On a recent Sunday morning, Dana al-Reshoudi, a 50-year-old home-economics teacher from the oasis city of Buraydah, in Saudi Arabia, had her son drive her 200 miles to the capital, Riyadh. He pulled up to the Interior Ministry, an upside-down pyramid that looms like a futuristic fortress, dropped her off at an entrance, and sped away.
Reshoudi was at the gargantuan building that day, March 20, to press the case of her father, 74-year-old Suleiman al-Reshoudi, a well-known judge and democracy advocate who was arrested four years earlier but never tried in a proper court. She turned her cell phone over to a guard, submitted to a search, and walked through the gate to find a group of like-minded women—there to demand the release of husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, many of whom had been jailed without charges for years—and a cluster of nervous police.
Beside the group was a white bus. Police told the women that a ministry official was on another side of the building, waiting to talk. The bus would spare them a long walk in the heat. Reshoudi boarded with about 30 women, while a handful piled into vans. The bus made a U-turn and drove right out of the gate.
Heading south on King Fahd Road, with the ministry building shrinking behind her, Reshoudi suddenly realized she’d been lured into a trap. The bus, escorted by police cars, barreled through stoplights, and headed for Al-Hair maximum-security prison—a route they knew all too well after visiting relatives there. The women inside began to shout and cry.
Some distance away, at another gate to the ministry, hundreds of men had staged a similar demonstration. Police had no trouble dispersing them in the usual way, activists say, arresting many, in some cases forcefully, and scaring away the rest. But the women posed a problem for the cops, who were reluctant to be seen getting tough with them. Saudi women live in virtual confinement within their own country. They need approval from a male guardian to work, leave the country, or file a police report. They can be arrested for driving or sitting at a coffee shop with an unrelated man. Such laws, authorities say, protect what they consider the weaker sex in a kingdom that regards the Quran as its constitution. In the event of a women’s protest, however, the authorities can find themselves in an awkward spot. As Reshoudi says, the whole idea of the demonstration was to shame the Interior Ministry. “It’s not easy for women to get out and demand something,” she says. “So when they do get out, it must be a big deal.”
The Saudi regime has felt only faint rumblings of the dissent shaking its autocratic peers across the Middle East. Unlike in Egypt, where online calls for mass protests drew hundreds of thousands to the streets, similar calls in Saudi Arabia have brought only swarms of police. Yet even as would-be reformers continue on their usual course—submitting petitions to King Abdullah, then waiting patiently for a reply—small pockets of female protesters have appeared, facing the regime with an unexpected kind of resistance that can’t be easily crushed. Last month dozens across the country showed up to register for municipal elections, scheduled for the fall, to protest the fact that female voters and candidates won’t be allowed. In a separate protest, meanwhile, female teachers gathered to agitate for better jobs and pay. But female relatives of political prisoners have more grievances than most, and, as a result, some activists hope, may be poised to put real pressure on the regime.
Rights groups say up to 30,000 political prisoners are incarcerated in Saudi Arabia, almost all of them male. The true number, however, is impossible to discern—as is what constitutes a political prisoner in the first place. While thousands of dissenters in authoritarian Egypt were imprisoned under a far-reaching emergency law, the Saudi kingdom has no written penal code. “Whatever the prosecutor says, the judge says, or the king says, is a crime. And it could not be a crime tomorrow,” says Christoph Wilcke, a senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, adding that lately the Interior Ministry has become increasingly focused on thought crimes.
The Saudi administration denies that political prisoners even exist. “Allegations of political prisoners are not true,” the ministry’s spokesman, Gen. Mansour al-Turki, said in an emailed statement. “Every prisoner has the full right for a fair trial and can hire a lawyer to defend him … Some prisoners don’t want to reveal the full truth to their family members, and some family members can’t believe the truth?… Saudi Arabia doesn’t use the police and intelligence in stifling dissent.”
If a woman’s husband is jailed, even basic things—enrolling children in school, accessing the family’s savings—become a trial. The only jobs open to her, meanwhile, are in a few sexually segregated workplaces, such as schools and beauty salons, or in hospitals. (Low-skill jobs, from cashier to selling women’s underwear, tend to be held by immigrant men.) And every petty bureaucrat demands to know where her male guardian is. “I really hate going to finish normal, easy paperwork at the ministries, because that question will come up,” says Nadia al-Youbi, whose husband has been imprisoned for eight years. “It’s not worth the time.”
The political-prisoners issue, however, remains unpalatable for many Saudis. Even some of the country’s most outspoken liberals have flatly refused to embrace it, and the matter has received little attention as an international cause. “It’s been mind-boggling to me, to be honest,” Wilcke says. The wariness stems from the fact that the prisoners and their families aren’t sympathetic figures in the eyes of many ordinary Saudis because they are seen as religious extremists. The women protesting with Dana al-Reshoudi that day took modesty to another level, beyond the traditional veil and all-covering black abaya. Many had screens covering their eyes and wore gloves, unwilling to reveal even the skin on their hands.
The bulk of Saudi Arabia’s political prisoners are men who were swept up in a massive antiterrorism drive after the 9/11 attacks—in which 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia—and an ensuing spate of internal violence that shakes Saudis to this day. While detainees include democracy activists like Suleiman al-Reshoudi, other cases are open to debate. Tahani al-Tuwaijri, for example, also protested on March 20. Asked why her husband was imprisoned, she said he’d never been charged, then mentioned vaguely that he visited Afghanistan at some time in the past and spread news on the Web about “armed struggles happening somewhere else.” Last month the news site GlobalPost reported that the Interior Ministry had released its first full accounting of terrorism-related arrests since the crackdown kicked into gear in 2003. More than 11,500 people had been arrested for terrorist-related activities during that span, the ministry said. Of those, 5,696 remained incarcerated—and nearly 3,500 had yet to be brought to trial. “This one is very complicated,” says Khuloud Saleh, a women’s rights cyberactivist who calls the ultrareligious families of many prisoners the last people she’d consider allies. “This is not a women’s movement. [Extremists] are using the women, and believe me, they are very smart. I cannot trust them.”
But a woman like Reshoudi can’t be too picky about her partners in protest. The regime’s strict intolerance of dissent makes any kind of public demonstration a rarity. And the type of liberal, tech-savvy activists who helped propel regime change in Egypt and Tunisia may have little traction in what remains an insulated and staunchly conservative society. In an effort to bring the Arab Spring to their country, for example, organizers went on Facebook to schedule Friday, March 11, as a “day of rage,” setting off a wave of anticipatory buzz in Riyadh and Jidda along with unrest in the always restive Shiite towns of Eastern province.
The day itself turned out to be a flop. As Saudi troops and riot cops stood ready for a showdown in the streets, only a token group of demonstrators showed up. The feared interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, boasted that Saudi Arabia was immune to what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt. “Some evildoers wanted to turn the kingdom into a place of chaos and demonstrations, void of divine goals,” he told the Saudi Press Agency, “but they have proven they do not know the people of the kingdom.” The day after he spoke, more than 200 men marched on the ministry to demand the release of imprisoned relatives.
According to Robert Lacey, a historian who has written two comprehensive books on the kingdom, Saudi liberals are unlikely to create real momentum for dissent. “We in the West hear the voices of the liberals and those who are speaking our language,” he says. “By my reading, there’s a much more significant potential opposition movement, which is religious fundamentalists.” As Toby Jones, a Saudi expert at Rutgers University, puts it: “There’s a history of Islamists taking to the streets in Saudi Arabia where liberals never do.”
Mohammad al-Qahtani—the U.S.–educated head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, the country’s best claim to a human-rights group—points out that everyone should have the right to a fair trial, including terrorism suspects. But he also sees promise in the efforts of the families of political prisoners. Qahtani dismissed the calls for the day of rage as they gathered steam, saying Saudis aren’t ready for big, sudden change. In a land divided between rich and poor, Sunni and Shia, men and women, Qahtani says the public lacks the common ground it would need for wholesale political reinvention. The only serious way to seek change is by slow and concentrated steps: “Being an activist in Saudi Arabia is like wandering through land mines that can blow up at any second.”
Qahtani says families of political prisoners, having direct ties to their cause, could be driven to put the kind of pressure on the regime that liberals can’t—which will only intensify if women play a prominent role. “We have really a small number of genuine liberals, if you will,” he says. “But I think those who are suffering the most are the most likely to take to the street.”
Qahtani has a long record of fighting for the rights of Suleiman al-Reshoudi and other political prisoners. Earlier this year, he says, as autocracies toppled, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt, he began getting calls from political prisoners’ relatives, mostly women. He could sense that the callers were ready to mobilize—and in February, a group of about 50 women staged a protest in front of the Interior Ministry. The small group spent the night in jail, Qahtani says, but they got serious news coverage in the process.
It remains unclear who, if anyone, is organizing the protests, and whether women are truly taking charge. ACPRA’s cofounder, Qahtani’s good friend Mohammed Salih Al-Bjady, was sent to jail for three months in 2007 for supposedly masterminding a similar women’s movement in Al-Qassim province, the heart of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi fundamentalist movement. Now he’s locked up again, having been arrested after the March 13 men’s demonstration. Is someone coaching the women? Qahtani says he has no idea: “Do they have leadership? I think they do. Someone is texting them, trying to push them, trying to keep them in the loop.” Whether or not Dana al-Reshoudi and her allies are on their own, they could pose a challenge to the Saudi status quo, especially if the country’s secular activists and religious conservatives can find a way to coalesce around a common cause.
When the bus pulled up to Al-Hair prison, the shellshocked women initially refused to go inside. Threatened by police, some wielding electric batons, Reshoudi at last allowed herself to be thrust into a prison cell. Behind the door, she heard women’s screams and the zap of the prods. She and the other women were detained and interrogated overnight, then released when their male guardians arrived to sign for them. Reshoudi was horrified by the experience. Before she left, however, she and the other women exchanged phone numbers and vowed to continue the fight. The texts she’s received lately say another demonstration is being planned for this week.
A note on this story
This account of the March 20 arrests is based on interviews with Dana al-Reshoudi; her sisters Badria al-Reshoudi and Bahia al-Reshoudi; Tahani al-Tuwaijri; and Mona al-Rashid. All say they were taken into detention that day. The Saudi government disputes their account. When NEWSWEEK contacted the Saudi Interior Ministry’s spokesman, Gen. Mansour al-Turki, about the arrests, he replied by email: “On March 20, a number of women met the ministry officials and left … but [some] women, who refused to meet the officials, insisted on staying outside the ministry until they received an official promise for the immediate release of their [loved ones].” These women, Turki wrote, “were taken into police custody, but not forcibly or violently, [and were not threatened] with electric batons. They were released within hours, and only some of them had to stay overnight, for travel arrangements.”