed to drive:
“The unnecessary sacrifices of so many people crossed my mind as I read the tweets issued by the Saudi Press Agency announcing that the ban had been lifted.
“The manner in which the ban was lifted seemed too simple to be real. Initially, I was overwhelmed with my own powerlessness as a woman living in a patriarchal absolute monarchy. Were our efforts the reason the ban was lifted? Or was it a decision that had been made regardless of our struggles?”
Al Nafjan went on to note that the lifting of the driving ban should encourage activists who were already focused on the next challenge: ending the kingdom’s guardianship system, which makes women ask for male guardians’ permission to travel, study, work, receive medical treatment and marry.
Al-Yousef was a professor of computer science at King Saud University for nearly three decades. Like other women on trial, she supported the campaign to allow women to drive and to end guardianship. In 2016 she tried to deliver to the Royal Advisory Council a 14,700-signature petition seeking to abolish the guardianship regulation, but was rebuffed.
Al-Fassi is a scholar and writer who was arrested in June 2018. She is an associate professor in the history department of King Saud University and the international affairs department at Qatar University. Her book Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia argues that women in the pre-Islamic Nabataean kingdom enjoyed considerable rights, perhaps more than they do in modern Saudi Arabia.
But her positions on women’s rights and Islam attracted criticism, and when I interviewed her in the spring of 2017 there was a campaign underway to have her dismissed. “My point is that Islam has called for equality between men and women,” she told me then. “My course is based around the empowerment of women using Islam as its reference.”
Other feminists and activists who have been arrested and may be facing charges are Nouf Abdulaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Saada, Shadan al-Onezi, Amal al-Harbi and Mohammed al-Rabia, according to rights groups.
Most were arrested in May 2018, just before the ban on driving was finally lifted. The change in policy was touted as part of Prince Mohammed’s push to modernize the country. Billboards in foreign capitals featured a Saudi woman behind a wheel and the claim that the crown prince “is empowering Saudi Arabian women.”
In reality, those Saudi women who have tried to empower themselves are being punished for it. I can only guess that the threat these women represent is that they might have taken some credit or had some comment on the end of the ban; might have pushed for more reforms instead of just celebrating this long-awaited one; might have complicated a narrative in which women’s rights are the sudden gift of an enlightened prince.
At the time of the arrests, state-backed media labeled those detained “traitors” and prosecutors said they were suspected of undermining the kingdom’s stability and working against its interests with financial assistance from foreign powers. According to human rights activists, the women have been subjected to torture and sexual abuse in prison (the authorities deny this).
This trial is a travesty and a scandal, and it shows how the rulers of Saudi Arabia really feel about women who demand their rights.