Conflict & Justice

Saudi women appeal prison term for helping domestic abuse victim

Saudi Arabian women’s rights activists Wajeha Al-Huwaider and Fawzia Al-Oyouni are filing an appeal in court today after being sentenced last month to a 10-month prison term with a two-year travel ban following their release.

Wajeha and Fawzia—who have been active in a number of women’s rights campaigns in the Kingdom—were convicted of “takhbib,” where an outsider interferes with a marriage or engagement, turning one spouse against the other. The charge comes from an attempt to assist a Canadian woman by the name of Nathalie Morin, who claimed her husband had locked her in a room with insufficient food and water.

In this case, the women are accused of “supporting a wife without her husband’s knowledge, thereby undermining the marriage,” according to rights group Equality Now.

But Suad Abu-Dayyeh, program consultant on Middle East and North Africa for Equality Now, told the Inter Press Service News Agency that the charge is false—simply a cover for a longtime interest in arresting the activists for their women’s rights work—and that the women were ambushed by authorities upon arriving at Morin’s home.

“They did not conspire to turn Nathalie against her husband or attempt to convince her to abandon him. In fact, they have never met her,” Abu-Dayyeh told IPS. “These two women have been activists for a long time, and the Saudi government has been keen to silence them for a long time. They are now being made an example of to ensure that other activists don’t speak out either.”

Wajeha was listed as number 82 in last year’s list of 100 Most Powerful Arab Women of 2012 in the sector of culture and society. On Women’s Day in 2008, she published a YouTube video showing herself driving a car—a criminal activity for women in Saudi Arabia—as part of her Women2Drive crusade.

Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch Joe Stork told IPS that he is not optimistic about the activists’ appeal, saying “Saudi Arabia has made a decision to really stamp out human rights activism.”

Because the Saudi government controls the media and women are not able to speak freely in the Kingdom, generating any public showing of ground support while the women wait for the Appeals Court decision is near impossible.

In response to the circumstances, Equality Now has initiated a social media campaign under the Twitter handle @equalitynow and hashtag #SaudiJustice to garner international support for their case.