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Bonamici, Omar, Schakowsky, Speier Lead 32 Members in Demanding Equality for Saudi Women

May 14, 2021
Press Release

 

WASHINGTON, DC [05/14/21] – Congresswomen Suzanne Bonamici, Ilhan Omar, Jan Schakowsky, and Jackie Speier are leading 32 Members in calling for equality for Saudi women on the third anniversary of Saudi Arabia unjustly arresting several women’s rights activists.

 

On May 15, 2018, the Saudi government began arresting women’s rights activists who were peacefully protesting the male guardianship system. Many of these activists were held incommunicado for months without being formally charged of any crimes; some endured abuse and torture without access to legal representation or interaction with their families. The Saudi government recently announced  plans to codify laws that could improve the rights and equal legal standing of women.

 

“The United States can and should exercise global leadership to protect human rights around the world and to defend the right of international advocates to speak out without fear of violence or political reprisal,” the Members wrote. “…This presents an opportunity to hold the Saudi government accountable for its claimed commitment to true reform.”

 

The Members called on President Joe Biden to urge Saudi authorities to end all forms of discrimination against women, to fully dismantle the male guardianship and kafala sponsorship systems, to immediately and unconditionally release all women human rights defenders (WHRDs) detained for their peaceful human rights advocacy, to drop the charges against them, and to end the practice of politically-motivated travel bans and restrictions on freedom of expression.

 

“The Saudi authorities claim to be undertaking reforms in support of women’s rights, but that claim is negated by their treatment of the very women who have led the fight for women’s rights, and the ongoing suppression of the right of those women to speak freely without fear of repercussions,” the Members wrote. “…We look forward to working with you and your administration to advance the recognition of women as equal to men under Saudi law such that the Saudi government holds perpetrators of violence against women accountable, protects every woman’s right to free expression, and abolishes all practices that discriminate against women.”

 

The full letter can be viewed here and below. In addition to Bonamici, Omar, Schakowsky, and Speier, the letter was signed by Chairman Gregory W. Meeks of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Chairman Ted Deutch of the House Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism, along with Representatives Raúl M. Grijalva, James P. McGovern, Marcy Kaptur, Lois Frankel, David N. Cicilline, Julia Brownley, Earl Blumenauer, Maxine Waters, Mike Levin, Ann McLane Kuster, Alan Lowenthal, Karen Bass, Ro Khanna, Steve Cohen, Juan Vargas, Mark Pocan, Jake Auchincloss, David E. Price, Sara Jacobs, Gerald E. Connolly, Chrissy Houlahan, Jim Cooper, Susan Wild, Donald S. Beyer Jr., Peter DeFazio, Ayanna Pressley, Pramila Jayapal, David Trone, Brenda Lawrence, and Eleanor Holmes Norton.

 

The letter is endorsed by Amnesty International, DAWN, Freedom Forward, The Freedom Initiative, Freedom Now, PEN America, and POMED.

 

The Honorable Joseph R. Biden Jr.

President of the United States

The White House 

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW 

Washington, DC 20500

 

 

Dear President Biden,

 

On this date three years ago, authorities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began arbitrarily arresting women’s rights activists for demanding equality and defending human rights. Many of these activists were held incommunicado for months without being formally charged of any crimes, enduring abuse and torture while being kept in solitary confinement without access to legal representation or interaction with their families.

 

The United States can and should exercise global leadership to protect human rights around the world and to defend the right of international advocates to speak out without fear of violence or political reprisal. In February of this year, Saudi authorities announced their intention to codify Personal Status Laws and the Law of Evidence, potentially formalizing legal rights and procedures that currently are not equally applied to women. This presents an opportunity to hold the Saudi government accountable for its claimed commitment to true reform. Accordingly, we call on you to urge Saudi authorities to end all forms of discrimination against women, to fully dismantle the male guardianship and kafala sponsorship systems, to immediately and unconditionally release all women human rights defenders (WHRDs) detained for their peaceful human rights advocacy, to drop the charges against them, and to end the practice of politically-motivated travel bans and restrictions on freedom of expression.

 

The male guardianship system – a legal framework that treats women as minors – continues to negatively affect all aspects of women’s lives and severely restrict their fundamental liberties. Women cannot freely make decisions about their education, employment, health, or whom they want to marry; and they cannot pass their nationality on to their children. Male guardianship laws also provide impunity for Saudi fathers who kidnap Saudi-American children and take them to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, gender-based violence against women and children is neither adequately defined in law nor criminalized. New reforms to protect women from abuse lack adequate means of enforcement, leaving many trapped in violent relationships. Saudi law does not consider women’s testimony to be equal to that of men, making it difficult and dangerous for women to prove abuse in court and subjecting them to severe repercussions for coming forward. A U.S. court found in February of 2021 that “one of the most important rights of any individual within the court system is the right to due process, in particular, the right to be heard. Women do not automatically have this right in Saudi Arabia. A woman’s testimony is equal to half a man’s in Saudi courts.”[1]

 

“Disobedience” by a woman towards her male guardian (a father, husband, brother or even a son) remains a crime, effectively rendering any new freedoms null and void. Although a woman may now legally be entitled to apply for her own travel document and study abroad, her male guardian can still stop her from leaving the country by filing a case against her for disobedience or absconding.

 

Additionally, women are still not able to leave detention centers or state-run shelters without seeking and receiving the consent of their male guardian or sponsor in the country, even though they may be individuals who have previously abused them. This can lead to situations of prolonged administrative detention if a male guardian or sponsor refuses to sign a release form or “collect” a woman under his control. It also forces women to “reconcile” with their abusers and return to violent situations, another example of the failure of Saudi state institutions to adequately protect women and children facing abuse or to treat women as equal under the law. Foreign women married to Saudi men are still required to seek the permission of their husbands to exit the country under the kafala system, whereby foreign work visa holders are reliant on their employment sponsors for travel authorization. This has entrapped dozens of American women in Saudi Arabia against their will.

 

The Saudi authorities claim to be undertaking reforms in support of women’s rights, but that claim is negated by their treatment of the very women who have led the fight for women’s rights, and the ongoing suppression of the right of those women to speak freely without fear of repercussions. In 2018, a number of these women were rounded up, arrested, tortured, and portrayed in the state-controlled media as traitors and spies. Some have been temporarily released while still on trial or conditionally released after serving prison terms, but others, including Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi, remain in detention.

 

Loujain al-Hathloul spent 1,001 nights in prison solely for her peaceful activism. For the first few months of her detention, Ms. al-Hathloul had no access to her family and was held without charges. During her imprisonment, Loujain was repeatedly tortured by Saudi officials who kept her whereabouts unknown for more than a month while they whipped, beat, electrocuted, and sexually assaulted her and threatened rape and murder. Though Ms. al-Hathloul was conditionally released on February 10, 2021, her sentence imposed heavy conditions on her release, including three years of probation and a five-year travel ban. Similarly, Aziza al-Yousef was placed on travel ban by a Saudi court earlier this year and remains unable to reunite with her American husband and family members in Virginia.

 

Considering these stark examples of repression and human rights violations, we again implore you and your administration to apply pressure on Saudi authorities to immediately and unconditionally release from prison all women detained for their human rights activism. This includes dropping all charges against WHRDs, compensating them fairly, and allowing them to travel freely. We further ask that the U.S. government make sure the released WHRDs can freely engage in human rights advocacy, including speaking and writing, without fear of reprisal. As Saudi Arabia moves to codify its Personal Status Laws and the Law of Evidence, the U.S. must also strongly urge the Saudi government to abolish all that remains of the male guardianship and kafala systems.

We look forward to working with you and your administration to advance the recognition of women as equal to men under Saudi law such that the Saudi government holds perpetrators of violence against women accountable, protects every woman’s right to free expression, and abolishes all practices that discriminate against women. Thank you for your attention to these important human rights issues.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

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