W20 women: Loujain al-Hathloul should be free

May 15, 2020 marks two years since the arrest of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. She and other Saudi Women Human Rights Defenders have been subjected to human rights violations and multiple forms of torture, including electric shocks, flogging, waterboarding, and sexual assault. They have been deliberately denied due process. Now more than ever, during the COVID-19 pandemic, those who are arbitrarily detained and at increased risk, including Loujain, must be released. 

Saudi Arabia is slated to host — either in person or virtually — this November’s G20 summit of the world's wealthiest nations. Included within the gathering will be the Women 20 (W20) subgroup to advise the G20 on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.

Thanks to the hard work of our partner at Freedom Forward organizing a coalition letter, prominent W20 delegate Lyric Thompson of the International Center for Research on Women has dropped out. 

Contact the rest of the W20 women and ask them — for the sake of Loujain and all Saudi women — to do the same.

Dear W20 Delegates,

I join with the nearly 30 organizations below in expressing how deeply troubled I am by the silence of the W20 “Women 20” regarding Saudi Arabia’s ongoing violations of women’s human rights. I ask you to join prominent W20 delegate Lyric Thompson of the International Center for Research on Women in the U.S. in refusing to participate in the W20/G20 this year. Lyric Thompson stated: “We have decided not to participate in this year’s meetings in Saudi Arabia, and stand in solidarity with women’s rights activists in the country and around the world who are linking arms in the name of equality and justice for all."

Saudi Arabia is the host and “president” of this year’s G20 summit, for which the W20 is an official advisory body. Through its silence, the W20 risks being co-opted by Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman as he uses the G20 platform to hide his government’s repressive and brutal record.

We urge you as W20 delegates to end your silence and to publicly demand that Saudi Arabia’s authorities cease their violations of women’s human rights. We also call on you to boycott the Saudi G20 and related W20 proceedings until Saudi Arabia acts to fully address its brutal record of human rights violations. These violations include repression and imprisonment of women’s rights activists, systemic discrimination against women, exploitation of women migrant workers, and war crimes that have impacted the lives of women and their communities in the neighboring country of Yemen.

It is worth noting that several hundred civil society organizations have already declared that they will not participate in the G20’s parallel advisory body of civil society groups – the C20. In a statement led by Amnesty International, Transparency International, and Civicus, these organizations recently declared that “the Saudi government has been trying to whitewash its dire human rights record by holding major international events in the country” and that Saudi Arabia is “a state that provides virtually no space for civil society, and where independent civil society voices are not tolerated.”

As described on the G20 website, the W20’s “primary objective is to ensure that the gender considerations are mainstreamed into G20 discussions” and that G20 leaders should embrace “policies and commitments that foster gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.” As a consultative body to the G20, the W20 and each W20 delegate have a responsibility to explicitly take a stand in support of women’s human rights in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen, where the Saudi-led military coalition has committed war crimes and caused extraordinary suffering for many women and their communities. Inside Saudi Arabia, women are not free to criticize the Saudi government without putting themselves at risk of imprisonment and torture.

We urge you as W20 delegates to take the following immediate public steps to stand up for women’s human rights and gender equality in Saudi Arabia:

  • Release women’s rights activists: Demand the release of imprisoned Saudi women’s rights activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, Naseema al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya al-Zahrani. Women’s human rights activism is not a crime.
  • Stop the persecution of activists: Demand an end to all Saudi persecution of women’s human rights activists, including those facing charges but not currently imprisoned. Saudi Arabia’s prosecutor must drop all charges against Iman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Hatoon al-Fassi, Amal al-Harbi, Shadan al-Onezi, Abeer Namankany, Ruqayyaa al-Mhareb and other Saudi women activists whose names are not public.
  • Women’s human rights reforms: Demand comprehensive women’s human rights reforms. This includes an end to systemic discrimination against women, including with respect to divorce, child custody, and inheritance; the end of state-enforced segregation of women, which renders Saudi women as second-class citizens; and the abolition of all that remains of the male guardianship system.
  • Migrant labor reform: Demand reforms to the Kafala labor sponsorship system, which traps migrant workers, including domestic workers who are primarily women, with abusive employers and also traps foreign women inside the country if they are married to Saudi men who will not allow them to leave. Saudi Arabia must implement reforms that recognize the right of all foreign workers in Saudi Arabia to freely leave their employers and leave the country.

In addition, we urge you to demand that Saudi Arabia end its bombardment and blockades of Yemen, which have had horrifying consequences for Yemeni communities and specific negative impacts on Yemeni women:

The Saudi-led war on Yemen has caused widespread economic collapse and food insecurity, and reports indicate that 85,000 children have died of starvation, and that two million children under five and 1.1 million pregnant women and new mothers are now acutely malnourished. Airstrikes and the Saudi-enforced blockade have devastated the country’s healthcare system, and approximately six million women of childbearing age now lack access to basic reproductive health care. The devastation of the country’s education system as exacerbated by the war has contributed to a reversal in decades of progress in gender equality, with 36% of Yemen’s girls now unable to attend school. Saudi Arabia’s government must immediately end its war on Yemen and provide funds for humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

Specifically with regards to women’s human rights inside Saudi Arabia, we urge you to publicly endorse the following specific women’s rights reforms. These reforms will achieve greater levels of freedom and equality for women in Saudi Arabia, which are necessary prerequisites for full economic empowerment:

  • End systemic discrimination against Saudi women: This includes the end of state-enforced segregation of women, which renders them as second-class citizens in schools, government ministries, and the workplace; and the abolition of all that remains of the male guardianship system, including the requirement that adult Saudi women secure the permission of a male guardian before being able to marry the person of their choice. The Saudi state must also establish codified personal status laws that treat women as equal to men under Saudi law, including with respect to inheritance, divorce, and child custody, allow women to be judges who preside over courts, abolish laws requiring women to obey their husbands, and allow women to exit prison without a male guardian’s signature.
  • Protect women against abuse and violence: Allow video evidence to be submitted in lieu of requiring male witnesses in domestic abuse cases, implement a restraining order system to protect women from the recurrence of violence, and provide substantive punishments for offenders following convictions secured in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty.
  • Protect mothers’ custodial rights: Allow Saudi women to automatically pass on citizenship to their children. Enforce strict laws in personal status courts that forbid references to full-time work, working in mixed-gender environments, a woman’s clothing choice, or a woman’s nationality as justification for removal of mother’s custodial rights.

It is worth noting that the Saudi government’s pressing need for international acceptance and the diversification of their oil-dependent economy has led to several limited reforms to the male guardianship system. However, none of these reforms have addressed the core issue: women are still treated as subordinate to men under the law, in education, in the household, in governance, and in the workforce.

When governments routinely violate the rights of their citizens and silence peaceful critics, it is the responsibility of the global community to help advance a solution. W20 delegates are uniquely positioned to be an ally to women in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who deserve to live with dignity and respect.

We urge you to demand justice for women in Saudi Arabia and in countries impacted by the Saudi government, and to refuse to become complicit in a G20 process that risks amounting to little more than a propaganda campaign for the Saudi government. W20 delegates should boycott Saudi Arabia’s G20 and W20 convenings until the Saudi authorities fully address each of these significant human rights concerns.


The following organizations and myself:

  • Avaaz
  • Action Corps
  • ALQST for Human Rights (U.K.)
  • Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain
  • Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia
  • Center for International Policy
  • Clearinghouse on Women’s Issues
  • Demand Progress Education Fund
  • Dental Outreach (Sudan)
  • Environmentalists Against War
  • Feminist Majority Foundation
  • Freedom Forward
  • The Freedom Initiative
  • Just Foreign Policy
  • Last Mile4D
  • Libyan American Alliance
  • MENA Rights Group
  • Mission Mukti Foundation (India)
  • Not 4 Trade
  • NYU for Yemen
  • Peace Action
  • Peace Action New York State
  • RootsAction.org
  • Saudi American Justice Project
  • Western New York Peace Center
  • World BEYOND War
  • Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation
  • Youth Against Slavery Movement

(Signer list updated 4/25/2020)

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