The facade of women's rights in Saudi Arabia

How Saudi Arabia's fear of feminism landed Loujain al-Hathloul in a terror court
6 min read
09 December, 2020
In-depth: The decision to transfer imprisoned activist Loujain al-Hathloul to a terrorism tribunal is proof that little progress has been made on women's rights in Saudi Arabia.
An illustration of Loujain al-Hathloul created by Moroccan artist Merieme Mesfioui
The world waited with bated breath as imprisoned Saudi Arabian women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul stood trial at the end of November. 

Activists, writers, and Hollywood actors, including Sean Penn and Mia Farrow, anticipated the news that Loujain, and other imprisoned women's rights activists Nassima al-Sadah, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz, and Miyaa al-Zahrani, would be released after over two years of imprisonment following their arrest in mid-2018. 

Their "crimes" were promoting women's rights, campaigning for women to drive and calling for the end of the guardianship system, in addition to speaking to foreign press agencies and international human rights groups. 

A day later, the world was shocked to learn that not only was Loujain not being released, but her case was being referred to the Specialised Criminal Court – the same court where terrorism suspects are trialled.

Loujain and the other women's rights activists reported that they were subjected to torture, electrocution, waterboarding and sexual assault, which according to Al-Hathloul's family, was overseen by Saud Al-Qahtani, a former royal court advisor who is also implicated in the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

The Kingdom can't pretend to reform women's rights and push for progress and women's empowerment while it imprisons and tortures peaceful women activists who simply called for basic human rights

"Amnesty International urges the Saudi government to immediately and unconditionally release all the women human rights defenders and drop all the charges against them," the rights group said in a statement to The New Arab

"The Kingdom can't pretend to reform women's rights and push for progress and women's empowerment while it imprisons and tortures peaceful women activists who simply called for basic human rights like the right to drive a car. They are champions of change, not criminals."

Read more: Mariam Mohamed's death reignites Egypt's
digital #MeToo movement

The biggest question to arise was why Loujain's case was transferred to the Specialised Criminal Court, a court notorious in Saudi Arabia for trialling "terrorism" charges. 

Saudi writer and defender of women's rights Reem Sulaiman, who lives in Holland after Saud Al-Qahtani reportedly made threats to her life, spoke to The New Arab.

"The authorities are claiming that Loujain and her colleagues communicated with intelligence agencies, and therefore they referred their files to the Terrorism Court, and this confirms the major violation of human rights in the country – anyone with a differing opinion is tried on terrorism charges." 

Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain's sister, has also challenged the Saudi government's claims. "Loujain's charges don't mention any contact with 'unfriendly' states - they explicitly cite her contact with the EU, the UK and the Netherlands. Does Saudi Arabia consider them as enemies?" she told news agency AFP. "The charges don't mention anything about sensitive information either, they are all about her activism."

Feminist, journalist and author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual RevolutionMona Eltahawy, spoke exclusively to The New Arab. "It's really telling that in her last court appearance Loujain al-Hathloul was referred to the Security Court... It tells us very clearly that the Saudi Regime considers feminism as a form of terrorism," she said.

Saudi Arabia has made the bare minimum of changes necessary for economic benefits - without making substantial changes to address the extreme patriarchy at the core of the system

Bethany Al-Haidari is an expert in Human Rights Law focused on Saudi Arabia, and co-founder of, an NGO offering advocacy to women living in Saudi Arabia. She explained to The New Arab why it is that feminists are viewed as a threat. 

"Saudi Arabia is an absolute theocratic monarchy, where only 'sons' of the King have a chance at the throne, only men can be judges presiding over a courtroom, only men can be legal decision-makers of households, and until now only men have ever been ministers or senior decision-makers. Feminism calls for equality for all regardless of gender, or religion - which is a foundational challenge to the core structure of every aspect of the Saudi political and legal systems."

Read more: Sudan's revolution and the broken promise of women's rights

The Saudi Arabian government signposts recent developments in the Kingdom as evidence that it is going through a period of modernisation – in the last two years the Kingdom has opened its doors to tourists, internationally renowned music artists such as Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez have performed there, and it has hosted massive sporting events, such as the boxing match between world champions Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. 

In 2019 Yasmin Al Maimani became the first Saudi female pilot of a commercial flight, and the current Saudi Ambassador to the US is a woman - Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud. 

But observers say this is something that rulers in the Gulf often do – gestures of tokenism, appointing women to diplomatic and ministerial roles, and bringing in Western forms of entertainment, a facade hiding a dark human rights record. Eltahawy calls it "window-dressing." 

Loujain al-Hathloul promoted women's rights, campaigned for women to drive and called for the end of the guardianship system

Al-Haidari believes that Saudi Arabia has made nominal changes when it comes to women's rights. "Saudi Arabia has made the bare minimum of changes necessary for economic benefits - without making substantial changes to address the extreme patriarchy at the core of the system - so the status quo remains," she explains. "Under the law, women are considered less than men. This is especially true for foreign, non-Muslim women from developing countries in Asia and Africa."

By lifting the ban on women driving during the same period in which activists who had campaigned for decades for that right were arrested, many observers believe the Kingdom was demonstrating that activism will not be tolerated in Saudi Arabia, and that freedoms are granted to the people by a generous government.

Read more: The screams of Ahlam: Harrowing honour
killing in Jordan sparks movement for justice

Saudi Arabia's rulers wanted to make clear activism doesn't work, it's our decision "that ended the ban on driving", says Eltahawy. "But it's not, it's decades of activism by these incredibly courageous women who back in the 1990's were arrested because they staged a protest in Saudi Arabia to demand the right to drive," she adds.

"They were still fighting for that, right through to 2018, and they finally got that right thanks to Loujain and these other women's rights activists."

Writers and commentators worldwide have been speculating whether the Saudi government will cave under international pressure to release Loujain and the other women's rights activists now that Biden is taking over the presidency in the US, but a recent comment from Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan suggests otherwise.

"We don't look at international pressure on these issues one way or the other," Prince Faisal said. "These are domestic issues of our national security and we will deal with them in an appropriate manner, through our court system."

On 7 December 2020 the EU announced it will be adopting a global human rights sanctions regime, where it will impose sanctions against individuals and state and non-state actors responsible for or involved in human rights abuses. 

For Lina al-Hathloul and human rights activists worldwide there could be hope that via this new framework, perpetrators of human rights abuses against women rights activists in Saudi Arabia will finally be held to account.

Yousra Samir Imran is a freelance journalist based in West Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press in October 2020.

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA