Women in Congress are Calling on the Trump Administration to Fight for Imprisoned Saudi Arabian Feminists

Over the last few months, the Saudi Arabian government has imprisoned about 15 prominent feminist activists, most of whom led the fight to end the country’s driving ban. On Wednesday, Reps. Lois Frankel, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairperson of the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, released a formal letter urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to fight for their release. 

“These brave champions should not be targeted and punished for advocating for their rights and empowering women and girls,” Frankel and Ros-Lehtinen wrote in the letter. “The growing arrests are deeply concerning. I urge the State Department to press Saudi Arabian authorities to end this crackdown and immediately release the imprisoned human rights defenders.”

In 2011, protestors gathered in front of the Saudi Embassy in Beirut in solidarity with women violating Saudi Arabia’s driving ban. (Joelle Hatem / Creative Commons)

The two Representatives highlighted notable scholar and professor from King Saud University Hatoon al-Fassi in their letter, who was one of the first women to acquire a driver’s license in the kingdom. Women like her have been detained for over two months without any charges and with limited family and legal contact.

Earlier this summer, Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers was finally lifted after years of feminist organizing—much of which resulted in the imprisonment of local feminist leaders. Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, among others, were even called enemies of the state. As the kingdom prepared to lift the ban and women prepared to hit the road, arrests once again accelerated—all while Saudi officials attempted to take credit for the progress hard-won by women living in a landscape of extreme state-sanctioned misogyny. 

Canada recently criticized the Saudi government’s practice of imprisoning feminist human rights defenders; officials responded with a violent threat, but no word on whether they would release the activists. 

“Promoting human rights and democracy has long been a bedrock of U.S. foreign policy, including advancing the rights and empowerment of women and girls,” Frankel and Ros-Lehtinen wrote. “As such, we urge you to press Saudi Arabia to release these activists, strongly affirm the United States’ commitment to gender equality and emphasize the need for Saudi Arabia to cease its ongoing repression of human rights defenders.”

It’s not just lawmakers; advocates are rising up too. Just today, the Saudi government announced that it would execute activist Israa al-Ghomgham, a prominent feminist voice who came under fire for dissenting. Based on common Saudi practice, the most likely method of execution for Israa will be beheading.

Code Pink and other NGO’s have banded together to demand that Secretary Mike Pompeo pressure the Saudi government to stop the execution process. According to Code Pink, “unless the international community speaks out against this horror, Issra could receive a death sentence for dissenting against the repressive Saudi regime. Four other human rights activists face the same fate.” For more information about their action, check out Code Pink’s website.


Rosalind Jones is a writer and global feminist thinker with a focus on international women's liberation. Her goal is to use her writing and language skills to elevate the voices of gender equality advocates in all corners of the world. She is an Occidental College graduate with a degree Diplomacy and World Affairs and a contributor to Ms.