What Are We Actually Doing About Women Political Prisoners?

World leaders are weighing up human rights violations against economic deals, while we urgently need to free Nasrin Sotoudeh and Loujain al-Hathloul.

What Are We Actually Doing About Women Political Prisoners?

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We all know this: women have long stood and fought for the rights and freedom of others. Perhaps because they didn’t have the choice, too. And this is exactly how many countries have established women’s rights to vote, their rights in healthcare, and their right to work. Women’s political activism is something most of us probably take for granted today, especially in the West. But there are women who are still standing up and fighting for their rights in many parts of the world, and just because we don’t hear about it doesn’t make it any less true. These women are held captives for speaking out publicly on issues around human rights, or against their repressive governments, and a new generation of women activists are also at risk of becoming political enemies and prisoners of their state.

study published by the Independent in 2019, days before Saudi Arabia hosted the G20, stated that 309 political prisoners had suffered human rights abuses since Mohammed bin Salman became Crown Prince in 2017. Among them, women activists and political prisoners who are regularly sexually assaulted, tortured, and executed in Saudi Arabia’s jails without much public knowledge. In Iran alone, at least 50 high-profile female prisoners of ‘conscience’ and political prisoners (including human rights lawyers, artists, and even environmentalists), some with dual nationality, are facing the country’s harshest prison sentences in its entire history, and feature on an International open letter calling for their immediate release. 

Yet even the most avid news readers may not be aware of what is currently happening to large swathes of women across the world. These types of stories don’t always make national or international headlines, and since the media tends to be one of the main sources of our information and knowledge, it may be tricky to find up-to-date information about them. Information spreading on social media is sometimes flawed, and it can be hard to back up some of the claims they make. Yet, women are arrested and imprisoned on a regular basis simply for speaking out, and there are some well-documented cases that still haven't resulted in their liberation, even years later.

One example is the case of Nasrin Sotoudeh. In March 2019, Iranian human rights lawyer Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years in prison, and 148 lashes on charges of spying and the spreading of propaganda. Her actual crime? Representing opposition activists, including minors, women who have been prosecuted for not wearing the mandatory headscarf, and religious minorities. This isn’t the first time that Sotoudeh has been jailed for defending the rights of others. Back in 2010, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison based on similar charges. She was also handed a 20-year ban on practicing law. In September 2011 however, this 11-year sentence was reduced to six, and her ban from practicing law reduced to ten years. Speaking to the Guardian in 2011, Shadi Sadr, another Iranian human rights lawyer, described the reduction in Sotoudeh’s sentence as evidence that "Iran cares about the international attention". Sotoudeh was released after testing positive for COVID-19 in November 2020, then returned to prison the following month. She was recently granted a 3-day medical release, but her family is still waiting for her freedom. So what now? The public has long asked for her liberation, artists are dedicating work to her, but isn’t it the world leaders’ responsibility to free human rights activists, especially the leaders of the ‘Free World’?

Loujain al-Hathloul is another key example of women becoming political prisoners simply for defending the rights of others. Al-Hathloul is a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia and successfully campaigned for women to have the right to drive in the country. In May 2018, she was arrested on charges that related to ‘harming national security’, and has been imprisoned in pre-trial detention since her arrest. What these charges actually relate to is her public campaigning against the violations of human rights in Saudi Arabia. On 29 November 2020, several European envoys condemned her detention and demanded al-Hathloul’s release, but what has actually been happening since? How effective was that condemnation, and how much of a warning or threat was it, when the relationship between the two countries remains unchanged?

In December 2020, al-Hathloul was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison, with al-Hathloul’s family stating that they’ll both be appealing the conviction and requesting an investigation into the torture she has been subjected to in prison, and a hunger strike in October 2020. 

These are just two examples, but there are large numbers of women across the world who are imprisoned for fighting and campaigning for human rights. What are world leaders and governments doing? And most importantly, where is the transparency?

Sure, there have been some sustained international condemnation of Iran’s treatment of Nasrin Sotoudeh, with the United Nations, European Parliament, and now US President Joe Biden all calling for her unconditional release from prison. The case has also gained momentum and international media coverage over the years. But why does this look like they are just doing the bare minimum, and why has she not been released?

Many cases of women political captives, such as al-Hathloul’s, have been met with relative silence on both the world stage and in the media. This silence is loud and comes from countries not wanting to impact their international relations or trade deals with the country in question. In the case of al-Hathloul, the UK government is likely to be reluctant to condemn her imprisonment, and the captivity of others, due to the perceived risks to their trade deals with Saudi Arabia. This speaks to the larger question of nations weighing up human rights violations against economic deals, as if it’s a simple pros and cons situation. It’s sad to even have to say this, but political prisoners and human rights violations shouldn’t even be debated, let alone put to one side to protect international deals. But we can pressure our Western leaders, and we can pressure embassies. Starting with petitions and exercising our right for free press.

So, who is fighting for these women? Many NGOs and charities have been supporting women, like Sotoudeh and al-Hathloul, for years. Organisations such as Amnesty International have been on the frontline, working on applying huge amounts of public pressure to ensure the release of imprisoned activists and campaigners. But the people who work tirelessly day and night are the friends and families of the imprisoned women. Loved ones of women captives are constantly organising legal and civil action, sharing any updates with the press or on social media, and raising awareness around these stories. All to make sure that the world doesn’t forget about them. And this raising awareness is something all of us can bolster and support, at every level. Whether this is taking place on social media, or requires writing an email to your local MP, or simply signing petitions - all of these actions play a role in ensuring that the voices and stories of imprisoned women are constantly heard, and to let them know they are not alone. We can’t just wait for others to do it, and we clearly cannot solely rely on our governments.