This post is co-authored with Rebecca Turkington, assistant director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Last week, the Saudi government arrested two prominent women’s activists, the latest move in a series of incarcerations targeting women’s and civil society leaders in the Gulf kingdom. The detention of leading human rights defenders Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah—some of the most recognizable faces of the Saudi women’s rights movement—brought the total number of high-profile arrests since May to more than fifteen. The message was clear: despite small steps towards reform in recent months by the Saudi Crown Prince—including the rescission of the female driving ban—advocacy for women’s empowerment will not be tolerated.
The two women swept up in this most recent crackdown have blazed trails for Saudi women. In 2010, when her father refused to allow her to marry, Badawi became the first woman in Saudi Arabia to sue her guardian for preventing her from marrying the person of her choice. The case drew local and international media attention and highlighted the discriminatory nature of the Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system. After winning her case, Badawi then became the first woman to file suit to demand women’s suffrage after voter registration centers refused her request to register to vote in municipal elections. In 2012, she was awarded the U.S. Department of State’s International Women of Courage Award in recognition of her courageous activism.
Nassima al-Sadah, a co-founding member of the Al-Adalah Center for Human Rights, is also an internationally recognized leader, entering a municipal race in the Gulf coast city of Qatif in 2015, as part of the first ever cohort of women candidates after Saudi women won the right to vote and run for office. However, before the elections took place, al-Sadah was informed by authorities that her name had been removed from the list of candidates.
These arrests were preceded by the detention of eleven prominent women’s rights activists only weeks before Saudi Arabia publicly lifted the driving ban in June. A social media campaign by local state media outlets, which branded the women as spies with the word “traitor” stamped over their faces, also helped to silence Saudi women’s activists, many of whom deleted their social media accounts and withdrew from public debate.
Much has been written about the promise of the 2030 reform agenda ushered in by the Saudi Crown Prince, which has begun to chip away at the constellation of barriers that keep women out of public life—not only the rescission of the driving ban, but also recent moves to allow women into sports stadiums and apply to join the military. These important changes speak to a growing recognition that as Saudi Arabia moves from an oil-based to a diversified economy, it cannot afford to leave the economic potential of 50 percent of the world’s population on the table, or cling to regressive policies that have no place in the 21st century.
But these reforms have been accompanied by a crackdown on the very human rights activists that have made some of these changes possible—one that threatens to undermine future progress. Many of the women detained since May previously led the courageous protests that helped pressure the Saudi government into granting women’s right to drive, using social media to promote their cause around the world. And the activists detained last week, including Badawi, are leading the charge to end the oppressive guardianship system that requires women to obtain male permission in order to get a passport, attend university, or get a loan—restrictions that inhibit women’s economic participation perhaps even more than the now-rescinded female driving ban. As long as leaders like Badawi and al-Sadah are preventing from speaking out about the serious gender inequalities that remain on the books, the prospects for further reform remain dim.
These reformers deserve support from global leaders who recognize that the oppression of Saudi women is not simply a question of state sovereignty—it is also an issue that matters to foreign policy and national security interests around the world. Governments that deny rights and freedoms to 50 percent of their population squander economic potential, with implications for the entire region. In contrast, countries that respect women’s rights are more likely to be stable and prosperous—a finding with significant implications for stability and prosperity globally.
In a much ballyhooed statement, the Canadian Foreign Minister stepped up to the plate this week, calling for the immediate release of the detained Saudi women’s activists. Notably, Trudeau’s government stood firm in support of these women, even after the abrupt expulsion of the Canadian Ambassador from Riyadh and a freeze on trade with the Kingdom, affirming that Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, […] and believes that this dialogue is critical.” But too many governments—including the United States—have fallen far short of the vocal support for the courageous Saudi leaders who champion women’s rights. This silence is shortsighted, as it fails to recognize the relationship between the status of women and core U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. If the Trump Administration wants to put America’s interests first, it ought to support women’s human rights, freedom of expression, justice and accountability, all of which are critical to advancing our interests abroad.