General: On International Women’s Day, women’s rights defenders at risk in the Gulf and neighbouring countries


8 March 2015 - Today, on International Women’s Day, women’s rights defenders around the world are being persecuted, jailed, harassed, attacked and murdered, and nowhere are they more in danger than in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) highlights just a few of the brave women human rights defenders (WHRDs), many whom risk their lives, in Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.

Women who speak out for human rights are in grave danger in countries in conflict such as Iraq, Syria or Yemen, but they are no less likely to face reprisals for their work in Bahrain, Iran or Saudi Arabia, where society is tightly controlled and the rights to freedom of expression and assembly are limited.

“Women human rights defenders have an integral role to play in democracy building, and we must overturn outdated attitudes that prevent women from speaking out and shaping just societies across our region,” says Maryam Al-Khawaja, GCHR Director of Advocacy. Al-Khawaja was jailed for 19 days upon arrival in Bahrain on 30 August and falsely charged with assaulting two policewomen. She was given a one-year prison sentence in absentia on 1 December. See:

On 16 March, Maryam Al-Khawaja is speaking at an event during the Commission on the Status of Women’s meeting in New York entitled “A Worrying Trend: Increased Systematic Threats Against WHRDs”. Participants will discuss the countless restrictions and violations WHRDs face because of who they are and the work they do. The panel will also provide a venue to discuss concrete measures that states need to take at the national level to ensure effective protection for WHRDs and safeguard their rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression. 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations’ Beijing Conference on Women, which laid out a vision for ensuring women’s human rights and achieving gender equality around the world. Follow #reflect2protect. See:

Saudi Arabia:

No country makes the news more in restricting women’s rights than Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where it’s illegal for women to drive. On 1 December 2014, Maysaa Al-Amodi and Lujain Al-Hathlol were arrested after they drove to meet each other at the Saudi Arabia border with the United Arab Emirates. They faced charges of “breaching public order” and “overriding [her] guardian’s authority,” for driving a car without permission (in this case, the King’s authority.) On 12 February, they were finally released despite the case being dismissed on 25 December by a Criminal Court judge. The delay came because the judge referred the case to the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh, which deals with cases of terrorism and State security. So it’s clear what a threat to the state women driving is perceived to be. See:

Saudi human rights defender Samar Badawi was at the 27th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September to raise awareness of women’s rights as well as the many human rights defenders who are currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, including her husband Walid Abu Khair and brother Raif Badawi. “We ask for the right of women to be elected, to drive vehicles,” she said. She has previously been jailed in Saudi Arabia for demanding her right to be independent from the guardianship system.

According to the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, women’s rights defender Souad Al-Shammari was arrested on 28 October 2014 in Jeddah. She was interrogated for tweets she published on her Twitter account ( and faced charges of “calling upon society to disobey by describing society as masculine” as well as “using sarcasm while mentioning religious texts and religious scholars.” She was freed on 9 January 2015 but was not pardoned during a round of prisoner amnesties by the new leader, King Salman. The price of her freedom was the promise to refrain from her activism.


Iran is just one country where acid attacks have been used to threaten women. In October last year, men on motorbikes threw acid in the faces of at least eight women who were driving their cars with their windows down. One of the women reportedly died as a result of her injuries. It is believed the women were targeted because they were deemed to be “inappropriately dressed,” but the authorities denied this. Yet the attacks came after Iran introduced the “Plan on Protection of Promoters of Virtue and Preventers of Vice” and the “Plan to Protect Chastity and Hijab”.

Protests against the acid attacks that were held in Tehran and Isfahan on 22 October ended in the violent beating and arrest of several activists as well as the use of tear gas to disperse the crowds. Following the protests, a number of WHRDs were detained including prominent lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and women’s rights activist Narges Mohammadi. (See:

Women’s activist Mahdieh Golrou was arrested and detained for three months after a raid on her house following her rigorous participation in the acid attacks protests. She had stated on one of her Facebook posts: “I am a woman. I am an Iranian woman who is afraid and is always worried. […]I am a woman, and these days, my womanhood scares me.”

Since December 2009, Bahareh Hedayat has been in jail serving multiple sentences of over seven years, including two years suspended sentence for "acting against national security through holding a protest gathering for women." She was an advocate of the “One Million Signatures Campaign Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws”, calling for the end of legal discrimination against women in Iran. Under Iranian law, she should have been released by now, but remains in jail, despite health issues. However, she continues to call for the most basic rights of women in Iran, even from within the walls of Evin prison. She wrote, “There is no doubt in my mind that in our bright future, we will breathe in a free country while celebrating our liberty together.” (See: 


Many brave women human rights defenders in Bahrain continue to speak out about injustice. Women’s human rights defender Ghada Jamsheer has been persecuted for years, and her feminist blog ( has been blocked since 2009. She is President of the Women's Petition Committee (WPC), a network of Bahraini women human rights defenders who campaign for the codification of Bahrain’s family laws and their reform. Jamsheer was jailed on 15 September 2014 on charges of defamation via twitter after she tweeted about corruption at King Hamad University Hospital. On 15 December, Jamsheer was released and is currently under house arrest, with 12 cases against her on various charges.

Activist Zainab Al-Khawaja has been sentenced to over four years in prison on various charges, including ripping up a photo of the King. But she has not yet been jailed again, keeping her home for the time being with the baby she had in November, shortly after being freed from prison. (See: While in prison, she told other women inmates about their rights, such as the right to a lawyer, and out of prison she has tried to give them a voice. 

On 8 March, let us not forget the many women human rights defenders working in conflict zones, from Syria to Iraq to Yemen.


Last year, on 22 September, Iraqi lawyer and women’s human rights defender Samira Saleh Al-Naimi was publicly executed by a group of masked ISIS (Da’ash) members in a public square in Mosul. She had been kidnapped from her home after she described as “barbaric” the widespread damage that ISIS inflicted on ancient Mosul.


WHRDs have been jailed by the authorities, like Yara Bader, Managing Director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, who was arrested in February 2012, and then released, but whose her husband, prominent human rights defenders Mazen Darwis, and many other colleagues remain in jail. Others have been held hostage by armed groups, like prominent lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, who was abducted together with her husband and two of their colleagues in December 2013 in Duma. Zaitouneh founded several NGOs and websites dedicated to recording rights violations. See:

Zaitouneh documented many atrocities including the chemical attack in Ghouta on 21 August 2013, which killed over 1400 people, including at least 426 children. She wrote, “I witnessed the massacre myself. I saw the bodies of men, women and children in the streets. I heard the mothers screaming when they found the bodies of their children among the dead.”


There are many brave Yemeni women’s rights defenders, but they pay a high price for being outspoken. Women are threatened via social media or phone and subjected to smear campaigns, like Majda Al-Haddad, who recently fled the country following numerous threats. In 2012, she was attacked by a man in her home. 

For months, activist Samia Al-Aghbari has been the target of a campaign of harassment and threats, causing her to temporarily take down her Facebook page and usually wear a Nikab to cover her face now. One such threat on her Facebook page said: “I swear to God that slaughtering you would be a promenade, don’t get your ugly face out.”

Al-Aghbari is one of a number of female journalists and activists who have constantly been accused of blasphemy or being a “non-believer” by religious fundamentalists for simply expressing certain ideas as a result of their political beliefs and activities. “Whoever stands against them, they will accuse him or her of blasphemy and spoil their careers and reputations, in order to make society react negatively to what journalists and activists write or say,” she said. “There is a systematic campaign against every woman who doesn’t wish to idly subject to others’ thoughts.”




The GCHR is an independent, non-profit and non-governmental organisation that works to provide support and protection to human rights defenders (including independent journalists, bloggers, lawyers, etc.) in the Gulf region and its neighbouring countries by promoting freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. See: