Skip to main content

Saudi Arabia to Host Women’s Summit While Women Activists Sit Behind Bars

Until Activists Are Free, Talk of Reform Rings Hollow

Prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul had been on hunger strike for six days before Saudi authorities finally allowed her parents to visit on August 31, according to family members. Al-Hathloul had spent almost three months before that in incommunicado detention. © Private

Saudi Arabia will virtually host the Women20 Summit (W20) this week. During the event, over 80 women’s rights experts representing nonprofits, private companies, and academic institutions will discuss “realizing opportunities of the 21st century for all,” a catchphrase that belies the reality of many Saudi women’s rights activists today.

The Saudi government’s use of women’s rights to divert attention from other serious abuses is well-documented. Recent changes, including the right to drive and to travel without male guardian permission, might be significant, but do not hide the fact that some of the women who campaigned for these changes still languish behind bars.

W20 is an official engagement group of the G20 that makes sure gender considerations are reflected in world leaders’ agendas and policy commitments. Participants should be aware of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS’s) government’s crackdown against women’s rights activists. Beginning in May 2018, authorities arrested prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul and several others, just weeks before the driving ban was lifted.

Al-Hathloul, well-known for her campaigning against the driving ban, was held incommunicado for three months following her arrest, and family members say that authorities subjected her to electric shocks, whippings, and sexual harassment in detention. Others have faced the same or similar abuse. None have been convicted.

While some have since been released, al-Hathloul, as well as Nassima al-Sadah, Samar Badawi, and Nouf Abdulaziz – who were arrested later that year – remain in detention. Those released risk immediate return to prison if they step out of line.

Moreover, earlier this year, Saudi women took to Twitter to shed light on the entrenched discrimination against them. They called for the abolition of the male guardianship system, and an end to sexual harassment and inequality in marriage, divorce, and child custody.

The G20 Presidency – and, subsequently, the privilege to host the W20 – has conferred an undeserved mark of international prestige on the government of MBS. While courageous women are subjected to torture for peaceful activities, the Saudi government seeks to assert itself on the international stage as a “reforming” power.

W20 attendees should refuse to play a role in Saudi Arabia’s whitewashing efforts, use their platform to speak up for Saudi women’s rights champions, and advocate for the end of all discrimination against women. If they are committed to “realizing opportunities for all,” that includes all Saudi women activists behind bars, and numerous unnamed victims of discrimination.

Arwa Youssef is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of a Human Rights Watch staff member.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.