Saudi Arabia has long been considered one of the most restrictive countries in the world for human rights, and particularly for women, reports Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America
The fleeting hope that generational transition in the Saudi leadership would open the door toward greater respect for individual rights and international law has collapsed entirely, with individuals paying the highest price as the government resorts to rank barbarism as a blunt means to suppress and deter dissent.
This month, PEN America is presenting the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award to three courageous women who have challenged one of the world’s most notoriously misogynist governments, inspiring the world with their demand to drive, to govern their own lives, and to liberate all Saudi women from a form of repression that has no place in the 21st century.
Through their writing and activism, Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan have challenged the Saudi government, demanding respect for human rights even in the face of intimidation and brutality.
Last May and June, all three women were detained by the Saudi government, along with more than a dozen other men and women, as a result of their writings, actions, and activism in support of women’s rights, including the right to drive.
In early March, after 10 months in detention, the public prosecutor’s office announced that it was preparing indictments against a number of women including Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan. The charges reportedly include contacting “enemy groups”, in reference to their cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms and communicating with foreign media and other activists; promoting women’s rights on social media; and calling for the end of the male guardianship system.
While Al-Nafjan was temporarily released in late March, Abdulaziz and Al-Hathloul remain in prison and all three have been subjected to torture, isolation, and threats of murder and rape.
Since 1987, 39 of the 44 jailed writers who received the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award have been released, due in part to the global attention and pressure the Award generates.
According to Ms Summer, PEN is proud to honour these drivers of change for their fearless words and actions, and to send a strong signal that international pressure on the Saudi Kingdom to respect dissent and adhere to international norms of free expression will not relent.
Image caption: Eman Nafijan and Loujain Al Hathloul