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Looks Like Saudi Women Must Be Their Own Human Rights Defenders

24-year-old Noha al-Balawi was detained in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia on January 23rd after she filmed a video discussing her opinions on normalization efforts. Following the video, she was detained for 17 days and could now face up to five years in prison for her advocacy of women’s rights.

Yahya Assiri, director of ALQSTsaid al-Balawi frequently shares her thoughts on social media and wants the Saudi Arabian people to be represented in Parliament. Assiri believes Saudi Arabians with traditional beliefs still oppose radical change.

“They don’t want activists to get involved. Women haven’t had any rights until now, and they are still arresting people,” said Assiri.

Saudi Arabia has slowly been improving the rights of women. Today, women can start businesses without a man’s permission. Women also no longer have to wear the full-length abaya. However, even in light of these changes, women in Saudi Arabia still live under a patriarchal regime with a long history of gender inequality. And the country does not tolerate dissenting opinions from women, according to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH released a joint report last month about women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia and the frequent silencing they face. This report includes a definition of a human rights defender.

“The term ‘human rights defender’ refers to any individual who, individually or in association with others, acts peacefully in the name of individuals or groups to promote, defend and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed by various international instruments,” the report said.

The report states that Saudi Arabian authorities arrested almost 70 people between September and October 2017, most of them preachers but also judges, bloggers, and journalists. In addition, 50 key figures were arrested in November after they set up an anti-corruption commission.

Amnesty International believes human rights violations prevent Saudi Arabia from positive progress and lists a few suggestions for change including stopping the crackdown on journalists and activists, ending systematic discrimination against women, ending the persecution of the Shi’a minority, and stopping the use of the death penalty and torture.

“There is absolutely no way that Saudi Arabia can credibly claim to be seeking reform until it addresses this outrageous inequality,” said Amnesty International.

In 2016, Crown Prince and Chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud implemented the Vision 2030 plan. One of the goals of this plan is to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 to 30 percent.

Saudi Arabian lawyer Nasreen Alissa believes the Crown Prince’s reforms mainly target economic and entertainment aspects of society. Therefore, many women will still experience limited freedoms outside of the workplace.

“All the changes that we are hearing about are economic and entertainment changes,” said Alissa. “The rules and regulations are the same regarding women’s basic rights. Not a single thing has changed except for driving and entertainment.”

In July 2016, Alissa developed the Know Your Rights app, which aims to educate Saudi Arabian women about their rights, especially regarding family legal matters, child custody, divorce, and alimony lawsuits.  The app provides free legal information for women, free consultations through the Free Legal Advice icon, and gives a list of independent lawyers that provide free consultations through the Lawyers Directory.

Although Saudi Arabian women have established many new rights over the last year, the country must still endure a long process of correcting human rights violations. Equality is on the rise, yet traditional religious practices conflict with these changes and women activists like Noha al-Balawi remain endangered.

Featured Image by Aliko Sunawang on Unsplash

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