Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Eman Al-Nafjan and Loujain Al-Hathloul

Eman Al-Nafjan and Loujain Al-Hathloul—along with Nouf Abdulaziz, not shown for privacy and safety reasons—are recipients of the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. (Photo: PEN America)

Saudi Women's Rights Activists Receive 'Freedom to Write' Award as They Stand Trial in Riyadh

"These gutsy women have challenged one of the world’s most notoriously misogynist governments."

Jessica Corbett

Three women's rights activists on trial in Saudi Arabia this week because of their efforts to expand human rights in the infamously oppressive kingdom are this year's recipients of an award "designed to honor a writer imprisoned for his or her work."

"We are proud to honor these drivers of change... for their fearless words and actions, and to send a strong signal that international pressure on the Saudi Kingdom to respect dissent and adhere to international norms of free expression will not relent."
—Suzanne Nossel, PEN America

PEN America, which works to defend free expression globally through the advancement of literature and human rights, announced Thursday that imprisoned writers Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan will be honored with the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award at the PEN America Literary Gala in May.

"These gutsy women have challenged one of the world's most notoriously misogynist governments," PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement, "inspiring the world with their demand to drive, to govern their own lives, and to liberate all Saudi women from a form of medieval bondage that has no place in the 21st century."

"We are proud to honor these drivers of change," Nossel added, "for their fearless words and actions, and to send a strong signal that international pressure on the Saudi Kingdom to respect dissent and adhere to international norms of free expression will not relent."

International press freedom groups including the Committee to Project Journalists and Reporters Without Borders—also known as Reporters Sans Frontieres—have repeatedly ranked Saudi Arabia as one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism.

While human rights defenders have long decried the Saudi monarchy's treatment of women and writers, the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year sparked international outrage and shone a spotlight on the regime's long track record of silencing critics.

The Trump administration has maintained a cozy relationship with the regime in the wake of Khashoggi's killing, despite the CIA's conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) likely ordered his assassination. However, world leaders, U.S. lawmakers, and activists have pointed to the incident as evidence that the kingdom has made minimal progress on human rights as MBS has accumulated power.

"The fleeting hope that generational transition in the Saudi leadership would open the door toward greater respect for individual rights and international law has collapsed entirely," Nossel said, "with individuals paying the highest price as the government resorts to rank barbarism as a blunt means to suppress and deter dissent."

Abdulaziz, Al-Hathloul, and Al-Nafjan are among those who have been subjected to the regime's brutal reaction to criticism. Along with several other Saudi women's rights activists, they appeared before a criminal court in Riyadh, the country's capital city, on Wednesday after being arrested last year shortly before the monarchy lifted a ban on women driving.

The activists, who have spoken out against the driving ban and Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system, are reportedly being charged for undermining state security by contacting international advocacy organizations and media outlets.

Amnesty International's Middle East campaigns director Samah Hadid said in a statement on Thursday that the charges "are the latest example of the Saudi authorities abusing legislation and the justice system to silence peaceful activists and deter them from working on the human rights situation in the country."

The imprisoned activists, according to Hadid, "have not only been smeared in state-aligned media for their peaceful human rights work, but have also endured horrendous physical and psychological suffering during their detention."

Denouncing the trial as "yet another stain on the Saudi authorities' appalling human rights record," Hadid called on Saudi authorities "to drop these outrageous charges and release the women activists immediately and unconditionally."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Oxfam Warns World Bank 'Could Be Significantly Overstating' Climate Spending

"It is alarming―at a time when climate change is driving such damage and poverty and hunger around the world―that we could find so little clarity about the quality and quantity of these financial flows."

Jessica Corbett ·


Brazilians Elect Three Transgender Progressives to Congress

"The struggle does not stop here, but continues and grows from that moment," said one victorious candidate. "Now my commitment is to elect Lula president at the end of October and I call on all my voters to do the same!"

Brett Wilkins ·


Supreme Court Gives Biden DOJ a Chance to Prove Its Commitment to Climate Justice

"Doubling down on the department's Trump-era support of Big Oil would constitute a betrayal," said one climate organization.

Jake Johnson ·


New Reporting Exposes Dr. Oz as 'Malicious Scam Artist,' Says Fetterman

"Everything he says has been a scam to help himself—not the viewers, not the voters," the Democratic Senate candidate said of his opponent.

Julia Conley ·


UK's Truss Drops Tax Break for Wealthy, But Austerity Threat Remains Amid 'Tory Class War'

The reversal follows 10 days of financial turmoil and pushback from within the Tory Party as well as from the left, which held massive anti-austerity protests.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo