November 29, 2016 Leave a comment
by Emma Kingscott
Saudi Arabia; a country known for its extreme wealth, financed by the oil and gas trade, and its extreme conservative Wahhabism ideals on which the state is governed. Yet here the reality for many women is a life of domestic incarceration. This is articulated in Wajeha Al-Huwaider’s description of Saudi Arabia as ‘the world’s largest women’s prison’.
Al-Huwaider is one of the few Saudi women who courageously stand up for the rights of women which are so explicitly denied. The suppression of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is well documented, yet the state is still given the freedom to implement laws which prohibit women from going anywhere without the permission of a male guardian, being allowed to drive, given the right to vote or participate in sports. As a journalist and a campaigner, Al-Huwaider makes her voice heard in a state in which the authorities look to silence women. She became an activist and campaigner for women’s rights in order to free women from what she describes as the virtual jail of Saudi Arabia.
Al-Huwaider has set up a number of campaigns to attack the human right violations which women face in the state. After protesting for women’s rights in a peaceful, solo demonstration, she was arrested by the authorities and was banned from writing. She retaliated this disregard for freedom of speech by posting a video of herself driving on YouTube.
The restrictions on women’s speech and human rights in Saudi Arabia are a result of conservative interpretations of religion which promotes a patriarchal system of male guardianship and deliberate infantilization of women. Human rights activists are concerned for the implications this poses for women who are subjected to domestic violence and those who attempt to speak out against violence. Al-Huwaider for that reason founded the ‘Association for the Protection and Defence of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia’ which protects women against domestic abuse and provides activism for women’s rights. Protection of women and women’s rights is particularly necessary in Saudi Arabia where rape isn’t criminalised and has previously punished victims for speaking out against their sexual abuse. The Human Rights Watch reported a woman who was sentenced to 6 months in prison and given 200 lashes after taking her rape case to court. She was charged with ‘illegally mingling’ and accused of attempting to aggravate and influence the judiciary.
In 2011, Al-Huwaider was imprisoned for 10 months and banned from travelling outside of Saudi Arabia for trying to save a woman who had contacted her claiming that her abusive husband has locked her and her children in the house without food. Whilst on the way to help the woman escape, she was intercepted by the police and charged for ‘supporting a wife without her husband’s knowledge, thereby undermining the marriage.’ She believes this was a deliberate hoax by the authorities in a further attempt to silence her human rights work. It is apparent the work of Al-Huwaider and other rights activists is more important than ever when it becomes apparent that helping an abused woman in Saudi Arabia is considered a crime.
Furthermore, child marriage is still a wide spread practice in Saudi Arabia and there has been cases of girls as young as 9 being married to 70 year old men. Al-Huwaider has campaigned extensively against child marriages and managed to terminate a marriage between an 8 year old girl to a 50 year old man. Al-Huwaider has been acknowledged for her advocacy of women’s rights and the Arabian Business Magazine named her one of the most powerful Arab women. Despite facing persecution from the state for her work, Wajeha Al-Huwaider remains a vehement voice for women’s human rights in Saudi Arabia.
Human Rights Watch, 2007 https://www.hrw.org/news/2007/11/15/saudi-arabia-rape-victim-punished-speaking-out
Marler, 2013, http://www.wluml.org/fr/node/8774
Waheja Al-Huwaider, 2009, Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/14/AR2009081401598.html
Nela Duke, 2015, Wajeha Al- Huwaider: Citizen of the Week, http://ours-mag.com/2015/03/19/wajeha-al-huwaider-citizen-of-the-week/
Gatestone Institute, 2011, https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/1930/wajeha-al-huwaider-saudi-arabia
Pollitt, 2013, https://www.thenation.com/article/saudi-human-rights-activist-wajeha-al-huwaider-sentenced-prison/
This post was published as part of the 2016 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence’s call for profiles of women human rights defenders.