Their story is an unyielding dichotomy between liberation and repression. Images of their faces trickled – almost too slowly – to a waiting world and an eager press. They are the 11 female activists from Saudi Arabia who, in June 2018, were pivotal in the country’s landmark decision to allow women to drive. And for this, on 27 March, they will face their fate before the Criminal Court – with no lawyers or access to legal representation. On 14 March, Amnesty International commented on the trial saying: “Activists brought to trial are amongst Saudi Arabia’s bravest women human rights defenders. They have not only been smeared in state-aligned media for their peaceful human rights work, but have also endured horrendous physical and psychological suffering during their detention. We urge the Saudi authorities to drop these outrageous charges and release the women activists immediately and unconditionally”.
For decades, the country’s obstinate stance on the matter of women’s right to drive was steered by the steely hand of religion and politics.
Yet, this momentous achievement for women’s rights in the despotic regime was marred by irony, when these heroic women were detained and held under cruel circumstances. Since May 2018, allegations of torture and inhumane living conditions have been prevalent, with organisations such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch demanding action.
Soon after the ban was abolished, the government systematically sought out the most prominent activists. Loujain al-Hathloul was the first of the campaigners to disappear, followed by Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, amongst others who participated in their non-violent and peaceful campaign.
As one of the leading women’s rights activists, al-Hathloul had amassed a huge following on social media. She gained notoriety in December 2014 for her attempt to drive from the UAE to Saudi Arabia. With a dose of defiance and a measure of courage, she recorded a video of herself whilst driving en route. For breaking the law, she was arrested and detained for 73 days before being released.
In an article for The Guardian, her brother, Walid al-Hathloul wrote: “This year has been a nightmare for my family. On the day of my sister’s arrest, my parents’ house was raided by armed men without a warrant. They took Loujain and for an entire month we had no idea where she was. No one would give us an answer on her whereabouts.
“Things have only got worse since then. Loujain told us she has been beaten, electrocuted and sexually harassed. She was attacked by interrogators who tried to take off her clothes, telling her she is a slut. And one of the interrogators was found sitting next to her legs while she was asleep.
“During a recent visit, we learned from Loujain that her captors had taken her to a psychologist to help her recover from torture she had endured. But she fainted from the trauma of reliving her experiences. On her second visit to the psychologist she says she was blindfolded and duct taped to a wheelchair.”
According to three separate testimonies obtained by Amnesty, it is alleged that the activists have been routinely tortured by electrocution and flogging, leaving some unable to walk or stand properly. In one reported instance, one of the activists was made to hang from the ceiling, and according to another testimony, one of the detained women was reportedly subjected to sexual harassment by interrogators wearing facemasks.
Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Campaigns, said: “These activists have been targeted and detained solely for their peaceful activism, which has included calling for the right to drive, the end of the male guardianship system, and for human rights to be respected in the country.
“The lifting of the ban is a testament to the bravery and determination of the women’s rights activists who have been campaigning on the issue since the 1990s.”
The protesting first gained traction back in 1990, when 47 Saudi Arabian women, famously known as “The Drivers”, drove through the streets of Riyadh in cars. Those who participated were reprimanded severely and faced a lifetime of social upheaval.
Hadid continued: “These women activists have been prosecuted under bogus charges. Some of the women were charged with promoting women’s rights and calling for the end of the male guardianship system. The women were also charged with contacting international organizations, foreign media and other activists, including their contact with Amnesty International.
“Saudi authorities are directly responsible for the wellbeing of these women and men in detention. Not only have they been deprived them of their liberty for months now, simply for peacefully expressing their views, they are also subjecting them to horrendous physical suffering.”
Amnesty has launched an online petition to call for the authorities to release the detained activists, with signatures flooding in from all corners of the globe.
Saudia Arabia remains steadfast as one of the last absolute monarchs in the world. Yet, all that glitters cannot be gold, and its façade is awash with cracks on the surface, vehemently demanding government accountability and civil rights.