Women’s Empowerment in Saudi Arabia: Free at Last?

On June 24, 2018, worldwide headlines shared the news of Saudi Arabia’s lifted ban on female drivers. However, some of the most influential Saudi Arabian women’s rights activists could not be found celebrating; they were instead, behind bars. In a gross violation of human rights, Saudi Arabian leaders authorized the imprisonment of a multitude of activists prior to the implementation of the new driving laws. This secondary narrative demonstrates the corruption that still exists in this country: those who dare to defy the monarchy are exposed to continued restrictions on their human rights.

Portrait of a woman. Image by Diamantino Santos from Pixabay.

Saudi Arabia has long been under one of the most severe interpretations of Islamic law. Under these religious regulations, women have been subjected to extremely oppressive practices including guardianship, wherein women are required to get the consent of their male guardian in order to complete an array of tasks – working, getting married, travelling. Under this law, women were banned from driving as it was assumed a woman would never travel without her male guardian.

In recent years, these laws began to loosen as Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was tasked with transforming Saudi Arabia’s economy in a project entitled Saudi Vision 2030. The young prince has since been vocal about his support for women’s rights, echoing the notion that women’s ability to drive would be beneficial to the economy. This surface level championship of women, however, has been countered with an extreme restriction of freedoms. For instance, under MBS’s authority, an agency entitled ‘the Presidency of State Security’ was created; this agency allows for criminal and administrative prosecutions to be conducted without judicial oversight. In addition, the laws on counterterrorism were also rewritten under MBS’s leadership, granting the monarchy leeway in their use of such laws in order to imprison peaceful protesters.  

In May of 2018, just one month prior to women being granted the right to drive, MBS detained several peaceful advocates for female drivers under these new, rewritten laws. This display of political power was used to illustrate that the monarchy alone grants rights to the people; and these rights cannot be achieved through peaceful protests. Beyond these specific cases of detainment, there was also an influx of charges against anyone who voiced their opinion on this issue, many being charged with attempts to inflame public opinion and illegally providing support to rioters.

At the height of this gross violation of free speech, a female political activist – Israa al-Ghomgham – was arrested. She was then threatened with the death penalty, which had never before been used in Saudi Arabia for nonviolent crimes. Though authorities have now confirmed that they will not seek the imposition of the death penalty against Ms. Israa, many activists worry that this instance sets a dangerous precedent, one wherein violent punishments are used as threats in an attempt to frighten citizens and further confine their rights to free speech.  

In response to these human rights violations, the international community of Saudi Arabian trade partners attempted to use their power to influence the decisions of MBS. The European Union issued a statement condemning the oppression of human rights defenders, and Canada’s foreign ministry tweeted – urging the release of peaceful activists. However, under the bold leadership of MBS, these statements were met with fury: the Canadian ambassador in Saudi Arabia was removed, and new trade with Canada was suspended.

Thankfully, following the steady outcry from international actors, the Saudi Arabian government dropped Ghomgham’s death penalty sentence in February of 2019. However, she now still faces imprisonment; and other women’s rights activists  detained alongside Ghomgham still face execution. This outcome confirms that Ghomgham’s reduced sentence was not the result of any true legal or ideological reforms. Instead, it was only due to the wide publicity and scrutiny surrounding her case. Had her case not gained international attention in the way that it had, it is likely that Ghomgham would still be facing the same fate as her activist counterparts.

The intervention of international actors thus remain a necessary tool in voicing the concerns of Saudi Arabian citizens and preventing human rights violations. For instance, intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations have become instrumental in facilitating mediation between Saudi Arabia and concerned democratic nations. For example, the UN Human Rights Council served as a platform for 36 countries to jointly write a statement condemning the arbitrary detention of Saudi Arabian female activists. Saudi Arabia, as a member of this council, was thus forced to face these issues directly and accept responsibility for their detrimental impacts.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also a vital outlet in this respect. Their lack of state association tends to evoke less backlash from governments which opens the door for discourse and action. The Amnesty International website, for example, gives an overview of the situation in Saudi Arabia, detailing information on the detainees, and providing a petition in an effort to spread awareness of these issues. Without fear of state sanctions or trade collapse, NGOs have the tools needed to spread detailed information and evoke spirited responses from citizens around the world. These solutions, however, cannot be considered a ‘one-stop-shop’; true political change, in this context, would take persistent efforts across various outlets and institutions over a long period of time.

As a female scholar who is passionate about women’s rights, the reformed driving laws in Saudi Arabia brought me, as well as women around the world, a sense of hope – hope that women’s rights were finally being realized with sincere action in one of the most freedom-oppressive regions on earth. However, the coercive actions of the Saudi Arabian government have proven these reforms to be all but sincere. Instead, the results of such reforms seem to present even more worrisome threats to human rights.

Ultimately, there are limited realistic options to ending these abhorrent rights violations in the near future. There are many clear barriers presented in both NGO-based solutions and bilateral ones, but equipped with the necessary tools, the greater international community can certainly make waves for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. With time, there is hope that international actors will be able to confront Saudi Arabia with concrete consequences – those substantial enough to catch the attention of MBS and other future leaders of Saudi Arabia.

Talyn Dowdall is a third-year International Development student in the political economy and administrative change stream and a minor in International Business. In her studies, she focuses on the politics of Africa and development economics.