After nearly three years in prison, Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released on probation in early February. Sentenced by a special terrorism tribunal, she had been found guilty of serious charges such as “inciting change to the basic ruling regime” and was given five years and eight months in prison. As many countries observe International Women’s Day today, March 8 – celebrating the sociopolitical achievements of women and advocating gender equality – the apparent changes Hathloul’s case has inspired in Saudi society are even more significant.
The Saudi tribunal – named the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) – was established in 2008 for prosecuting detainees on terror charges but the “caseload was quickly expanded from alleged violent extremists to include political dissidents, religious minorities and human rights activists,” according to an American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights report in 2019.
Consequently, women’s rights activists in the Kingdom were placed in the same category as high-risk criminals and received similar treatment for minor offenses. Arrested for simply driving a car – illegal for Saudi women at the time, Hathloul’s ordeal highlighted the dire need for women’s rights reforms in Saudi Arabia.
Women’s rights activists in the Kingdom were placed in the same category as high-risk criminals and received similar treatment for minor offenses.
However, having yielded under pressure from the Biden administration in Washington, Riyadh seems more willing to work on these issues now. Notably, Hathloul was set free hardly one week after the new US administration called on Saudi Arabia to release political prisoners and women’s rights activists.
Specifically mentioning Hathloul’s case, US State Department Spokesman Cale Brown said: “We’ve emphasized the importance of free expression and peaceful activism in Saudi Arabia as it advances women’s rights. We look forward to her anticipated early release in 2021.”
Shortly after Hathloul’s release, and pleased with the news, President Biden also mentioned the case in his speech at the Pentagon. “Before I begin, I have some welcome news that the Saudi government has released a prominent human rights activist, Loujain Al-Hathloul, from prison . . . a powerful advocate of women’s rights; releasing her was the right thing to do,” Biden said
Campaigning for the right to drive for Saudi women, Hathloul has become a trailblazer for social change in the Kingdom. It all started when she acquired a driving license during a visit to the UAE in 2014; Hathloul thought she should use the new document and drive back into Saudi Arabia but was met with opposition from authorities. At that time, she was detained for 73 days then released. In May 2018, she took to the road again, along with nearly a dozen other women’s rights activists. They were all arrested and then tried by the SCC.
According to UN experts, the six-page charge report against Hathloul and the other activists was “spurious.” After this incident and the widespread backlash, the Saudi government lifted the driving ban on women in June 2018, though the activists arrested with Hathloul remained in jail under serious charges. Ultimately, the attention around Hathloul’s case was likely instrumental in the decision to lift the driving ban.
Still, while Hathloul has been released, and the remaining 34 months of her prison term suspended, she remains restricted from traveling abroad for five years. The judges also have warned her that the suspension could be annulled if she “commits any crimes” within the next three years.
Notwithstanding these impediments, the release of Hathloul appears to signal an era of greater freedom for Saudi women, though restrictions and challenges remain. The women arrested along with Hathloul have not been as lucky. According to Amnesty International, some prominent activists such as Nassima al-Sada – a PEN America award recipient, Samar Badawi, and Maya’a al-Zahrani are still in detention. Apparently, they were arrested for campaigning for the end of the “Wilayah,” or male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain a male relative’s permission for a range of decisions.
In August 2019, Saudi Arabia announced major social reforms and some of the restrictions under the male guardianship system were eased.
In August 2019, Saudi Arabia announced major social reforms and some of the restrictions under the male guardianship system were eased. Ostensibly, Riyadh took these measures to avoid further criticism from Washington and the international community.
In the wake of the announcement, Lynn Maalouf, Middle East Research Director of Amnesty International, said: “The reforms announced . . . are a significant but long overdue step forward for women’s rights. These changes are a clear testament to the tireless campaigning of women’s rights activists who have battled against rampant discrimination in Saudi Arabia for decades.”
Under the royal decree M.134, Saudi women could independently obtain passports, register for marriage, report the birth of children, and obtain family records. Additionally, women over the age of 21 could travel abroad without a male guardian’s permission, though it was not described clearly as “freedom to travel.” Nevertheless, since August 2020, Saudi women have been allowed to go abroad without obtaining such permission.
Some major changes were brought about regarding the civil status of women as well. Markedly, specific language requiring women to live with their husband was excluded from the decree. Therefore, women can now be considered head of the household along with their husband, with respect to their children.
Finally, important changes in the Saudi labor laws clarified that the term “worker” can apply to women as well, and benefits and amendments were detailed to discourage and prevent workplace discrimination against women. For example, employers are expected to provide 180 days for maternity leave and the new provisions entitle women to the same pay-scale as men.
In April 2020, the Saudi human rights commission announced that flogging was being abolished as a punishment for all crimes, including for women prisoners. Previously, it was considered mandatory and was often awarded by judges in addition to most sentences. Over the past year, Riyadh has also reduced the death penalty, and an 85 percent decrease has been seen in executions since 2020.
Regarding the legal changes, Rothna Begum, Senior Women’s Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), has observed that, “Saudi Arabia’s long overdue legal reforms should provide Saudi women a much greater degree of control over their lives. But this is a bittersweet victory as courageous Saudi women who pushed for these changes remain behind bars or face unfair trials.”
Despite these reforms, Saudi women still must receive a male guardian’s approval before getting married, leaving prison, or a shelter. And even though some basic social restrictions on women’s freedoms have been reduced, women’s rights activists continue to be arrested, put on trial, or jailed for minor offenses that go against social norms.
Many analysts point out that there are numerous human rights issues in general which need to be resolved by the Saudi government. Adam Coogle, Deputy Director for the Middle East Division of HRW, stated: “There have been a lot of good reforms to be excited about, but the total absence of any kind of free expression and the continued political crackdown have mitigated Saudi Arabia getting more credit for these changes.”
“There have been a lot of good reforms to be excited about, but the total absence of any kind of free expression and the continued political crackdown have mitigated Saudi Arabia getting more credit for these changes.”
In recent months, the Saudi government has modified many conservative norms and traditions, though some would argue it has been done at least partly to gain favor with the new Biden administration in Washington.
In February, another round of legal reforms was announced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Out of these, the Personal Status Law will deal with the provisions extending to family matters as well as regulate the clauses related to wills and inheritance. Though completed, these changes are being referred to the Council of Ministers and the various research bodies under it will review the provisions for final referral to the Saudi Shoura Council.
The Kingdom is focusing on Dubai-style tourism to diversify the economy, therefore, it has sought to appear more liberal to attract visitors.
As a result, women are gradually gaining more freedom; they can now attend sports events, go to the movies, start their own business, or continue their studies at will. For many observers, the legal reforms announced by the Saudi government in 2019 and 2020 suggest progress towards a more equitable society, especially for women. Yet, as many women’s rights activists remain in jail, it is clear further social reforms are needed in Saudi Arabia.