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In June of 2018, a decades-old ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia was lifted. Reports from the time speak of joy across the country as women legally got behind the wheel, most for the first time in their lives.
A little over one year later, the country’s controversial male guardianship system was officially loosened. Until August of 2019, women in the country required a male family member's permission to work, travel or access healthcare, their finances and various other legal rights. Under the reforms, Saudi women are now able to obtain a passport and travel freely. They also received full employment discrimination protections and can register the births of their children, live apart from their husband and register as co-head of their household.
Writing about the guardianship system in 2016, Saudi women's rights activist Nassima al-Sada asked, “Why should an under-age boy be the guardian of a woman who is an adult? Why isn’t there an age at which a woman becomes an adult, responsible for her decisions and her life? Why should there be a man responsible for her life?”
With their historical announcement, it looked like the Saudi Royal family finally agreed with her. However, despite the reforms and relaxations, all was not quite what it seemed.
A month after the ban was lifted, on the 31st of July, 2018, Nassima al-Sada was detained. She joined a dozen other women who had faced a similar fate over the previous two months.
Before her arrest, al-Sada – who attempted to run for municipal office in 2015, before being disqualified – received threats over Twitter. Once detained, she was verbally threatened in prison and tied up during interrogation. On the 20th of February, 2019, she was moved to solitary confinement, where she remained until February of 2020. She has made two court appearances, but her third – due to be held in March of 2020 – was cancelled because of COVID-19. No rescheduling details have been announced.
The reforms had been billed as a new dawn for Saudi Arabia, which historically has been criticised for its treatment of women. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who took up his position in June of 2017, is keen to rehabilitate the country’s image and diversify its economy away from oil and into finance and tourism. In his role as “the great reformer”, MBS has steered the country into a new era, overseeing the first concert by a female performer, the admittance of women to sports stadiums and the opening up of the country, with foreign visitors now able to access e-visas online.
Including al-Sada, 13 women await trial for a litany of charges after campaigning against laws and regulations which no longer exist. Five of them remain incarcerated. Their cases highlight a deep hypocrisy running like an open sore through MBS’ reforms, and offer a view of the sinister underside to the Saudi regime.
In a country with a limited press, strict laws mean that anyone criticising the regime can face charges under the counter-terrorism law. The 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul’s Saudi consulate, after the journalist had criticised the regime, is proof of the disdain towards dissent from the Saudi government, and the lengths they will go to to suppress it. In the run up to the women’s rights reforms, activists who had vocally called for them faced an unprecedented crackdown.
“The crackdowns came to silence any critical voices in the country ahead of the reforms the authorities were about to introduce,” says Hashem Hashem, regional campaigner for Syria and Saudi Arabia at Amnesty International. “These women have campaigned, some of them for decades, for the right to drive, and have called for equality between women and men in Saudi Arabia. These women were known, they were brave and they were vocal. They were very much present, and they were a threat to [MBS’] authority and his decision to paint himself as the reformer and change maker in the kingdom. I think it’s also part of a bigger crackdown on all human rights defenders, journalists and anyone who does not agree with the government narrative in Saudi Arabia.”
As western PR firms flock to Saudi Arabia to offer up their services, women’s rights activists – those who represent the true drivers of change in the country – remain incarcerated. Prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was one of those rounded up in the run-up to the relaxation of the driving ban. While in prison, her dad was diagnosed with cancer. Officials offered to release her, to see him and say goodbye, on the condition that she signed a declaration stating she had not been tortured while incarcerated. She refused.
Her strength is shared by all of the women currently facing charges for their human rights work, many of whom were well aware of the risks associated with what they were doing. Case in point: in 2009, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) was formed. Since 2013, all founding members were arrested and sentenced to between seven and 11 years in prison for a raft of trumped up charges.
Despite this, women like Nassima al-Sada and Loujain al-Hathloul still stood up for equal rights and opportunities for women while fighting to expose the hypocrisy of the Saudi regime, risking everything to do so.
“She knew all the risks,” a source close to Nassima’s family told VICE. “However, from her perspective the fight is not based on costs and benefits calculations. Essentially, this spirit of struggle is what makes her who she is. I don’t think she can be defined outside of that. A judge called for her release last year, and then he was removed and she was not able to have a lawyer for almost two years. It's all in the hands of the Royal Court, putting her in solitary for a year, stopping her visitation and weekly phone calls. Every single decision regarding her case and the other female activists [is] micro-managed from the Royal Court. So we wait until the Royal Court makes their ruling in the case and then the new judge will adhere to that.”
This December, human rights activists at Amnesty International have been working to pressure world leaders attending the G20 summit to in turn apply pressure to MBS and the Saudi regime to drop all charges against the 13 women and free those who remain behind bars.
“We hope that these leaders will make the right decision and will stand on the right side of history,” says Hashem. “They must make it clear that business will not go on as usual unless meaningful human rights reforms are introduced, and unless human rights defenders are released immediately and unconditionally. G20 countries and their leaders have a responsibility – it’s a historic responsibility, it’s a human responsibility to make sure that they translate their words and speeches about human rights into actions and to actually pressure Saudi Arabia to abide by the rights and respect them.”
Click here to take part in Amnesty International's Write for Rights campaign, or here if you live in Canada. Your action could help secure Nassima’s release and justice for all women fighting for equality in Saudi Arabia.