In a criminal court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a trial has resumed for women who’ve done nothing more than use their voice.

The trial is part of a year-long Saudi government crackdown against human rights campaigners — 14 women and several men who supported them — who’ve been arrested, held in secret prisons for more than a year, and faced court proceedings cloaked in secrecy and completely lacking in due process.

These women were not violent. They did not attempt to overthrow their government. They did not threaten or slander anyone. All they did was ask for the right to free speech, free association, and freedom of movement.

At a hearing last week, some of the women told the court that while imprisoned, they were held in solitary confinement, caned on their backs and thighs, electrocuted, groped, and waterboarded. At least one of the detained women reportedly tried to commit suicide.

The persecution of individuals who peacefully use their voices to protest government policies is a betrayal of international human rights.

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (thank you Eleanor Roosevelt). Among the rights affirmed were freedom of opinion and expression, freedom from torture, and freedom of movement.

Saudi women don’t have these basic rights.

Sources say the prosecutor’s charges are nearly all related to peaceful human rights work, including promoting women’s rights and calling for an end to the strict guardianship system. Based on Shariah law, this system gives the power to determine whether women can marry, study, work, or travel abroad to a male relative.

Prosecutors also accuse the defendants of sharing information about women’s rights in the kingdom with journalists, diplomats, and international human rights organizations. In Saudi Arabia, where the open expression of ideas is forbidden, these are “traitorous” and punishable crimes.

The women activists include Aziza al-Yousef; Ruqayya al-Mohareb; Iman al-Nafjan; Amal al-Harbi; Hatoon al-Fassi; Abir Namankani; Maysaa al-Manea; Maya’a al-Zahrani; Nouf Abdulaziz; Shadan al-Anezi; Loujain al-Hathloul; Samar Badawi; and Nassima as-Sadah.

As Saudi scholar Hala al-Dosari wrote about the activists in the Washington Post in March, “Their only crime is caring for their country, despite all the risks and intimidation.”

The women are not the only targets of government repression — many others who’ve campaigned for reforms, including clerics, businessmen, royals, activists and intellectuals, have been detained and arrested.

Saudi Arabia is by far not the only country that silences dissenters —Yemen, Egypt, Cambodia, China, and Iran are big offenders, for starters. The list goes on.

According to the most recent Human Rights Watch report, Egyptian security have rounded up at least 40 human rights workers, lawyers, and political activists since late October 2018, including Hoda Abdel Moneim, a lawyer and former member of the National Council for Human Rights. In Iran 29 women were arrested last year for protesting the country’s compulsory headscarf law.

Folks, those of us fortunate enough to live in countries where we can — must speak out on behalf of the millions of people around the world who can’t. Here’s how:

  • Write to the King of Saudi Arabia. His address:

  • Write to the new Saudi ambassador to the US, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the first woman to serve in that role. She’s known as an advocate for women’s rights in the kingdom. Her address: Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, 601 New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington DC 20037.
  • Sign this petition to the United Nations asking Saudi Arabia to free the activists.
  • Write your representatives in Congress asking that the U.S. require Saudi Arabia to provide more transparency on their treatment of the defendants, and grant diplomats and human rights representatives access to their trial.
  • Get involved with programs advocating for women’s rights in nations like Saudi Arabia, such as U.N. Women.

    We women talk a great deal about the need to step up and use our voices — for a raise or a promotion, for equal pay and gender quality, against discrimination and harassment. All these are important, for sure.

    But no cause is more worthy of our outspokenness than the rights and safety of these courageous Saudi women.

    Our voices are powerful. Let’s use them.


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