The feminist struggle in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi activist Samar Badawi (centre) received the 2012 International Women of Courage Award for her fight for human rights. (Gary Cameron / Reuters)

Saudi Arabia is one of the countries with the highest degree of gender inequality. Women have fewer rights and are subject to male guardianship: they need the permission of a man to work, travel or open a bank account, for example.

In recent years, King Salman bin Abdulaziz and the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, have launched some opening measures, such as allowing Saudi women to drive.

However, human rights organisations continue to denounce the repression of women and the violation of human rights. The latest case that got international criticism was the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was very critical of the Saudi regime.

The situation is even more serious for women, because they are obliged by law to obey their father or husband. If they do not comply with the law, they can be arrested and end up in jail. 

 

The challenge of Saudi activists 

Despite the dangers they face, many Saudi women take the risk of telling the truth about the situation of women in Saudi Arabia  in order to raise awareness in the international community and try to change things.

Loujain al-Hathloul is one of the most widely known names in feminist activism in the country. She campaigned for years for women to drive, and even spent 73 days in prison for daring to take a car before the law was approved.

In May 2018, Loujain and her husband, the famous Saudi humorist Fahad Albutairi, were arrested abroad and deported to their country. Both have been in prison for months, accused of collaborating with foreign governments.

At the same time as Loujain, other activists for human rights were also imprisoned in Saudi Arabia: Iman al Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Samar Badawi… There is no official information on their situation, but NGOs claim that they have suffered torture in jail.

Faced with arrest and imprisonment, many activists, journalists and academics have given up protesting for fear of reprisals. Others have chosen to leave the country to ensure their safety and that of their families.

In 2011, Manar al Sharif launched the Women2drive campaign to promote women’s right to drive. And she was imprisoned for it.

Now, from exile, she continues working to raise awareness of the situation of Saudi women and to get them the same rights as men. However, she has had to delete her social network profiles because of the threats she received.

The arrest and imprisonment of activists is a means of silencing criticism against the monarchy and the government. Saudi Arabia is a country very rich in oil, which grants it great influence over other countries.

In a situation like this, social networks become a window to freedom of expression, make injustices visible, and mobilise people to act.

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