Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was recently sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. His offences included criticism of the religious police who patrol the streets and arrest women in breach of the dress code. In June, two prominent Saudi women reformers were called to assist a woman abused by her husband. For the crime of takhbib, inciting a wife against her husband, they were sentenced to 10 months in prison and barred from travelling abroad for two years after their release. These ridiculous charges and punishments make a mockery of Saudi campaigns to combat violence against women, and expose hypocrisies in both the Saudi state and the West.
The two women Wajeha Al-Huwaider, and Fawzia Al-Oyouni, received a desperate phone text from Nathalie Morin, Canadian wife of a Saudi man, to say he had locked her and the children in their home without food. When the women approached the house carrying provisions, they were arrested by police on charges of attempting to smuggle Morin and her children to the Canadian embassy. The Gulf Center for Human Rights believes the women were framed in order to stop their long-term activism. The Center also drew attention to the United Nations declaration, adopted by consensus in 1998, which ensures freedom of association for human rights defenders.
In the past, Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni led a campaign to allow Saudi women to drive, and in spite of harassment, collected signatures for a petition that was presented to King Abdullah in 2007. Government commitment to lift the ban the following year was not fulfilled. Other campaigns by these activists targeted oppression of women, child marriage, and Saudi guardianship laws that assign male kin the control of women's education, marriage, divorce, medical treatment, finances, employment, and so on. Al-Huwaider believes the issues are legal rather than religious. She was a leading journalist before her work was banned, and since then, has written mainly for Arab reformist Websites.
Muslims for Progressive Values have denounced the convictions of Wajeha Al-Huwaider, Fawzia Al-Oyouni, Raif Badawi, and Hamza Kashgari, a Saudi blogger, who was imprisoned and charged with blasphemy over Twitter comments considered insulting to religion.
In line with the work of reformers like Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni, the "No More Abuse" campaign against violence toward women was launched on Twitter and Facebook in April. It features the disturbing photograph of a woman with a bruised and bloodshot eye, visible through one of the slits in her niqab face cover. The campaign, initiated by the royal family's King Khaled Foundation, cannot be reconciled with state-sponsored persecution of women activists.
Since coming to power, King Abdullah has initiated reforms to empower women. These include curtailing the religious police, and appointing thirty women to the Shura Council, which advises the monarch on legislation. The King promised voting rights for women in the 2015 municipal elections, and to promote education, opened the huge women's only Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University, and the first co-educational university in Saudi Arabia.
These measures, although positive, are not aimed at abolishing the sexist laws that sacrifice reformers on the altars of patriarchy and religious extremism. Saudi Arabia remains a fiercely paternalistic society where reforms are delivered by royal decree and depend on the whims of successive monarchs.
In contrast to Tunisia, where the Arab Spring was kindled, pressure for change has not emerged from economic unrest. Being the world's largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia managed to avoid fallout from the uprisings by promising an internal $130 billion economic stimulus package to raise living standards. The government recently announced plans for construction of a Riyadh metro transport system, allegedly the largest in the world.
Nevertheless, the monarchy faces pressures from within. Some dissenting members of the family have long upheld the right of free expression. Recently, Prince Khalid Bin Farhan Al-Saud announced his 'defection' from the House of Saud, accusing the leaders of stifling dissent, and abusing their power while professing piety.
Western governments claiming the moral high ground could speak up for Saudi women reformers and their defenders, and strive to endorse lasting women's rights legislation based on civil society principles. However, such support is unlikely while the West benefits from petrodollar investments and a stable Saudi hand on the oil tap.