Violence against Women in Saudi Arabia
Recently, over 120 European parliamentarians from national and EU parliaments have signed a joint statement raising awareness of the ongoing persecution of Saudi women human rights defenders (WHRDs) by the Saudi authorities.
The parliamentarians’ statement criticises the continuing restrictions on women human rights defenders, and calls for an end to their ongoing persecution. It states: “In 2018 the very women leading the fight for women's rights in Saudi Arabia were systematically rounded up, arrested, tortured, and portrayed in the official media as traitors and spies. Following sustained international pressure, all of the WHRDs arrested in 2018 have now been conditionally released from prison, however, since their release they have remained subject to heavy restrictions and curtailment of their basic rights. Loujain al-Hathloul, for example, faces three years of probation and a five-year travel ban.”
High-profile WHRDs like Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, who were among those released earlier this year, were imprisoned because of their peaceful activism campaigning for women’s rights; they were subjected to state-led smear campaigns in which the Saudi media targeted them with baseless accusations of treason and espionage; they were tried and convicted under the repressive Counter-Terrorism Law; and in prison they were treated badly, and some of them brutally tortured and sexually harassed.
In the past few years, the Saudi authorities have reduced some of the restrictions which women face under the country's repressive male guardianship system, for example by allowing women to apply for their own passports as well as granting them more control over family matters. These efforts, however, are insufficient, and the male guardianship system as well as disobedience laws continue to negatively affect all aspects of women’s lives.
Typical conditions placed on WHRDs released from prison have included bans on travelling abroad, bans on working, and severe censorship of their social media activity. These measures constitute further violations of their fundamental rights, including free movement and association and free speech, and ostracise activists at the critical threshold of starting a new life after release from prison.
While women in Saudi Arabia face violence in silence in light of the inadequacy of official procedures and the lack of seriousness in promises. Although it is impossible to reach the actual figures of women victims of violence in Saudi Arabia, there are numerous indications that this practice is widespread in absence of the effective measures to curb it. International reports confirm that all types of violence against women have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially domestic violence, as is the case in Saudi Arabia. Despite the lack of access to accurate figures in the absence of any civil society role and the fact that human rights organizations have been prevented from playing their role, cases published on social media and cases that Saudi authorities say they are considering, show the extent of these violations.
At a time when Saudi Arabia was promoting a change in dealing with the issue of women's rights, the Saudi government launched a wide campaign of arrests that targeted women activists and human rights defenders who were among the most prominent advocates of these rights. After years of detention, the Saudi government has released a number of them, but despite confirming that they were tortured and lawsuits against them, those responsible have not been investigated or held to account.
According to European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, the Saudi government said in its 2030 vision, published in April 2021, that among its achievements was a high response to reports of domestic violence. "Reports that were initiated according to the degree of danger have risen because the achieved value of the index reached 99.6%," it said. But the high rate of response to reports of violence reacted to by the Saudi government does not necessarily mean an increase in women offenders' access to official bodies concerned with violence, as trust in these bodies remains insufficient and the Saudi government has not taken any steps to reduce women's concerns.
In addition, many women activists report on social media that there are a number of concerns that prevent them from reporting violence, harassment, or other violations. Among them is a fear of arrest, ostracism or counter-violence in the face of distrust of official programs.