Professor, blogger, and activist, Saudi Arabia
Arrested: May 17, 2018
Current status: Released temporarily on March 29, 2019
Eman Al-Nafjan is a Saudi Arabian professor of linguistics, blogger, and activist who reports on and advocates for Saudi women’s rights. She is known for her bilingual blog “Saudi Woman,” where she writes on an array of topics including the Saudi ban on women driving, local elections, poverty, Palestinian rights, and the work of other activists. Al-Nafjan has also written for The Guardian, CNN, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and Amnesty. Thanks to her reporting, she was a key figure in the movement to end the decades-old women driving ban.
“What's it like being a Saudi woman? ... The restrictiveness of the guardianship system, gender segregation and a persistently sexist culture add up to create an exotic and mysterious lifestyle that is difficult to not only explain but also to comprehend.”
— Eman Al-Nafjan
When it was announced in 2017 that the driving ban would be lifted, the Saudi government asked Saudi women activists not to speak to the media. The ban officially ended on June 24, 2018, but not before the government cracked down on activists who continued to push for its repeal. On May 17, 2018, Al-Nafjan was arrested as she filmed a female driver breaking the ban—along with over a dozen advocates for women’s rights in the country. Nine of the activists, including Al-Nafjan, were charged with “undermining the kingdom's stability with financial assistance from abroad and for subverting national and religious traditions,” and are awaiting trial at the Specialized Criminal Court, which sees terrorism-related offenses. A spokesperson from the Saudi government said Al-Nafjan and the other arrested women sought to "destabilize the kingdom and breach its social structure and mar the national consistency." Each of the women could be sentenced for up to 20 years, and according to an AP report, Al-Nafjan and the other detainees have not been allowed access to lawyers. On March 13, 2019, Al-Nafjan appeared in court alongside several other women to be informed about the charges against them. They were not allowed access to lawyers, were not allowed to defend themselves, and were told that their charges were based on confessions they had already signed.
Al-Nafjan has been an organizer for Saudi women’s rights for over a decade. She was active in the influential 2013 “October 26th Women Driving Campaign” (#Oct26driving), which encouraged women to push for the right to drive. Although women in Saudi Arabia lack many basic human rights—guardians must make key decisions for them and give their consent for women to travel abroad, get married, or even leave prison—the inability to drive has a particularly detrimental impact, Al-Nafjan wrote in that year:
“Currently there is no public transportation system available. You cannot walk to the corner and catch a bus or take the subway except in Mecca. Thus for any woman to get from point A to point B, she doesn't only have to buy a car but convince a male relative or employ a man from South East Asia to drive that car. This day-to-day obstacle has proven to be a demoralizing deterrent for many women from pursuing an education, a career and even maintaining their own healthcare.”
“The government is trying to control the narrative and wipe out any further activism, so they remove the person who is most approachable, especially before June 24, in the most vicious way possible,” said Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi activist and academic at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, of Eman Al-Nafjan. Saudi women may have recently gained the right to drive, but the country’s continued mistreatment, arrests, and detention of activists make it clear that the country still sees access to much technology—and free expression online and elsewhere—as a domain for men only.
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights, PEN America, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders have all called for Al-Nafjan’s unconditional release. She was conditionally released in March of 2019, shortly after receiving the 2019 PEN America/Barbey Freedom to Write Award along with Nouf Abdulaziz, and Loujain Al-Hathloul, who had also been imprisoned for their role in defending women's rights in the country. As a result of her conditional release, Al-Najfan continues to face restrictions that affect her livelihood. We join the many international organizations demanding the charges be dropped against her. Increasing access to technology for Saudi women is an important step towards equality, but we demand freedom for the detained activists who worked online and offline to push for those rights over the last decade.