“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.

In 2016,


people were executed in Saudi Arabia

Suspected of disrupting public order? Of attempting to overthrow the King’s authority? Of destabilizing the State? Of creating an illegal organization?

Go directly to prison!

“Bad influence on public opinion?
8 years in prison!”

August 2017, Abdelaziz Al-Shubaili
Member of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights

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.

Everyday life for women in Saudi Arabia, according to customary practice

— You need a passport? You need to travel? You want to get married?
Ask your wali al-amr first!
— You have to give birth by Caesarean section? You need to abort in a private hospital?
Not without the consent of your wali al-amr!
— Looking for an apartment? Trying to open a bank account, to enrol in university or in a training centre? Need access to justice, to work?
It will certainly be complicated
without the consent of your wali al-amr!
— You’ve done your time in jail and are happy to get out?
Too bad, your wali al-amr
did not come to pick you up…

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.

Vague laws

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

Insulting religion
Undermining religious figures

Charges punishable by several years of prison

Undermining the authorities
Attempt to create division
Public disorder

Hamza Kashgari

A journalist and poet, arrested in 2012 for “apostasy” because of a series of tweets encouraging a debate on human rights. Hamza initially faced death penalty, but was finally released in October 2013, after 20 months in jail, thanks to an important mobilisation of Saudi public opinion.

Raïf Badawi

A blogger and intellectual, sentenced to 10 years of prison, 1000 lashes and a fine of one million Rials (about 226 000 Euros) for “insulting Islam”. Raif is also banned from travelling for 10 years and to speak in public for the rest of his life. Thanks to an important international campaign demanding his release, to date he has “only” had to go through one flogging session out of 20.

Achraf Fayyad

A Palestinian poet living in Saudi Arabia, Achraf uses his poems to condemn human rights violations in the country. Achraf was sentenced to death for “apostasy” by a lower court, a sentence that was reduced on appeal to eight years in prison and 800 lashes altogether with the obligation to repent

Naimah Al-Matrod

A nurse, accused of trying to destabilize the government, the justice system and consequently the security of the country on social media. Naimah was also accused of having a bad influence on the social fabric, of creating chaos and encouraging sectarian revolt for taking part in peaceful protests and because of her posts on Twitter and Facebook. She is the first woman accused of terrorist activities in Qatif, a predominantly Shiite region.

Mariam Al-Otaibi

A human rights defender, arrested in 2017 for disobeying her father, and accused of troubling public order because of her actions in favour of the abolition of the male guardianship system.

Samar Badawi

Sentenced to seven months in jail for disobeying her father, who was abusing her. She’s been banned from speaking publicly and from travelling since 2014 because of her commitment to defending human rights.

The sharia

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.

The 2015 “Law on associations and foundations”4 regulates the legal framework of associations. But once again, this law contains vague provisions that make the registration of these associations complicated. Moreover, it gives large discretion to the government, which can dissolve any association that “[would] violate the rules of Islam, of public order, of morality, or that [would] commit any act undermining national unity” (art. 23, para 1 b and e).

The Law on associations and foundations gives prominence to the Ministry of Social Affairs, which interferes in all of civil society’s organisational matters, including the creation and election of organisations’ board members.

4. See Law on associations and foundations, adopted by royal decree n°M/8, 19.2.1437H, December 1, 2015

Strange, isn’t it?

When you register an association, you have to choose from a list of predetermined activities… that does not include defending human rights, women’s rights, or any activity that can relate to those.

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.

In July 2016, the Arabic hashtag which translates as #SaudiWomenWantToAbolishThe GuardianshipSystem is launched on Twitter. It goes viral and in September 2016, thousands of people sign a petition demanding the end of the guardianship system. The reaction of the grand mufti: the campaign is a « crime ». The imam of Friday’s prayers at the Grand Mosque of Mecca asserts that it is « contrary to the law of God », which, in view of the institution he represents, criminalises the authors of the petition.

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)

Loujain Al-Hathloul

Defender of the right to drive

Loujain Al-Hathloul, 28 years old, made herself known in October 2013 with a video posted on social media showing her driving a car in the streets of Riyadh, her father sitting next to her. One year later, oops she did it again, informing social networks that she was driving towards the Saudi-Emirati border. She appeared at the Court of Dammam but thankfully did not stand before the Specialized Criminal Court. In December 2015, she ran for municipal elections of her city, Dammam, but… her name did not appear on the ballot! She consequently filed a lawsuit before the State Council, but her case is still pending. On June 4, 2017, Loujain was arrested again at Dammam international airport, without being given any reason, and without being allowed to contact her lawyer or her family. She was finally released on June 7, 2017, but she still does not know if charges are pending against her and lives with the constant threat of a new arrest or prosecution.

Mariam Al-Otaibi

An activist against male guardianship

Mariam Nasser Khalaf Al-Otaibi, 29 years old, is known by the Saudi public for her activism for women’s rights on social media. After being verbally and physically abused by members of her family, she filed a complaint twice backed up by a medical report, but was brought home every time. Instead of being protected by the police, she was arrested after her father filed complaints for disobedience and running away. She then was accused of “disturbing public order” for voicing her commitment to human rights on Twitter. Her name became a rallying cry on social media, with the hashtag #WeAreAllMariamAl-Otaibi. In mid-July, the Prosecutor announced that she would be released upon lack of evidence. Remarkably, she was released on bail in July 2017 without the presence of her wali al-amr.

Nassima Al-Sadah

Impeded from registering an association

Nassima Al-Sadah, 44 years old, is a defender of workers’ rights, children’s rights, and women’s rights. In December 2015, she ran for municipal election but her name did not appear on the ballot, so she filed a complaint against the Ministry of Interior. The complaint is still pending. In 2012, she published an article on the history of Saudi Arabian feminism. At the beginning of 2017, she tried to create an association for women’s rights but has still not received an answer. Her case illustrates how difficult, nearly impossible it is to defend women’s rights in a structured manner in Saudi Arabia.

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.

Help us protect human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia

Ask Saudi officials to put an end to the repression of women human rights defenders and to allow them to gather in associations.

Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London

Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

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