This week, some of the most powerful women from around the world attended the virtual Women20 (W20) conference, part of the Group of 20 summit, hosted by Saudi Arabia. But who was missing? For one, my sister Loujain al-Hathloul, an award-winning women’s rights activist, who is in a maximum-security prison cell only 25 miles from Riyadh.
In recent years, my sister was one of the only Saudi women who dared to attend international conferences outside of the kingdom to discuss the truth about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She spoke out about the injustice of the repressive patriarchal systems in the kingdom, which grant men almost total superiority before the law and give them the absolute right to guardianship over their wives and children. For voicing the exact values that W20 claims to uphold, my sister was targeted and now sits in prison.
In 2018, Loujain spoke at a United Nations conference in Geneva on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. She publicly denounced Saudi Arabia’s abject failure to respect its international agreements on gender equality. Shortly after returning to the gulf, she was kidnapped from the United Arab Emirates, remanded to Saudi Arabia and incarcerated for exercising her right to free speech.
In prison, my sister has been subjected to all forms of torture and degradation, including sexual abuse. I fear for her safety, and for her life, every day. Saudi prosecutors say her crime was “attempting to destabilize the kingdom,” but it is clear she has been imprisoned for defending women’s rights and for her speech. In fact, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that her imprisonment and deprivation of liberty are “arbitrary.”
If members of the G-20, which purports to promote gender equality and advance the social and economic empowerment of women, truly want to mainstream issues of gender, voices such as that of my sister Loujain must be included. And for that, they must be released from their arbitrary detention in Saudi prisons. Unless Loujain and other female activists are freed and allowed to exercise their equal, universal rights of speech and association, this conference stands as nothing more than another symbol of Saudi and international hypocrisy on the issue of women’s equality.
Loujain is only one of a staggering number of female human rights defenders who remain imprisoned across the Middle East and North Africa. Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani all remain behind bars. Though Saudi Arabia was celebrated for lifting its ban on women driving in 2018, at least 11 of the activists instrumental in advancing that right were imprisoned. At this time of global outcry for gender equality, world leaders must not enable Saudi Arabia’s transparent attempts to use its wealth to camouflage its severe state-sponsored human rights abuses against women.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia believe in the power of public relations to whitewash their violations. They attempt to do this by inviting high-profile delegates to attend posh conferences marketing lofty ideals. Hosting major events such as the G-20 not only affords the kingdom the image of a powerful, modern country and global economic power, but also draws international attention away from the reality of rights abuses that occur mere miles away. Neither women nor world leaders should be complicit in this fiction.
Since my sister’s detention, I have vowed to use my voice for freedom, to uplift her story and the stories of others striving for basic rights and dignity. I know that I have a responsibility to use my platform to call on others to join me in this freedom pledge.
As long as women inside of Saudi Arabia cannot safely speak, it is the role of the international community to raise its voice on their behalf. Several key delegates have already refused to attend the G-20 — now a virtual summit ― on the grounds that the conference represents grand-scale hypocrisy against the backdrop of the kingdom’s inexcusable human rights record. Women who choose to attend have a duty to use their voices to draw attention to these issues. Whether by calling for the release of human rights defenders such as my sister, or bravely and publicly speaking the truth about the reality of women inside the kingdom, the G-20 should be a moment for both men and women to speak out.
Lina al-Hathloul is the sister of imprisoned Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.