‘In a world of technology, rapid globalization, and continuous international challenges, improving the lot of Saudi women and mobilizing them is no longer a matter of choice and luxury; it is a necessity.’ These are the words of Wajeha al-Huwaider, a leading Saudi Arabian writer and journalist who has endured sustained harassment from the authorities for the past decade and is banned from publishing in her native country.
Women’s rights, as we know them, are non-existent in Saudi Arabia. Men are allowed to marry girls as young as seven or eight years old and can have as many as four wives. Women are restricted in what they are allowed to wear, have limited access to education, cannot travel without the permission of a male guardian and are banned from driving.
Al-Huwaider and fellow activist Fawzia al-Oyouni have campaigned for a long time for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and have also supported female victims of domestic abuse. In 2007 the two friends co-founded the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Huwaider writes poetry and short stories and has published articles on political, social and cultural issues in the Arab world, including the marginalisation of women, the plight of the Shi’ite minority and relations with the West. She used to write for the Arabic-language daily Al-Watan and the English-language daily Arab News, but was banned from publishing in 2003 after writing a column in which she suggested that Saudi citizens were disillusioned and increasingly looked to the United States for solutions to their problems. PEN took up her case and she was the main focus of its 2004 International Women’s Day campaign. In the same year al-Huwaider received the NOVIB/PEN Free Expression award at the Hague.
Despite the ban in Saudi Arabia, al-Huwaider continues to publish online and abroad and her articles illustrate her courage. In one she writes:
The reason most women who are depressed, submissive, and subject to various types of injustice accept their wretched situation is their increasing fear. The fear gnaws away at their sense of being independent entities, and harms their self confidence every day. Thus they always fail at removing the oppression. The real reason for this fear among Saudi women is that there is no law to protect them from violence and discrimination.
In August 2009 al-Huwaider published a piece in the Washington Post about her fight for women’s rights. ‘Why am I different?’ she wrote.
I am not sure. Perhaps because as a Shi’ite (who make up 10 percent of the Saudi population) I have always been somewhat marginalized. Perhaps because my mother, unlike most others, allowed me to play soccer with the boys, and I’ve always felt equal to them … Perhaps because I went to college in America and got to experience a life in which women are treated as people, not property.
The current case against al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni dates back to 6 June 2011, when they were contacted by Nathalie Morin, a Canadian woman, who told them that she had been locked in her home in Dammam by her Saudi husband. She was with her three young children and they had insufficient provisions. Apparently al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni received a text from Nathalie asking for their help despite never having met her. They arrived at her home with food and water and were immediately arrested. Morin’s husband claimed that they had intended to kidnap Morin and the children and take them to the Canadian embassy in Riyadh. They were released on 7 June 2011 and believed the charges had been dropped.
Over a year later, in July 2012, al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni were called in for questioning about their Women2Drive campaign. They have been particularly vocal in their call for the right to be allowed to drive. As al-Huwaider points out, ‘there is nothing in the Koran that forbids driving. No, the reason we are not allowed to drive is that the power to transport ourselves would give men much less control over us.’ During their detention they were informed that charges against them from the Morin case would be referred to court.
The trial began in December 2012 and on 15 June 2013 they were found not guilty of kidnapping, but convicted of ‘Takhbib’ – inciting a woman against her husband – and sentenced to ten months in prison followed by a two-year travel ban. Many believe that al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni have been targeted because of their human rights work and their outspoken criticism of the treatment of women. Al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni lodged an appeal on 12 July 2013. However, it can take several weeks for a review to be completed and it is unlikely that the court’s ruling will be overturned without outside pressure.
The women’s convictions appear to be part of a crackdown on peaceful dissidents in Saudi Arabia. In February I wrote in these pages about three writers facing the death penalty if found guilty of apostasy. On 24 June seven government critics were sentenced to prison terms of five to ten years for allegedly inciting protests and harming public order by posting messages online, mainly on Facebook.
Readers might like to send appeals protesting the convictions of writer and activist Wajeha al-Huwaider and activist Fawzia al-Oyouni, who are targeted solely for their peaceful activism in violation of their rights to freedom of expression as laid out in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and calling for their immediate release and for the sentences against them to be quashed.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior
His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Nayef al-Saud
Ministry of the Interior
Fax: + 966 1 403 3125
HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al-Saud
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
30 Charles Street, London W1J 5DZ
Email via the website: www.saudiembassy.org.uk