Meet the women’s rights activists behind bars in Saudi Arabia

Saudi women’s rights activists Aziza al-Yousef, Eman Al-Nafjan, and Loujain al-Hathloul. Campaign image by Amnesty International

(Global Voices) – The October 2018 murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi — who US and Turkish officials say was killed at the order of Crown Prince Bin Salman — has cast new light on the many human rights abuses that take place in the kingdom.

International and regional human rights groups and activists are taking this new scrutiny as an opportunity to publicly demand the release of imprisoned human rights activists, including women’s rights defenders.

At least ten women’s rights activists are currently in jail in Saudi Arabia in retaliation for their human rights activities. Among them are Aziza al-Yousef, Eman Al-Nafjan, and Loujain al-Hathloul. The three activists have been in detention since mid-May, after Saudi authorities detained and held them incommunicado in an unknown location. All had campaigned for women’s right to drive and against the kingdom’s antiquated male guardianship system, under which a woman must have the consent of a male guardian if she wishes to get married, rent her own apartment, apply for a passport or travel outside the country.

In addition to these highly sensitive issues, each had used the internet for different kinds of independent activism. Aziza al-Yousef advocated on behalf of domestic violence survivors. Al Nafjan is the author of the blog Saudiwoman, where she wrote about women’s rights, social issues and cultural understanding in the kingdom.

In 2014, Loujain al-Hathloul challenged the ban on women driving by driving her car from the UAE to Saudi Arabia. She stood trial before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), where terrorism and national security cases are heard, for her driving and online activism. She spent 10 weeks in detention and was then released on 12 February 2015. Her legal status remains unclear, according to Amnesty International.

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