SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: May 15, 2018

Attack Types: Imprisonment

Institution(s):Saudi Higher Education Institutions

Region & Country:Western Asia | Saudi Arabia

New or Ongoing:New Incident

Beginning on May 15, 2018, Saudi authorities have reportedly arrested seven prominent women’s rights activists, including Dr. Eman Al Nafjan, an assistant professor of linguistics, and Aziza Al-Yousef, a former lecturer in Computer Science at King Saud University.

The activists have long publicly advocated the end to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system which, among other things, requires women to obtain permission from a father, brother, son or her closest male relative to attend a university, and in some instances restricts women’s movement off campuses and their ability to study abroad. In September 2017, after the kingdom announced its decision to lift its restriction on women’s driving, authorities reportedly contact women’s rights activists, including some of those who have been arrested since May 15, and warned them that they should not speak to media.  As of this report, Saudi authorities have not publicly shared a reason for the arrests.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest and detention of scholars and activists in apparent retaliation for their peaceful exercise of the right of freedom of expression, relating to, among other matters, equitable access and treatment in the university space. Such conduct is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. State authorities have a responsibility to protect the rights of freedom of expression and due process. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom, and democratic society generally.

Update: On May 22, 2018, Saudi authorities reportedly had arrested an additional three activists.  On the same day, the government announced that the charges against the activists related to suspicious contacts with foreign entities, and financially supporting “enemies overseas.”