Silenced voices

Salma al-Shebab travelled to Saudi Arabia from England, where she lives with her husband and two young children, in December 2020 to visit her family over the holiday season. She intended to be back in Leeds to resume her studies in January.

However, she remains in Saudi Arabia, imprisoned, because she made the dreadful mistake of thinking that, even though she lived in England, she could comment on Twitter in support of one of the leaders of the campaign for the right of Saudi women to drive. Her remarks were not particularly incendiary – after all, women had been granted the right to drive in 2017 — and she didn’t have a huge following on Twitter, but the court that heard her case determined that her words were “providing succour to those seeking to disrupt public order” and were “false and tendentious rumours.”

Al-Shebab, who has endured at least one period of solitary confinement that lasted 285 days, was initially given a sentence of six years, which was increased on appeal to 34 years, to be followed by a 34-year travel ban.

Tearing the social fabric

At the time of the decision in early August, her sentence was the longest ever given to a Saudi women’s rights defender. However, her record did not stand for long: at the end of the month,  Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani received a 45-year prison sentence for her comments criticizing Saudi leaders. The court declared that she was “using the internet to tear the social fabric” and was “violating public order by using social media.”

The Freedom Initiative is a Washington D.C. based non-profit organization that advocates for prisoners wrongfully detained in the Middle East and North Africa. Of Ms al-Shebab’s situation, Saudi case manager Dr. Bethany Al-Haidari said:

“Saudi Arabia has boasted to the world that they are improving women’s rights and creating legal reforms, but there is no question with this abhorrent sentence that the situation is only getting worse. It is unfortunately no surprise that MbS [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud] feels more empowered than ever in presiding over such egregious human rights violations. Without any real steps toward accountability, Biden’s trip to Jeddah and the international community’s embrace must feel like a green light. The Saudi authorities must release Salma and ensure that her young boys do not grow up without a mother simply because she called for freedom for human rights activists.

Here at home

When Chrystia Freeland was subjected to a misogynist verbal attack in late August, Prime Minister Trudeau was quick to identify the growing backlash against women who speak up on social media, calling on political leaders to “call this out and take a united stance against it.” He went on to say:

“Threats, violence, intimidation of any kind, are always unacceptable and this kind of cowardly behaviour threatens and undermines our democracy and our values and openness and respect upon which Canada was built.”

As Freeland’s recent experience has reminded us, women in public life in this country continue to face threats and harassment simply for being women in public life. This is wrong, and it is good that the PM speaks out against it.

But, where is that voice when it comes to the rights of women in the Middle East? It seems that bigger interests may be in play.

Trade trumps women’s rights

According to independent Canadian media outlet, The Breach, the Canadian government is in the process of buying two aircraft from a company controlled by none other than Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman. Canada exports billions of dollars of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, and the PM has described Saudi Arabia as “Canada’s most important two-way trading partner in the Middle East.”

While Saudi women have seen some increased freedoms in recent years – they can drive, travel internationally without requiring permission from a male guardian, register their children’s births and live alone – they still lack many basic rights, and repression against women activists seems to be rising.

According to Human Rights Watch:

“Saudi women must still obtain a male guardian’s approval to get married, leave prison or obtain certain healthcare. Women also continue to face discrimination in relation to marriage, family, divorce and decisions relating to children (ie. child custody). Men can still file cases against daughters, wives or female relatives under their guardianship for “disobedience,” which can lead to forcible return to their male guardian’s home or imprisonment.”

Chrystia Freeland created an international brouhaha in 2018 when she expressed her concerns about the arrest of Saudi feminist activists.

Let’s all call on her to use her own recent experience of harassment as an opportunity to reiterate her call for the right to free speech for all women in Saudi Arabia as well as for the release of Salma al-Shebab, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani and other imprisoned Saudi women’s rights activists.

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