Natalie Morin, a Canadian woman who settled down in Saudi Arabia in 2009, is trapped inside her own home. Forbidden to visit her family or leave her abusive husband, her future is set and restricted by Saudi law. Her mother, Johanne Durocher, worked tirelessly to draw international media attention to her daughter’s struggle, lobbying Canadian government officials to intervene, and organizing protests over the case in Canada– but her efforts have come to naught. Finally, when Saudi Arabian female rights activists Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni received a desperate text message from Morin, the two Saudi women activists attempted to come to her aid.
But the text was a setup. Morin’s husband and the police had sent the message, and as soon as al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni arrived at Morin’s home that day, the women were detained by police. Though they were only there to bring provisions for Morin and her children, they were accused of attempting to kidnap Morin and help her leave the country. This kidnapping charge was eventually changed to an offense called takhbib, or “inciting a woman against her husband,” and on June 15 2013, a court sentenced the two activists to prison. The women will serve their 10-month sentences and are banned from traveling abroad for two years. And while Saudi authorities punished al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni for trying to help Morin, they ignored Morin’s troubling allegations of abuse. She continues to live with her husband with essentially no options for a personal future or to escape with her children.
Unfortunately, this story is far from unique. In Saudi Arabia, which has no written penal code, judges and prosecutors have latitude to arbitrarily define certain acts as criminal, and then to argue that defendants committed these crimes. The verdict against al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni affirms that in Saudi Arabia, a husband’s right to control his wife overshadows her right to safety. Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system and strict gender segregation rules restrict women and girls from having any semblance of independence. Under these laws, girls and women are forbidden from conducting any business transaction, traveling or even getting certain medical procedures without permission from a male guardian.
Despite Saudi authorities’ blatant tolerance of women’s rights abuses and blatant intolerance for women who publicly denounce these abuses, women’s rights activists like al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni continue to take active stances, which include public rejections of negligible Saudi reform measures. Al-Huwaider, for instance, has spent years raising awareness and protesting this discriminatory system: In 2006, she staged a rally for women’s rights on the King Fahd Causeway, which connects Saudi Arabia with Bahrain, and in 2009 she attempted to cross the causeway to Bahrain without male guardianship, which is a criminal act in Saudi Arabia. In defiant response to the government ban on women driving, al-Huwaider co-founded the Saudi Women2Drive campaign. She drove in 2008, and in May 2011, she gained international media attention by filming and posting to YouTube a video of Manal al-Sharif, another activist, driving a car. For her crime, al-Sharif was sentenced to 10 lashes. Just like these punishments, Saudi’s legal and police protections are horrifically antediluvian. Violating the laws of Saudi Arabia, even unknowingly, can lead to disproportionately severe punishments, including public flogging, jail and execution. Suspects can be detained for months without legal council or even having been charged with a crime.
The women’s struggle is more than just a demand for civil liberties — it’s a demand for human rights. One event in 2002 highlights the potential extremes enforced by Saudi religious police, known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or the Hai’a. In Mecca, a girls’ school caught fire, and hundreds of girls were put in danger — but not just because of raging fire. Police tried to keep the girls inside, as they were not wearing the headscarves and abayas (black robes) required by the Islamic law. One witness said he saw three officers “[…] beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya.” Fifteen girls died in the fire and more than fifty others were injured. Though this bloodshed was reported in Saudi media and public outcry spurred some debate about law enforcement, the government did not acknowledge that the religious police were legally culpable. This tragedy, among others, reflects the entrenchment of certain inhumane cultural traditions.
Since coming to power in 2005, King Abdullah has pursued a cautious program of reforms to strengthen women’s rights. Abdullah presented women with the rights to vote and to stand in 2015 municipal elections, and has recently appointed 30 women to Saudi Arabia’s highest consultative body, the Shura Council. Another instance of symbolic progress occurred when two Saudi women competed in the 2012 Olympics, the first time women have been allowed to compete for the country. And although women and girls are still not free to practice sports in the kingdom, on May 4, 2013, the official Saudi Press Agency announced that female students enrolled in private girls’ schools could take part in sports so long as they wear “decent clothing,” are supervised by female Saudi instructors, and all parts of the activity fall within the tight regulations of the country’s Education Ministry. In another step forward, a public awareness campaign about violence against women was launched this past April, though there’s a lack of official action against such violence. Although limited political representation, athletic opportunities, and the right to drive may seem archaic and meaningless from an outsider’s perspective, women in Saudi Arabia are experiencing “dizzying” changes, as TIME magazine Middle East Bureau Chief Aryn Baker described them. But the plights of Natalie Morin, Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni remind us that Saudi Arabian women remain far from equal citizens.
There was never much hope for al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni’s appeal. As Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, noted, “Saudi Arabia has made a decision to really stamp out human rights activism.” Although any public showing of ground support for the women would be brutally suppressed, social media seems to provide an intermediate outlet for women activists. Natalie Morin has recorded some of her own struggles on her blog called Saudi Real Life, and the international women’s’ rights organization Equality Now has initiated a social media campaign under the Twitter handle @equalitynow and hashtag #SaudiJustice to garner international support for the case of al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni. However, technology is not always on the side of justice. A new electronic tracking system enforces the protective guardianship of women, as the Saudi government alerts husbands via text message if their wives are leaving the country.
Despite the deep entrenchment of patriarchy in Saudi Arabia’s social structure, brave activists will continue to speak out against oppressive norms, and perhaps further their hopes for change and progress. In a society where men dominate every aspect of life, including the criminal and judiciary system, the future of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia rests primarily in the hands of women themselves. As Malala Yousafzai proclaimed in her speech to the UN, “There was a time when women’s activists asked men to stand up for women’s rights. This time we will do it ourselves. We can not succeed when half of us are held back.”