Two of Saudi Arabia’s leading activists for women’s rights were recently sentenced to 10 months in prison — after which they will have their passports withdrawn for two years — for trying to take food to a battered spouse who had been locked in her home with her three young children without provisions. This vindictive, trumped-up case is a symptom of the kingdom’s regression on human rights. Several monarchies in the Persian Gulf have reacted to the Arab Spring by tightening their grip.
In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, perhaps under the impetus of the shock of that event, Saudi Arabia experienced small but perceptible measures of liberalization. Universities allowed greater freedom of scholarship. One of the kingdom’s most outspoken liberals and feminists, Wajeha al-Huwaider, was invited to write a regular column in al-Watan, a leading newspaper. In 2005, the year the relatively forward-looking King Abdullah ascended the throne, Saudi Arabia’s score on the Freedom House scale of freedom — on which 1 means fully free — improved from a worst-possible 7 to 6.5.
It took a little more than a year before Huwaider proved too iconoclastic for al-Watan. Eventually she was barred from all Saudi publications and, instead, found a platform on a few pan-Arab Web sites that are hubs of free thought. She also found other ways to push the boundaries constraining women in the kingdom. She staged a one-woman march along the causeway from Bahrain, waving a sign that read “Give women their rights.” She filed her candidacy for the presidency of FIFA, the world soccer organization, to protest the refusal by Saudi schools to allow sports for girls and the absence of female athletes on the Saudi Olympic team. (In 2012, two women made the team.)
Her leading cause has been women’s right to drive. In 2007, she and another activist, Fawzia al-Ayouni, gathered about 3,000 signatures on an Internet petition that they submitted to the king. On a visit to the United States, Huwaider posed outside an auto dealership with a sign publicizing her appeal to “car makers and dealers around the world.” The appeal read: “Women in Saudi Arabia are willing to buy your cars. But you need first to support the campaign to allow women to drive cars.”
The next year, she used the occasion of International Women’s Day to post on YouTube a video clip of herself behind the wheel, filmed by a colleague in the passenger seat. As she drove, she explained that she was not breaking the law because she was in a remote region of Saudi Arabia with an exception to the no-driving rule. She was one of many Saudi women with a driver’s license from another country, she said; given permission, she added, these women would be willing to teach other Saudi women.
In 2011, a few dozen women staged a simultaneous display of driving, not all in permitted areas. This time, Huwaider was in the passenger seat, filming 32-year-old Manal al-Sharif driving around Khobar. Their actions secured hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube — and landed Sharif behind bars for nine days.
That year, as uprisings spread across the Middle East, Saudi rulers were spooked. The country’s Freedom House score ticked back to a flat 7. In 2012, prosecutors summoned Huwaider and Ayouni, her partner in the petition drive, for questioning.
The two were charged with kidnapping in the strange case of Nathalie Morin, a Canadian woman living in the eastern Saudi city of Dammam with her Saudi husband and their three children. She has accused him of abuse — there are pictures of her bruised torso and the bruised faces of their children on the Internet — and has sought to return to Canada with their children. But he has refused to release the children, who, under Saudi law, belong to him.
Huwaider told Human Rights Watch that Morin’s mother first contacted her in 2009. In 2011, Morin herself sent text messages seeking help to Huwaider and Ayouni, presumably because they were known as women’s rights advocates. She wrote in one message that her husband had left her and the children stranded in the house and that they were running out of food and water. Huwaider and Ayouni went to the house with food, whereupon they were arrested. Morin’s husband alleged that the two intended to whisk Morin and the children to the Canadian Embassy and thence to Canada. (That the embassy would not take part in any such operation was irrelevant.)
On June 15, a Saudi judge convicted Huwaider and Ayouni of trying to undermine Nathalie Morin’s family. Their real crime, of course, was trying to drive their country forward at a time when its freedom gear had been shifted into reverse.
Joshua Muravchik is a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of the forthcoming book Trailblazers of the Arab Spring: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East.