Many in politics use the language of sacrifice, personal injury and devotion to a cause; few put those words into action as Loujain undoubtedly has. For the crime of campaigning for women’s rights – in particular the right to drive and freedom from male guardianship rules – Loujain has been imprisoned, tortured, sexually abused, held in solitary confinement, kept incommunicado and forced into repeated hunger strikes.
Her treatment has been barbaric; her resilience incredible. Still she fights on.
Last month, two and a half years after her arrest, Loujain was summoned to court where her case was preposterously sent to a higher court – one that deals with terrorism. It should go without saying that if a state sees women’s rights activism as terrorism then that state is rotten. Saudi Arabia cannot tell the world that it is changing while Loujain remains in prison.
Samar Badawi with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michelle Obama in 2012.
But Loujain is not alone. Even in court last month, Loujain was not alone. Samar Badawi sat alongside her. Like Loujain, she too is an indefatigable campaigner for women’s rights. Like Loujain, she has been sent to the Terror court. Eight years ago she received the International Women of Courage Award from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama, today she sits alone in a cell as she did yesterday and the day before, and the day before stretching back more than 900 days.
In 2019 Nouf Abdulaziz won the 2019 PEN America Freedom to Write Award. She was in prison at the time of her award; she remains in prison today. Before her incarceration she wrote extensively about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, both in her personal blog and in frequent newspaper columns. Since her arrest she has suffered a range of human rights violations including prolonged enforced disappearance and solitary confinement, there are reports that she has been tortured – including beaten with a heavy cord – and sexually assaulted.
We know of at least nine other women’s rights activists currently in prison. They include Nassima al Sadah – who has to wait months at a time just to see her children; Naima al-Matrood sentenced to six years in prison for attending a protest; and Maha al-Rafidi, a young journalist repeatedly held in solitary confinement who appears to have been arrested for the crime of calling for other activists to be freed on social media.
Women’s rights activists in Saudi jails have been victims of physical torture – including sexual abuse, and psychological torture – including prolonged solitary confinement, all in contravention of Saudi law and all in contravention of international agreements signed by the Saudi state. All in stark contrast to the softer, reforming image the MBS-era Kingdom has sought to promote.
Loujain is not alone, these women are not alone. Each prisoners of conscience is a personal tragedy – a life wasting away at the hands of injustice. They are not suffering because of their own malevolence or even because of their normality – they are suffering because they are the best of us. They have put their lives on the line to demand a better world.
Each of these women represents hundreds of thousands more. Women who want to live equal lives; women who want the freedom the rest of us enjoy and is their inalienable human right.
Loujain must be freed, but her freedom is not enough. Samar Badawi must be freed. Nouf Abdulaziz must be freed. Their fellow prisoners must be freed, fellow activists must be freed. Campaigners must be free to speak; women must be freed to live equal lives. Loujain is not alone – the fight is not just hers; the fight is ours.
You can click on the images below to learn more about the Saudi women’s rights activists mentioned in this article: