The past few months have been tumultuous for activists in Saudi Arabia. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch announced that Saudi authorities detained women's rights activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah over the past two days without explaining why, but the organization noted that it's part of the government's continuing crackdown on the women's rights movement.
Both Badawi and al-Sadah are recognized in their country for vocally supporting equality and liberty for Saudi women. The Saudi government has yet to give an explanation for the detention of either woman, but HRW released a statement saying that the state was hounding and punishing non-violent activists for their peaceful advocacy. Bustle has reached out to HRW for comment.
On Wednesday, HRW’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson released a statement: “The arrests of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah signal that the Saudi authorities see any peaceful dissent, whether past or present, as a threat to their autocratic rule. After the recent arbitrary arrests of businesspeople, women’s rights activists, and reformist clerics, Saudi Arabia’s allies and partners should question what 'reform' really means in a country where the rule of law is disdainfully ignored."
According to HRW, the government of Saudi Arabia has been carrying a systemic crackdown on human rights activists since the beginning of 2017 at the orders of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. On July 30, Saudi authorities detained famous activist Fowzan al-Harbi's wife Amal al-Harbi. Per HRW, other women activists to have been recently detained include Aziza al-Yousef, Nouf Abdelaziz, Hatoon al-Fassi, Eman al-Nafjan, Mayaa al-Zahrani, and others. Since May, according to the United Nations, 15 local women rights activists have been detained by Saudi authorities.
For Badawi, pictured above alongside former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former first lady Michelle Obama, this won’t be the first time that local authorities detained her. The Saudi activist, who received the United States' 2012 International Women of Courage Award for challenging the country's male guardianship system, was arrested in 2016 after demanding the Saudi government release her husband, Waleed Abu al-Khair. Al-Khair, who is also an activist like his wife, is currently serving 15 years in Saudi prison, according to the New York Times.
Badawi is also Raif Badawi's sister; the Saudi blogger who became an international symbol of resistance after he mocked the kingdom's religious authorities, according to The Times. Like his brother-in-law, Raif Badawi was sentenced to a decade in Saudi prison as well as 1,000 cane-strikings — he received 50 of those lashings, and his punishment ceased after global condemnation — for his online activism.
Along with Badawi, al-Sadah is known for supporting Saudi women's right to drive. In June, the Saudi government issued driver's licenses to women in a historic first for the country. In 2015, making her own history, al-Sadah applied to run an election campaign but was ultimately disqualified by Saudi authorities, who did not explain why. Another well-known activist, Loujain Hathloul, faced the same conditions.
For HRW's Whitson, Badawi and al-Sadah's detentions point to the need for improvement on part of the Saudi government — and concern for its allies. "Allies and partners considering opportunities for closer ties with Saudi Arabia during this period of 'reform' should speak out against Mohammad bin Salman’s ultimately self-defeating repression," Whitson said. "Any economic vision that seeks to open up Saudi Arabia while throwing real reformers in jail may well end badly for everyone."