From Saudi Arabia to Syria and Egypt, from Turkey to Iran to Nicaragua to China, repressive regimes have jailed women (and men) for daring to promote women’s rights — and broader civic rights. The White House embrace of many of these regimes — and its downplaying of human-rights violations — gives their oppressors a freer hand.
In some cases, notably with Saudi Arabia, Congress has stepped up pressure to free imprisoned women. But human-rights groups say it is essential to keep an international spotlight on their cases, which may make their oppressors more cautious.
Here are just a few horrific cases of women held in terrifying conditions around the world.
Egypt. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which promotes global press freedom, young photojournalist Shorouq Amjad al Sayed is one of 27 women journalists held around the world in appalling conditions. She was arrested last year and beaten unconscious until she made a forced confession that she belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Turkey. Well-known journalist Ayse Nazli Ilicak, 74, was sentenced to “aggravated” imprisonment for life for taking part in a TV broadcast critical of the government just before an aborted 2016 coup. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey leads the world in jailing female journalists, with 14 behind bars.
Iran. Journalist and human-rights defender Narges Mohammadi and Paineveste blog editor Hengameh Shahidi received 10 and 12 years in prison — supposedly for “conspiring against national security." And human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was just convicted of security-related crimes, after defending women arrested when they removed their Islamic head coverings.
Nicaragua. Lucía Pineda Ubau, news director of the Nicaraguan TV news channel 100% Noticias, is being held in the brutal El Chipote prison.
China. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that outspoken journalist Gulmire Imin, a member of the Uyghur Muslim minority, was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of separatism. Wang Jing, a reporter covering corruption and human rights for an independent website, was jailed for photographing protesters. Wang has a brain tumor and her condition is worsening in custody.
And then there is Saudi Arabia, where arrests of several women activists are especially troubling given the close White House relationship to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS). President Donald Trump has given the prince a pass on the infamous murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. And First Son-in-law Jared Kushner is especially close to MBS.
Yet, in 2018, the Saudi regime imprisoned several of the leading campaigners for women’s rights. There’s no sign Kushner (who just visited the prince), nor his wife, wannabe feminist Ivanka Trump, has protested the jailing of the women. They include Loujain al-Hathloul, an early leader in the driving campaign, who has reportedly been beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, and threatened with rape, according to her sister.
Also held are two Saudi women citizen-journalists and women’s rights activists, Eman al Nafjan and Nouf Abdulaziz Al Jerawi. According to RSF, they were among several female activists tortured, harassed sexually, made to undress, and photographed naked. And Aziza Al-Youssef, a legal U.S. permanent resident who had helped lead a campaign against so-called male guardianship rules that require Saudi women to seek approval from a close male relative to travel or work. She has reportedly been beaten and tortured with electricity.
“Their jailing is part and parcel of MBS’s method of governing, of his crackdown on civil society,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. Although the prince lifted a ban on women driving, the arrested women had led the driving campaign for years, and were also leading a challenge to the guardianship rules. They had access to international media and could critique the regime, as did Khashoggi. “They could make demands on government,” says Whitson, “but only MBS gets to have a voice.”
White House silence enables autocrats in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. “It is very clear,” says Whitson, “that when such regimes are embraced by Trump, it is an open announcement that human rights is not a U.S. priority and arms sales are. Whether it is MBS, or [another autocrat], all take cues from what the administration is actively promoting.”
But there is another lesson to be drawn from the Saudi case. The focus on the Saudi crown prince caused by the Khashoggi murder has also helped bring global attention to imprisoned female activists. A bipartisan group of U.S. legislators has introduced a resolution championing their cause. There are now rumors, not confirmed, that Hathloul may be pardoned.
When the White House backs off promoting human rights, it becomes more urgent for U.S. legislators to take up key cases, and for concerned citizens to support the human-rights organizations that offer these women some hope.
“We are basically one of the few lines of resistance,” says Watson. “Iranian activists tell us that international attention does make a difference and provides some protest against abuse. It is critically important to keep international pressure on."