Over the last decade, we have seen many rights activists being tortured and oppressed in Saudi Arabia. Among the most prominent was Raif Badawi, the blogger who was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” online in 2014. And among the detained women in Saudi Arabia today is Raif’s sister, Samar Badawi who is also a human rights campaigner.
Only two weeks ago, leading rights activists Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon al-Fassi, Ms Hathloul and six others appeared in the criminal court in Riyadh. These women are being charged with cyber-crimes and risk spending up to five years in jail if convicted. It is believed that while in detention, these women were being tortured and sexually harassed and assaulted. And although Saudi authorities continue to deny these allegations, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights has warned that the women might not get a fair trial and said it was “deeply concerned” about their wellbeing.
It is common knowledge that Saudi Arabia is not a forerunner of gender equality and has a long and dark history of human rights violation. Sadly, this is one of them.
It all began in May last year where more than a dozen activists were arrested shortly before the historic lifting of the ban on female drivers. The activists were mostly accused of jeopardising security. Among those who are still detained is Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University, and Loujain al-Hathloul – who was held in 2014 for more than 70 days for attempting to drive from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia.
Fellow Saudis who opposed the lifting of the ban would argue that women can’t drive and that they are unqualified. Others would simply cast the concept aside for lack of habit, as the society is not used to women driving, and yet sadly, some would blame women’s lack of courage needed to drive.
Canada, the European Parliament and many others have condemned the ongoing repression and torture of this group of women’s rights defenders, but Saudi Arabia continues to reject all international criticism as unjustified interference in its internal affairs. As a result, Saudi Arabia froze all new trade with Canada and expelled its ambassador over such interference.
Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where women weren’t allowed to drive due to a policy that had been in place since 1957 enacting a strict form of Sunni Islam, which argues that allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity.
Today, Saudi women can drive but gender equality is yet another battle these strong women have to endure.
Last month Saudi Arabia announced the appointment of Princess Reema bint Bandar as the first female ambassador to the US. Be that as it may, as long as the defenders of women’s rights sit in jail, it will be very hard for the world to believe that any reforms to empower women in Saudi Arabia are real at all.