A closer look at 10 arrested Saudi women's rights activists

2018-05-22 20:35

Saudi Arabia's arrest of 10 women's rights advocates just weeks before the kingdom is set to lift the world's only ban on women driving is seen as the culmination of a steady crackdown on anyone perceived as a potential critic of the government.

The group includes women ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s who have pushed to lift the ban on women driving and for equal rights, as well as men who have supported them.

State-linked media and rights advocates have circulated the names of those detained.

Here's a look at who the detained activists are and how they became icons of the women's rights movement in Saudi Arabia:

Loujain al-Hathloul

The activist in her late 20s is among the most outspoken women's rights activists in the kingdom. She was detained for more than 70 days after she attempted to livestream herself driving from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia in 2014. She was detained by Saudi authorities as she attempted to cross the border and referred to an anti-terrorism court on charges of criticising the government online. She was later released without trial. Activists say al-Hathloul was arrested again in June of last year in connection with her advocacy.

Activists say al-Hathloul was then stopped by authorities in Abu Dhabi, where she was residing, and transferred to Saudi Arabia earlier this year where she's been under a travel ban since March.

Al-Hathloul attended a humanitarian summit in Canada in 2016, where she was photographed in Vanity Fair magazine with former American actress Meghan Markle, who wed Prince Harry over the weekend.

Aziza al-Yousef

A retired professor at King Saud University, al-Yousef is a mother of five and a grandmother of eight. Although she hails from a conservative tribe with links to the royal family, she is among the most prominent women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia. In 2016, she delivered a petition signed by thousands to the royal court calling for an end to guardianship laws that give male relatives final say over a woman's ability to marry or travel abroad.

She has worked for years assisting women fleeing abusive marriages and homes. She also defied the kingdom's ban on women driving on several occasions.

"This is a good step forward for women's rights," al-Yousef told The Associated Press last year when the kingdom announced that women would be allowed to drive. However, she cautioned it was just "the first step in a lot of rights we are waiting for".

Eman al-Nafjan

An assistant professor of linguistics and a mother of three, including a toddler, al-Nafjan runs one of the first English blogs on Saudi Arabia. She describes the "Saudiwoman" blog as an effort to counter the many non-Saudis and non-Arabs "out there giving 'expert' opinions on life and culture" in the kingdom.

Al-Nafjan has protested the driving ban, including publicly driving in the capital, Riyadh, in 2013 as part of a campaign launched by women's rights activists. She has worked closely with al-Yousef and other women's rights activists to help domestic abuse victims and bring attention to repressive guardianship laws.

In recent years, she has been cautious about voicing her opinion on Twitter out of concern over a growing crackdown on rights advocates. She was among dozens of women who were warned by the royal court last year to stop speaking with the press or voicing opinions online.

Madeha al-Ajroush

A psychotherapist in her mid-60s, al-Ajroush runs a private therapy practice in the capital, Riyadh, which specialises in gender orientation, according to activists. She helped initiate a nationwide programme in Saudi Arabia to provide support for domestic abuse victims and train police and courts on how to receive and treat such victims.

A longtime advocate of women's rights, she took part in the kingdom's first driving protest in 1990 and subsequent campaigns to end the ban on women driving. She has faced years of harassment by authorities, including house raids, travel bans and being fired from her job.

Last year, al-Ajroush told the AP after women were promised the right to drive: "I had no idea it was going to take like 27 years, but anyway, we need to celebrate."

Aisha al-Mana

Like al-Ajroush, the 70-year-old al-Mana took part in the kingdom's first driving protest in 1990, in which 47 women were arrested. She also took part in driving protests in 2011 and 2013.

She is director of Al-Mana General Hospitals and the Mohammad Al-Mana College of Health Sciences. She completed her bachelor's and master's degrees in the US in sociology. In 1980, she became one of the first Saudi women to obtain a PhD, also in the US from the University of Colorado.

In 2016, she established a scholarship program for Saudi women to study global health at her alma mater. She also established a $2m endowment to support Saudi and Arab women at the American University of Beirut who are studying advanced degrees in nursing and health sciences.

Activists say she suffered a stroke last year and are concerned for her health while in detention.

Ibrahim al-Mudaimigh

Al-Mudaimigh is a lawyer who defended al-Hathloul during her detention in 2015 for attempting to cross the UAE-Saudi border while driving. He has supported human rights defenders in court and offered legal representation to activists in the kingdom.

He's also represented Waleed Abulkhair, a human rights lawyer now serving a 15-year sentence who'd represented Raif Badawi, a blogger who was publicly flogged in 2015 and is serving 10 years in prison.

Activists say al-Mudaimigh, who ran his own practice, was one of the few lawyers in Saudi Arabia willing to defend human rights activists since others have either fled or been detained.

Hessah al-Sheikh

A longtime women's rights activist who took part in the kingdom's first driving protest in 1990, al-Sheikh is a professor at King Saud University and volunteers with Saudi-based charities focusing on women and children.

She hails from the prominent Al Sheikh family who are descendants of Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul-Wahhab. His ultraconservative teachings of Islam in the 18th century are widely referred to as "Wahhabism" in his name.

She co-authored a 100-page study that was published this year by the Centre for Women's Global Leadership in partnership with Rutgers University, examining Saudi women's advocacy since 1990. The study says questions remain over whether new policies will lead to real changes in how women's lives are governed in Saudi Arabia.

The study notes that international media exposure "can be a protective shield against severe punishment for active engagement in women's causes".

Walaa al-Shubbar

Activists say al-Shubbar, in her late 20s, works as a nurse in the capital, Riyadh. She has been active in calling for an end to guardianship rules and appeared on Arabic news programmes to discuss issues of patriarchy in the kingdom.

In an interview previously aired on France24, al-Shubbar is quoted as saying that in Saudi society "men are viewed as superior to women, and men are seen as capable of achieving anything and a woman is not".

Mohammed al-Rabae

Al-Rabea is a writer and an activist in his 20s who has organised discussion groups about philosophy and social issues. He worked with some of the activists to push for greater women's rights.

Abdulaziz al-Meshaal

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights describes al-Meshaal as a businessman and philanthropist who was listed as a board member in an application by activists to the government to establish a non-governmental organisation called "Amina" to protect women survivors of domestic violence.

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