Mobile Menu - OpenMobile Menu - Closed

“All human beings are born free and equal

in dignity and rights.”

- Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Detained Women's Rights Defenders

As Saudi Arabia prepared to lift its long-standing ban on women drivers in June, authorities launched an unprecedented crackdown on women human rights defenders with the May 15th arrests of prominent activists. Authorities and government-aligned media then tried to discredit five of the activists as traitors through a public smear campaign.

Over the following three weeks, authorities arrested twelve other human rights defenders, including both women and men. Two additional women were arrested in August.

The women highlighted here had been specifically advocating for women’s human rights and for the lifting of the driving ban. Reports indicate that they face extremely serious charges.

Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi


Detained Since: June 27, 2018.

Charges: Suspicious contacts with "foreign entities". Providing support to "foreign enemies." 

Sentence: Not yet sentenced.

Biography: On June 27, 2018, Saudi authorities detained Professor Hatoon al-Fassi in apparent retaliation for her activism on women’s rights. 

Dr. al-Fassi is an Associate Professor of women’s history at King Saud University, writer, and prominent women’s rights activist. She is the author of Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia: Nabatea (2007) and of a newspaper column on contemporary social affairs. Dr. al-Fassi has been a leader in the renowned “Baladi” campaign, which gained women’s suffrage in 2011, and organized women’s full participation in municipal elections for the first time in 2015. She was a key actor in the effort to lift the ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia. After the ban was officially lifted on June 24, 2018, Dr. al-Fassi was one of the first women to drive, and she had planned to take journalists for a drive shortly after. At around the time the government lifted this ban, authorities began detaining women’s rights activists, including Dr. al-Fassi, for allegedly having contacts with “foreign entities” and for providing support to “foreign enemies”.

It appears her arrest and the wider government crackdown is related to the activists' work promoting reform and women's rights. Authorities have not disclosed any evidentiary basis for Dr. al-Fassi’s detention along with her location, and whether she will be released or her trial date. It is reported that those detained have been denied access to family and legal counsel. (Prior to her arrest, Dr. al-Fassi indicated that she was under a travel ban for unknown reasons since June 19.)

Advocacy Partner: Scholars at Risk

Samar Badawi


Detained Since: July 30, 2018.

Charges: No official charges.

Sentence: Not yet sentenced.

Biography: Samar Badawi is a prominent human rights activist and mother of two, who has been repeatedly targeted and interrogated by Saudi Arabian authorities, solely for her human rights activism. She is also the sister of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi. From 2008 – 2010, Samar challenged the male guardianship system when she tried leaving her abusive father and was charged with “disobedience.” In 2010  Samar filed a “Adhl” case against her father to remove him as her guardian so that she could marry human rights lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair. She was arrested for her outstanding arrest warrant for “disobedience” and spent more than six months in prison.

In 2011 Samar started legal actions to ensure women’s right to vote. She filed numerous lawsuits and used the Arab Charter for Human Rights to challenge the court’s rulings. In 2011 and 2012 Samar joined the Women’s Driving Campaign and challenged the governments legal basis for rejecting her driver's license application. She helped other women when they were arrested or faced court proceedings for defying the driving ban. These courageous acts led to her receiving the 2012 International Women of Courage Award by the US State Department.  

In 2014 Samar participated in side events at the UN Human Rights Council and then went to the US and met with Senators and the Secretary of State. Because of this human rights work the Saudi government imposed a travel ban on her. Samar was the target of several arbitrary arrests, interrogations, and harassment throughout 2016 and 2017.

On July 30, 2018 security forces arrested Samar Badawi. She is being held incommunicado and without charges. 

Advocate: Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA)

Advocacy Partner: Amnesty International

Eman al-Nafjan


Detained Since: May 15, 2018.

Charges: Suspicious contact with foreign parties. Attempts to endanger “security and stability.” 

Sentence: Not yet sentenced.

Biography: Prominent Saudi Arabian activist Eman Al Nafjan fell victim to the Presidency of Security’s crackdown when she, alongside nine other women’s rights activists, was arrested on May 15, 2018. Al Nafjan had maintained an active Twitter account (@saudiwoman) and online blog (Saudiwoman’s Weblog), informing her readers about daily life, culture, and human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. Known for organizing the October 26th Women to Drive Movement in 2013, she has also made her identity known to the authorities by repeatedly violating the driving ban herself. In a more recent show of activism, Al Nafjan signed a 2016 petition urging King Salman to rescind the country’s male guardianship system.

Although it is known that Al Nafjan and her fellow detainees were transferred to Jiddah from the country’s capital in May, their exact location is unknown. According to the Associated Press, the activists are being held incommunicado and have not been granted access to lawyers. Media outlets in support of the Saudi government have frequently referred to them as “traitors.” Meanwhile, estimates from legal experts indicate that this group may receive up to 20 years in prison and possibly charges of treason. Whereas many Saudi activists have moderated their criticisms of the state, particularly due to coercion or imprisonment, Al Nafjan represented one of the last vocal dissenters in the country’s community of activists. 

Advocacy Partner: Reporters Without Borders

Nouf Abdelaziz al-Jerawi


Detained Since: June 6, 2018.

Charges: No official charges.

Sentence: Not yet sentenced.

Biography: The Saudi Arabian authorities raided the home of journalist and activist Nouf Abdelaziz Al Jerawi and arrested her on June 6, 2018, in continuation of its crackdown on female activists in the country. Al Jerawi was well regarded for her support of constitutional reform in Saudi Arabia, the Arab Springs, and human rights protections, which she wrote about in her online blog. She was well-known for being a women’s rights and “right-to-drive” activist. Prior to her arrest, Al Jerawi had received warnings in 2016 from the Interior Ministry, which claimed to be monitoring her actions, and was harassed and intimidated online. In one of her last demonstrations of resistance to the Saudi state, the journalist expressed support for the activists who had been arrested for speaking out against the male guardianship system and driving ban on women.

According to the human rights organization ALQST, Al Jerawi was taken to an unknown location after being arrested and has been held incommunicado ever since. Multiple human rights organizations, including the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), have called on the Saudi government to release Al Jerawi and her fellow prisoners.

Advocacy Partner: Reporters Without Borders