BY SAMAN BHAT ’22
After 10 months of incarceration, three Saudi women’s rights activists — Iman al-Nafjan, a famous Saudi blogger, Aziza al-Youssef, a retired lecturer at King Saud University and Ruqaya al-Mohareb, an academic were temporarily released from prison. The women finally went home last Thursday, March 28 after being arrested along with over a dozen other activists in May of 2018.
It is still unknown why the three women were released, but the Saudi government has made clear that the charges against them are still active, according to the BBC. These charges vary from violations of the country’s cybercrime laws to accusations of being agents of foreign embassies, according to Al-Jazeera, a Qatar news source. The New York Times stated that the women were illegitimately accused of having illegal contact with foreign journalists and diplomats at the time they were arrested. It is also rumored that two of the detainees have not been formally charged.
Before their detention, the activists were fighting to lift the ban on women driving and to reform Saudi Arabia’s misogynistic guardianship laws. The guardianship laws require women to be dependent on a male gure in their household, no matter their age or level of education. According to the New York Times, women “need a male guardian — a father, uncle, husband, brother or son — to consent to a variety of basic needs.”
Female activism has been on the rise in Saudi Arabia, especially since access to social media has given Saudi women a platform to communicate and spread their messages. Saima Haque ’22 said, “I get so happy going through my feed, seeing women share their stories and standing up for a cause they believe in. Social media has definitely given a platform to voices that have been previously suppressed, and I know that I personally wouldn’t have heard about issues like the ones the Saudi women were facing if it weren’t for these platforms exposing me to it.”
The Saudi government has carried out limited reforms in order to pacify the international community, which has been growing more and more con- cerned with the country’s human rights violations. According to the Washing- ton Post, “the simultaneous reform [...] carried out by [the crown Prince] [...]offers limited advancements in wom- en’s rights to appeal to the Western audience and to consolidate his power.”
The international community was outraged by the government’s incarceration of the activists: all 28 European Union members, and three dozen other countries, called on the city of Riyadh to free them. Nine prominent U.S. senators wrote a public letter to King Salman demanding the immediate release of the prisoners held on “dubious charges related to their activism,” according to Al-Jazeera.
Ali Aslam, an assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College, commented on the international com- munity’s response. “For the same reasons that the Saudi government has the skills and resources to buy off any serious critics, I don’t put much hope in the influence that international pressure might exert here,” Aslam said.
The women activists, along with a few men who supported the cause, were arrested a month before Saudi Arabia made its historic decision to lift the ban on women driving in June 2018. According to Reuters, some activists and diplomats believe that the timing of the arrests was planned so that women activists would not be credited with influencing the decision when Saudi lifted the ban. The Washington Post calls the awed reform “feminism minus the feminists.”
Amnesty International’s Middle East research director, Lynn Maalouf, said the women only had two hours to prepare their defense before they had to stand trial for their release before
the three-judge panel. The activists accused investigators of torture, claiming they were subjected to waterboarding, electric shocks, sexual harassment and more, according to Al-Jazeera. Several Saudi civil rights groups have spoken up for those arrested and released de- tails of their detainment and court pro- ceedings. Yahya Assiri, the director of ALQST, a Saudi activist group based in the U.K., told the story of some of the women. In a New York Times article, “Shadan al-Anezi [another activist] told the court that her interrogators had used drugs such as hash while abusing her.”
Al-Jazeera reported that the Saudi government denies any such accusations of mistreating the women. From the beginning of the con ict, the Saudi prosecutor’s of ce justi ed the arrests by accusing the activists of “[under- mining] the security and stability of the kingdom,” according to the New York Times.
Aslam commented on the level of impact he believed the activists could have on Saudi’s treatment of women. “I believe activists can and do make a dif- ference, but they face a very adroit and adept regime that has proven itself ca- pable of neutralizing most opposition, silencing those critics it could not buy off or make a deal with, or simply kill- ing them outright,” said Aslam