The sister of a jailed Saudi activist has criticised a G20-linked women’s summit hosted by Riyadh this week as a disturbing attempt to whitewash the country’s dismal record on women’s rights.
Loujain al-Hathloul has been in prison for more than two years without trial after campaigning for an end to Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving and its system of male guardianship, which effectively relegates women to the status of second-class citizens, requiring permission from male relatives for many life decisions.
The coordinator of the W20 summit which opened on Wednesday invited participants to “imagine a world where women’s equality is a reality”, yet Hathloul and other activists were deprived of their freedom because they fought for that dream inside Saudi Arabia, her sister, Lina, told the Guardian.
“[Summit attendees] legitimise a regime that silences all voices on human rights, including women’s voices,” Lina al-Hathloul said. “Women activists are behind bars, and the official charges they face are for their activism.”
“If women don’t speak out about what is happening in Saudi Arabia, then the situation won’t change.”
Saudi Arabia is hosting the summit of G20 leaders in November, and the women’s summit – which hosted speakers from international organisations including the United Nations and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – is part of a string of linked events.
But the high-profile international gatherings have proved a lightning rod for controversy about the country’s record on human rights.
The mayors of major cities, including London, New York, Los Angeles and Paris, boycotted another major G20 linked event – the Urban 20 summit – last month, in protest at the plight of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely considered the country’s de facto ruler, has presented himself as a reforming moderniser.
In recent years he has dismantled restrictions on daily life, allowing women to drive, curtailing the powers of the religious police who patrolled women’s clothing and mixing of the sexes, and allowing cinemas to open after a decades-long ban.
Yet critics say reforms represent largely superficial changes to life in a country that is one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies, where total obedience to the royal family is still demanded.
In recent years Saudi authorities have sought to silence critics at home and around the world. Most notoriously, exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by government officials in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Hathloul was detained and released several times for her campaigns, before she was caught up in a wider crackdown against women’s rights activists in May 2018, just before the ban on female drivers was lifted.
“The only thing that has changed [in recent years] is Saudi Arabia’s image in the west,” said Lina al-Hathloul. “There is no place for reform at all. All the reformers are behind bars and my sister is one of them. What Saudi Arabia wants is to whitewash all the rights violations.”
The summit and its tagline – “If not now, when” – was attacked as an exercise in hypocrisy by other human rights campaigners.
Grant Liberty, a new human rights group specialising in civil liberties in Saudi Arabia, described the W20 as “ludicrous and offensive”, and warned that it risked turning the G20 into a “PR tool for Mohammed Bin Salman’s brutal regime,” and called for a boycott.
Human Rights Watch also called on women attending the W20 summit to speak up for the jailed campaigners, saying that while female activists were in jail, “talk of reform rings hollow”.
“The Saudi government’s use of women’s rights to divert attention from other serious abuses is well documented. Recent changes, including the right to drive and to travel without male guardian permission, might be significant, but do not hide the fact that some of the women who campaigned for these changes still languish behind bars,” the group said in a statement.
Hathloul was charged with destabilising national security and working with foreign entities against the state, but nearly two-and-a-half years after her detention she is still awaiting trial.
Her family say she has been tortured in prison, facing electric shocks, whipping, prolonged periods in solitary confinement and sexual harassment.
Earlier this year she went on a hunger strike to campaign against a ban on family visits and phone calls. Her parents were allowed to visit at the end of August, after she agreed to eat and found her thin but resolute, Lina said.
“It’s crazy how strong and resilient she is. After two-and-a-half years she doesn’t give up anything, she wants real justice. She still has strength to tell my parents everything, even though she knows could face backlash [from authorities] over that.”
Since then, however, the family have not been able to contact Loujain, and Lina said she wasn’t sure if her sister was aware of the W20 summit.
“I’m not sure how connected she is to the world, so I can’t comment on what she knows,” she said, adding that the long silence is very worrying for the family. “It’s always very stressful for us when she doesn’t call, because our only experience [of communications being cut] is when she is being tortured or on hunger strike.”