Loujain al-Hathloul and feminism in modern Saudi Arabia

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Prominent Saudi female activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, has been sentenced to five years and eight months in prison. She was charged with various convictions such as posing a threat to national security, pursuing a foreign agenda and conspiring against the Saudi royal family. 

Ms al Hathloul, 31, became well known in 2013 whilst she was campaigning against the driving ban. She was subsequently arrested in May 2018 along with at least 11 other female campaigners and has been detained in pre-trial detention ever since. There, human rights groups and her family say that she and others have suffered sexual harassment and torture. The Specialised Criminal Court, which handles terrorism cases, now claim that Ms al Hathloul’s actions defy Saudi’s vague counter-terrorism laws. Lina al-Hathloul, her sister said:

“My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist. To be sentenced for her activism for the very reforms that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi kingdom so proudly tout is the ultimate hypocrisy.”

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, nicknamed MBS, took over from his father in 2017 and promised political and social reforms. The Saudi administration’s attempts to sugarcoat their image under the pretence of advancing women’s rights, meanwhile unfairly prosecuting female activists on bogus charges, have appeared transparent to many. Including, it would seem, Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor-designate for President-elect Joe Biden, who has labelled the sentencing of Ms al Hathloul “unjust and troubling”. 

Fears that Ms al Hathloul’s sentence could spark global outrage and criticism from foreign powers, significantly the US, might have provoked the Saudi court to suspend two years and ten months of it. Additionally, they have backdated her sentence to include the time she has spent on trial, leaving her with only a couple months left to serve. This might be celebrated as a win for Ms al Hathloul but she still faces probation and a five-year travel ban upon her release, jeopardising her future safety. Her family say she will appeal the conviction. 

Feminism in Saudi Arabia has scored many triumphs in the past decade however, these accomplishments are often undermined and marred by authorities. For example, in June 2018, Saudi became the very last country to allow women the right to drive. Yet what should have been a victory for the arrested women was dampened when they were forbidden from taking any credit for it. 

Loujain al Hathloul is just one of many women who are fighting to have their voices heard. One ongoing movement has been campaigning for years to abolish Saudi’s male guardianship system. Guardianship is the legal policing of every aspect of women’s lives, from going to university and getting a job to medical operations, opening a bank account and travelling abroad. It is a restrictive and suffocating instrument of control over women. 

for some women in Saudi, an anonymous Twitter account is the most autonomy from their family that they can get

The anti-guardianship movement has taken place mostly on social media because, for some women in Saudi, an anonymous Twitter account is the most autonomy from their family that they can get. In shaming the Saudi government so publicly, the women have gained international support and have catalysed an entire movement which could lead to huge change. 

Certainly, although not all the change is tangible, there have already been some promising advances. In August 2019, the foundational elements of the guardianship laws were overturned. Adjustments made now mean that adult women can acquire a passport and travel of their own accord, and all forms of sex-based discrimination have been banned in the labour market, opening up new economic sector jobs for women. 

But this is not the end of the story. There are still so many challenges facing Saudi women. The improvements made to guardianship laws means that fathers’ guardianship over marriage is still legal, child marriage is still legal, marital rape and domestic violence are still legal. 

On Twitter, women are becoming increasingly scared to speak out against the kingdom despite the greater freedoms they have been granted. Many have deleted accounts with tens of thousands of followers out of fear for their own safety. Moreover, female activists are still imprisoned or awaiting trial. This perhaps signifies an unspoken threat that whilst the Saudi government is willing to make changes, they are not happy allowing women to push for these changes. 

Image: Joelle Hatem via Flickr

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