Prisoners of Conscience

Saudi’s women empowerment drive is ‘a lie’, says family of released activist

The family of the Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul yesterday condemned Saudi Arabia’s drive to expand female empowerment, a day after authorities released her from prison.

According to CNN, the activist’s Brussels-based sister Lina Al-Hathloul – who was a prominent leader of the international campaign for Loujain’s release – stated: “We really see that women empowerment is a lie in Saudi Arabia, that there are no real reforms.”

Over the past few years, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has enacted a series of drastic social reforms linking in with its broader aims for its Vision 2030 economic drive. Those reforms include the decrease in authority of the religious police, the lifting of restrictions on gender mixing, and the stripping of the requirement for women to wear the abaya or loose gown.

One of the most popular reforms was the right for women to drive, which Loujain Al-Hathloul was a prominent advocate for. However, Al-Hathloul was arrested by authorities in May 2018 in a series of sweeping arrests throughout the kingdom.

Lina claimed that despite the public reforms, the almost four-year-long detention of her sister shows that “people are still oppressed and even more so now…there is really an atmosphere of fear under MBS.”

Although currently released, Al-Hathloul is only on probation and is banned from travel for five years. In the press conference yesterday, Al-Hathloul’s siblings called on people not to say that she had been freed, with Lina stressing that “Loujain is not free. She’s been conditionally released.”

The release of Al-Hathloul this week came days after the kingdom passed a series of draft judicial reforms which it says will “raise the level of integrity and efficiency of the performance of judicial agencies,” as well as implement the presumption of innocence of those detained.

It is suspected that the release was sparked by United States’ call on Saudi Arabia last week to reform and improve its human rights record and to release women’s rights activists. Under the new administration of President Joe Biden, Saudi Arabia is under greater scrutiny and harsher measures in comparison to the administration of former President Donald Trump.

In December, a month before his inauguration, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan condemned Riyadh’s sentencing of the activist.

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