Saudi Arabia: Women’s rights activist freed after 104 days of detention without her male guardian

Release of Mariam al-Otaibi, arrested for disobedience after campaigning for end to conservative kingdom’s wali system, hailed as ‘feminist victory’ 

Monday 31 July 2017 15:33
Just before her arrest, Ms Otaibi tweeted that she didn’t want to 'go back to the hell' of her family
Just before her arrest, Ms Otaibi tweeted that she didn’t want to 'go back to the hell' of her family

A prominent Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist has reportedly been freed from prison after spending 104 days in detention without trial, without the presence or permission of her male guardian.

Mariam al-Otaibi was arrested in April after her family grew angry at her for protesting the conservative kingdom’s laws, which mean many aspects of women’s lives are controlled by their male relatives.

Activists in the country and around the world celebrated Ms Otaibi’s release on Sunday, which was all the more remarkable because her father was reportedly not involved in giving permission for her to leave detention.

While Ms Otaibi did not immediately return The Independent’s calls, a new post from her Twitter account thanked lawyers and supporters for standing with her during her incarceration.

“Don’t let others tell you you can’t achieve – you can achieve whatever you want if you put your mind to it and believe you can,” she said.

Women in Saudi Arabia face some of the greatest discrimination in the world: travel, study, work and marriage must all be undertaken with the permission of a male relative. They also have far fewer legal rights and are punished for crimes differently to men in accordance with Saudi Arabia’s strict laws, based on interpretations of Quaranic Sharia.

Ms Otaibi – who has a large following on social media – was at the forefront of this year’s “#IAmMyOwnGuardian” campaign, calling on King Salman and the government to grant women greater autonomy.

According to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Ms Otaibi’s brothers disapproved of her activism and she contacted police in their desert hometown of ar-Rass accusing them of domestic violence. In return, her father had her arrested on charges of disobedience – which led to her incarceration. She was later forced to drop the charges against her brothers to secure her own release.

Just before her arrest, Ms Otaibi tweeted that she didn’t want to “go back to the hell” of her family.

Women who break the law or flee abuse in Saudi Arabia are often taken to so-called rehabilitation centres, where activists and rights groups report they face poor treatment and uncertain detention times at the hands of the authorities.

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“This seems to be the first time a #Saudi woman is without a guardian,” Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy tweeted, calling Ms Otaibi’s release a “feminist victory”.

While in recent years Saudi Arabia women have been granted more freedoms – such as gaining the right to vote in 2011 – there remains much work to be done.

King Salman, who acceded to the throne in 2014, promised in April several concessions to the wali system, which are due to be implemented later this year, such as the right to access government services without a male guardian’s consent.

The wording of the decree is vague and it is unclear what the proposed reforms will look like, rights group Equality Now said.

“There exists (in Saudi Arabia) a complex set of bylaws, with many restrictions not clearly codified. This leaves much open to interpretation by those in authority, such as the police and judges, with some adopting a more modern approach while others favour a fundamentalist application,” a statement said.

“There are no organisations operating inside Saudi Arabia to track the situation, so the only way we’ll know what is happening on the ground is if women report that they are still being asked to provide male consent.”

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