President Barack Obama has an opportunity this month to lead from behind on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia – behind, that is, a woman driver.
The president is visiting the repressive Gulf kingdom this month. In a letter delivered to the White House, Amnesty International is calling on him to take a stand on women’s rights by meeting with the female leaders of a campaign to end the ban against women driving. We are also calling on him to have a woman Secret Service driver himself during his visit.
Take action to demand the president support women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
Any private diplomacy by the United States has brought few results. In fact, the situation for human rights advocates has become worse.
1. This would be no mere symbolic act
The image of the president of the United States being driven by a woman would put a lie to the combination of Saudi law and custom that is at a heart of extensive discrimination against women in the country.
Saudi women activists have been active throughout the years demanding their rights, but they face persistent obstacles on several fronts from Saudi law, customs and government decrees.
For example, discriminatory laws relating to marriage and divorce cause some women to remain trapped in violent and abusive relationships. Women are required by law to obtain the permission of a male guardian before getting married, travelling, undergoing certain surgical interventions, undertaking paid employment or enrolling in higher education.
2. Saudi women activists would benefit from global solidarity
Amnesty International is not alone in advocating the president raise human rights during his trip to Saudi Arabia. A bipartisan group of members of the U.S. House of Representatives have circulated a letter calling on the president to “publicly demonstrate U.S. support for those in Saudi Arabia who are willing to take such risks to advance fundamental rights in their society.”
But the most important calls for reform are coming from Saudi women and human rights activists themselves. Public threats of arrest haven’t silenced women activists in Saudi Arabia who champion their freedoms. Woman such as Eman al Nafjan have challenged gender discrimination in all its forms. Their campaign, smart and strategic, has used social media to bring international attention to their activism. Now is not the time for the world to be silent about their efforts.
3. Championing women’s rights is critical to aiding all Saudi human rights defenders
The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is abysmal and anyone who risks highlighting flaws in the system is branded a criminal and tossed in a jail cell. That’s as true for for women’s human rights campaigners as it is for other peaceful activists in the country.
But as in other Middle East countries, the Saudi government depicts women’s rights as being foreign to Saudi culture and is using this to marginalize all human rights defenders as being influenced by the West and other “alien” ideologies.
In one notable case, the leaders of a prominent human rights organization, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), are being targeted for arrest and detention because of their peaceful expression of their political opinions. The two co-founders, Dr. Mohammad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid are currently on a hunger strike in protest at the deterioration of their prison conditions. These prisoners of conscience were sentenced to 10 and 11 years in prison respectively in March 2013 after an unfair trial.
They were among eight ACPRA leaders who have faced legal attacks. All of this came after a heavy media campaign against them media campaign, similar to one launched against women’s activists, alleging they were calling for unrest in the kingdom.
In the letter to President Obama, Amnesty International is also asking the president to seek a meeting with the family members of imprisoned peaceful human rights activists.
4. Advocacy on women’s rights is closely connected to efforts to improve human rights across the board in Saudi Arabia
We are also urging President Obama to champion other key human rights reforms in his meetings with Saudi officials:
- Ending severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly
- Ending torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment
- Raising issues of discrimination against migrant and domestic workers in Saudi Arabia as well as religious minorities, including Baha’i, Shi’a Muslims and Christians
Women’s rights are central to several of these issues. Women domestic workers are at particular risk of sexual violence and other abuses. The sponsorship system governing employment of foreign nationals exposes them to exploitation and abuse by private and government employers and allows them little or no redress. Improving rights for Saudi women would be the first step toward ending discrimination against all women in the kingdom.
5. If it’s been tried, quiet diplomacy hasn’t worked
These abuses are not new, and have been regularly reported by Amnesty International. Indeed, they have been duly noted by the U.S. Department of State annual human rights report and may have been raised in private sessions by U.S. officials in meetings with Saudi.
But any private diplomacy by the United States has brought few results. In fact, the situation for human rights advocates has become worse.
Security forces in Saudi Arabia continue to practice with impunity the arbitrary and incommunicado detention of Saudi Arabian and foreign nationals. Many are detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. This can include criticizing the government and its policies.
Such activists are often held incommunicado without charge, sometimes in solitary confinement. They are often denied access to lawyers or the courts to challenge the lawfulness of their detention.