“We have our values: it is important for us to have participation in decision making;
it is important for us to have our freedom of expression;
it is important for us to have human rights.”
Muhammad bin Salman, January, 6th 2016
In 2015, Saudi women gained voting rights as well as the right to stand for elections, at last. In 2017, they were given the right to drive a motor vehicle… from June 2018 onward. Would the winds of freedom sweep across Saudi Arabia? Indeed, crown prince Muhammad bin Salman is preparing his way to the throne by announcing several economic and social reforms, including his project “Vision 2030”.
So, are we witnessing a real U-turn or are these reforms a mere window dressing? When will Saudi women be allowed to gather, to create associations, to take part in public affairs without risking their freedom? These are the questions asked by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, whose report sheds harsh light on the shocking situation of women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia.
On the ground, the trend is far from encouraging. In reaction to the Arab revolutions, the Saudi authorities have become tougher on all dissenting voices, especially those of human rights defenders, who almost always end up in jail. Attempts to structure a movement or to create an association are throttled at birth, and the most certain horizon for human rights defenders, bloggers, lawyers, demonstrators, is the wall of a prison.
In this extremely repressive context, activists who are trying to structure their claims for women’s rights also face reprisals.
people were executed in Saudi Arabia
Double jeopardy for women human rights defenders
In Saudi Arabia, there is no legal age for female majority. Women are considered underage and remain dependant on the male members of their family during their whole life. A male guardianship system, wali al-amr in Arabic – generally maintained by the father or the husband – prevails in the country, which thus violates the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women that Saudi Arabia signed in 2000.
On April 18, 2017, a royal decree asked government bodies not to demand the consent of the wali al-amr when the law did not specifically call for it, and to provide a list of all the administrative procedures requiring that consent. But in reality, this decree did not change anything as it failed to ask private actors to conform to these rules. So private actors can still ask women to provide the consent of their wali al-amr1.
Obedient you will be…
The sharia, the ideological and legal basis of the Saudi Constitution, commands obedience to the wali al-amr, who represents family as well as public authority. This means that the father is the wali al-amr of his children, the husband that of his wife/ves, and the king that of his subjects. The importance of the wali al-amr significantly contributes to the repression of all dissenting voices, but constitutes a double jeopardy for women human rights defenders. For them, the primacy of the sharia means that they can’t criticise those in authority, because they challenge the established order AND because they are women. Thus they expose themselves to prosecution for undermining their “male guardian” as well as those in authority. Mariam Al Otaibi’s case is a clear illustration of the current state of affairs. She was abused by her family because of her activism and as she sought help with the police, instead of being rescued, she was imprisoned for disobedience.
A punitive justice system
In Saudi Arabia, the law does not guarantee fundamental rights such as freedom of association, of speech, or the right to peaceful assembly. Exercising these rights is repressed and human rights defenders find themselves judicially harassed under trumped-up charges. In this context, it is difficult to advocate for the protection of human rights, which are considered by the authorities as a threat to public order, or even as a terrorist activity.
Saudi laws are written in vague terms that allow judges to interpret them as they wish, putting additional obstacles to the work of human rights defenders. The situation is further complicated by primacy of the sharia in the justice system and the fact that its content depends on its interpretation by religious authorities.
Charges punishable by death
Undermining religious figures
Charges punishable by several years of prison
Undermining the authorities
Attempt to create division
The sharia is a corpus of norms and rules taken out of the Quran and the Sunna (the prophetic tradition), which codifies the private and public aspects of a Muslim’s life. The sharia is the basis of the Kingdom’s Constitution and justifies – among other things – obedience to the wali al-amr, “the holder of authority”, in private and public lives.
The Council of the Ulemas
The official and supreme religious institution issues fatwas which have legal force and may lead to criminal prosecutions. On March 6, 2011 for instance, in the midst of the “Arab springs”, a decree of the Council forbade petitions as well as demonstrations.
The Specialized Criminal Court
Because of vague laws, instances like the Specialized Criminal Court – which was originally competent to address terrorism cases – become instruments of repression of those whose ideas diverge from the official doctrine.
Forums for freedom under control
No freedom of association for defending human rights, nor for defending women’s rights.
Did you know?
According to the Law on associations and foundations, foreign associations and foundations are forbidden to open branches in Saudi Arabia. The law also forbids Saudi associations from collaborating with international organisations. They can receive money from abroad only with the consent of the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The relative freedom of cyberspace
Where do women rights defenders meet? In their homes, within close social circles. But even there, they have to remain extremely vigilant: if a “circle” starts to talk about politics and gain too much of an audience, heavy prison sentences are meted out.
In that context, social media like Twitter, Snapchat, Telegram and Whatsapp have increasingly provided Saudi Arabians with an outlet for expressing themselves and advocating for human rights.
Today, there are thousands of cyber-activists in Saudi Arabia, but a lot of them express themselves through anonymous accounts, fearing retaliation.
We pay tribute to the courage of these women who take risks and face arrest and prosecution, including under trumped up terrorism charges.
When women fight for their freedom
In October 1990, a fatwa issued by The Council of the Ulemas6 – supported afterwards by the Ministry of Interior7 – left Saudi Arabia as the only country in the world forbidding women to drive cars. Since then, there have been several protests asking for women’s right to drive, which of course led to numerous arrests and prosecutions.
On September 26, 2017, King Salman bin Abdelaziz finally signed a decree allowing women to drive cars as of June 2018. The licences will be delivered without prior authorisation of a male guardian, and the presence of a man in the vehicle will not be mandatory. This is a great victory for women, who will now be able to become more independent, and go to work without spending part of their wage on a chauffeur’s salary.
Yet, immediately after the decree was issued, the services of the Ministry of Interior contacted women’s rights defenders asking them not to make any comments in the media, to prevent any publicity around the efficiency of the long fight female rights defenders put up to gain that right. A little freedom is ok, but activism is still a problem…
6. Cf. le site gouvernemental saoudien de La Présidence générale des recherches scientifiques et de la délivrance des fatwas, Sentence de la conduite de voiture par la femme, archives (en arabe)
7. See the blog of Saudi activist Manal Al-Sharif, When will Saudi women drive, April 7, 2014 (in Arabic) and the Memri website La conduite des femmes de nouveau à l’ordre du jour en Arabie saoudite, October 23, 2013 (in French)
Most women activists who lobbied for driving received warning phone calls from the Royal Court not to comment on the driving decree— هالة الدوسري (@Hala_Aldosari) 28 septembre 2017
Let’s take action!
The Saudi women’s movement needs to have the opportunity to operate in a structured way. We can support the movement by sharing this report. Please ask the Saudi Government to put an end to the repression of human rights defenders and to guarantee an open and enabling environment for those who wish to commit to women’s rights.
Ask Saudi officials to put an end to the repression of women human rights defenders and to allow them to gather in associations.
This web page is a summary of the Report « Condemned to Silence: The situation of Women Human Rights Defenders in Saudi Arabia » published by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT).
This study was produced notably within the framework of ProtectDefenders.eu, of which FIDH and OMCT are members. For more information: read the full report