Women » Features

Prominent Saudi Feminists Face Prison For Helping Abused Woman

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Wednesday Jul 3, 2013

Two Saudi women's rights activists, Wajeha Al-Huwaider and Fawzia Al-Oyouni, have been sentenced to 10 months in prison plus a two-year travel ban thereafter, for helping a Canadian woman "to defy" her allegedly abusive Saudi husband. Activists have directly petitioned the King, urging his intervention.

"What we are hoping is the King (Abdullah), he's the only one who can get us off of this horrible situation," Al-Huwaider told the press during a phone interview from her home in Saudi Arabia. Al-Huwaider was first banned in 2003 from publishing her writing, and in 2006, was arrested for organizing a women's right protest. In 2008, she posted online a video of herself driving a car -- an act that is illegal in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni were convicted on June 15 in the Al-Khobar District Court of the Islamic Sharia law offense Takhbib (inciting a wife to defy the authority of her husband). The two women were charged with aiding a Canadian mother of three, who allegedly is being abused by her husband, a Saudi national who allegedly locked her in their house and denied her adequate food and water.

On June 7, 2011, Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni Al-Huwaider went to the home of the Canadian woman after receiving a request for help. When they arrived with food, a police car pulled up, Al-Huwaider said. "It was a trap and they meant to catch us at that time in order to make a case against us," Al-Huwaider said.

"It was clear to us from the very beginning when we were summoned to the investigation by the prosecutor in Dammam that the issue was malicious and that those who filed this case against us are from concerned authorities that aim to harm and harass us to stop our humanitarian activities, because since the night of the incident two years ago, the case has been revoked by an order issued by the Amir of the Eastern region and the file was closed," they said.

Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni were subsequently released after signing an agreement to end their involvement with the woman. But, more than a year later, they were told that their case would go to court. Al-Huwaider told Human Rights Watch that during her trial, which began in late 2012, the presiding judge denied her and Al-Oyouni the right to adequately defend themselves by refusing to allow Morin to testify. The judge also declined to allow a Canadian Embassy official to attend the second trial session, in December, according to Human Rights Watch.

The pair was convicted of the incitement charge, although they were acquitted of trying to help the woman escape. Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni had thirty days to appeal, and are hiring a lawyer to appeal the case.

Their case has attracted international attention. Equality Now has launched a petition appealing to the Saudi government to overturn the prison sentences and travel ban.

"That Saudi authorities have punished those seeking to protect human rights, but appear to have done nothing to investigate the violence allegedly perpetrated by the husband is deeply disturbing and a breach of international law," the petition notes.

The women described their "horrible situation" in an exclusive June 22 interview on "Women's Media Center Live with Robin Morgan." Al-Huwaider said she was being punished for her beliefs and past actions.

Al-Huwaider believes she and Al-Oyouni are being targeted because of their longtime work on behalf of women’s rights, in particular toward ending the "guardianship laws" that make Saudi women permanent minors, unable to travel, sign legal documents, go to school, get a job or loan or bank account, or see a doctor without written permission from a male relative -- even from a young son if no adult male is available.

The women said that the encounter was a trap orchestrated by Morin’s husband and local police. Wajeha said that the old ruler, Prince Hamed bin Fahd, dismissed the case, recognizing this fact.

"The minute we arrived a police car arrived at the same time. That means it was proven to us, and I’m sure the judge knew that, it was a trap and they meant to catch us at that time in order to make a case against us," said Al-Huwaider.

But in July 2012, the police again called them in for questioning, and the government launched a case against them. The women do not know if the new ruler will intervene. They have pointed out that the Canadian woman, Nathalie Morin, has said in her blog and on YouTube that, "These two women, they came to help me, not to encourage me to go against my husband."

"I cannot help myself and I have no rights in Saudi Arabia. My children are hungry and I cannot do anything to feed them. I’m fighting to get freedom, justice and fairness for my family including myself," Morin wrote on her blog. Under Sharia law, she will lose her children if she leaves her husband.

Still, Al-Huwaider said she was shocked that the Canadian embassy wasn’t doing anything to intervene, saying "They are not helping her. They are not supporting her."

The organization Muslims for Progressive Values is calling on supporters to contact Thomas MacDonald, the Canadian ambassador in Riyadh, to implore him to get Morin’s statement in a formal legal document.

Women Hope King Abdullah Intervenes

The woman are also hoping the new king will help them. Since coming to power in 2005, King Abdullah has pursued a cautious program of women’s rights reforms, easing the restrictions on women in the workforce and recently appointing 30 women to Saudi Arabia’s highest consultative body, the Shura Council. In 2012, Saudi authorities allowed two Saudi women to participate in the Olympics for the first time.

Muslim women, the king said in a 2011 speech, have given "opinions and advice since the era of Prophet Muhammad" and "we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Sharia," or Islamic law, the octogenarian ruler added.

Although the government has lifted the ban on females riding bicycles and buggies, albeit in the company of a male guardian, these are baby steps in the fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

In May, the first public-awareness campaign on domestic violence was released in Saudi Arabia, urging victims to stand up and seek help. The campaign, released by the Riyadh-based King Khalid Foundation, depicts a woman with a visible black eye despite being cloaked in a burqa. The caption reads, in Arabic, "What’s Hidden Is Greater" and, in English, "Some Things Can’t Be Covered."

Despite this groundbreaking campaign, there remains no legislation to legally help female victims of domestic violence, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle, who said, "There is no penal code that protects women and girls from domestic violence, marital rape is not considered a crime in Saudi Arabia, and there is no legal protection that any women can cling to in the face of abuse."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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