SAUDI ARABIA: How Being a Female Activist in Saudi Arabia is Becoming a Matter of Life and Death

NAWAF ALSABAH WRITES — The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has recently been in the spotlight—unfavorably — for its unforgiving treatment of female activists.

In late 2018, the country made headlines following the killing of  Saudi journalist/activist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. This brought into focus the harsh treatment of many activists and journalists in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are women.

Female activist Israa al-Ghomgham has been in detention since 2015 when she was arrested for protesting for the existence of Muslim women minorities. Similarly, Eman Al Nafjan was arrested last May for advocating a woman’s right to drive. Al Nafjan was an English instructor at a Saudi Arabian university before turning to blogging and activism in 2008.

While Saudi authorities have spent decades attempting to silence female activists, women have continued to push for their rights.

Finally, those efforts may be paying off. The international community is now closely monitoring Saudi’s harsh treatment of activists. Of note, Israa al-Ghomgham is facing trial—and, possibly, the death penalty  Should Ghomgham be executed, Saudi Arabia could experience a backlash from the international community,  in addition to local riots that might damage property and disrupt businesses as well as the overall economy.

Here’s the crux of the conflict: Saudi Arabia accepts as lawful evidence of guilt confessions made after torture,  thereby breaking international human rights law, which dictates that judgments must be based on factual investigations rather than confessions, and rightly so; confessions often lead to executions. With the ghost of Jamal Khashoggi haunting the international community and the specter of yet another execution, the country could be faced with economic sanctions.

Local feminists have no plans to give up. Theirs is an admirable and arduous history. Female activists first came to the forefront during protests in 1990. At the time, 47 Saudi women arranged to drive through the streets in a convoy protesting the ban against women driving. A number were arrested and had their passports taken away. Nevertheless, protests in favor of women’s rights to drive arose again in 2007.

Such protests attract worldwide attention.  The ban against women driving was lifted in 2018. These brave female feminists are going ahead, full speed. They are now, one could almost say, in the driver’s seat.

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