Opinion: Saudi Women’s Rights Activists Awarded For Their Work — While On Trial

Posted by Melissa Block

Saudi activist and campaigner Aziza al-Yousef, pictured in 2016, is on trial this week in the capital Riyadh. She has been detained since last May.

Fayez Nureldine AFP/Getty Images

Saudi activist and campaigner Aziza al-Yousef, pictured in 2016, is on trial this week in the capital Riyadh. She has been detained since last May.

Three women were honored with a prestigious award this week, and it’s likely they have no idea.

They are activists for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. And they’ve been imprisoned for nearly a year, along with other women activists — some of whom have reportedly been severely tortured in detention.

The award is the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. It’s given to writers who’ve been imprisoned for their work.

Announcing this year’s recipients, the head of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, said, “These gutsy women have challenged one of the world’s most notoriously misogynist governments, inspiring the world with their demand to drive, to govern their own lives, and to liberate all Saudi women from a form of medieval bondage that has no place in the 21st century.”

Some of the women’s rights activists went on trial in Riyadh this week. But we have no idea what happened: No journalists or Western diplomats were allowed to observe. According to family members and human rights groups, the women have been denied access to lawyers.

What we do know is this: These Saudi women have spent decades fighting for basic human rights and for dignity.

They’ve done this in a kingdom where young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is asserting his power and cracking down on activism — a crackdown that led to the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi last October.

It’s hard to fathom the brave persistence that drives the Saudi women: Their unshakable faith that good will prevail, that laws will change, that their voices will be heard.

So let’s hear the words of Aziza al-Yousef, one of the women put on trial this week. She’s a retired professor of computer science, a grandmother and a leading Saudi activist.

“We need to be optimistic in the darkest times,” Yousef says. “No matter how much others try to put us down and tell us there is no hope … there should be optimism. There should be hope. Without hope,” she concludes, “there won’t be change.”

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