Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi women’s rights activist, is the author of “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.”
My first encounter with his writings was in 2011, year one of the Arab Spring, in Al-Hayat, the Saudi newspaper that we both wrote for. In his columns, he called for seizing the moment and pushed for reforms within Saudi Arabia. For his courageous views, he was banned from writing and tweeting for more than a year. After declaring allegiance to the new crown prince in his first tweet after a year of silence, he was banned again for good in September 2017 for tweets deemed empathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, and for questioning the arrests of some of the prominent Saudi clerics, and others, that were carried out that same month. Things then escalated and resulted in Khashoggi’s departure from Saudi Arabia for fear of arrest and imprisonment.
I don’t know if it was fate or coincidence that we were both given the opportunity to voice our views in the same newspaper again, this time the Washington Post. Finally, we could write uncensored. The power of self-imposed exile is that you can finally write openly without fear of prosecution. Little did we know that safety was still not guaranteed, that it could lead to a disappearance.
Jamal once emailed me a horrific tweet sent to him after he openly supported our campaign #Women2Drive. The tweet wished that I run over Jamal with my car, then crash into a wall and die. This is how the world would be relieved from Manal and Jamal, it said.
Jamal, in his kindest words, advised that I ignore such people and continue driving safely. His support — at a time when everyone else was silenced or too scared to talk — meant everything to me.
He wrote one of his most powerful recent pieces after attending the Oslo Freedom Forum, where human rights activists and dissidents from around the globe are given a podium to tell their stories. In the piece, he questioned if it was still worth it to speak up in this unjust world: “The frustrating thing here is not only the repetition and similarity of the stories, as if the tyrants were settling in from one poisoned well, but the indifference of the world.”
Saudi dissidents living abroad have long feared the overreach of the authorities. There are reports of abductions but no assassination yet, to the best of my knowledge. It’s all part of a state-run plan to silence criticism of the Saudi leadership.
Last May, Nawaf Talal al-Rasheed, a Saudi-Qatari poet, was arrested in Kuwait and transferred to Saudi Arabia. While Rasheed wasn’t involved in any political activity, Saudi authorities considered his influence a threat.
Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent activist and personal friend of mine, was abducted on a highway in the United Arab Emirates and sent back to Saudi Arabia. She has been in solitary confinement with no sunlight or access to lawyers. Her husband, Fahad al-Butairi, was deported from Jordan to Saudi Arabia as the only passenger on a commercial airplane. He was later pressured by the authorities to divorce her.
Between September 2015 and February 2016, three Saudi princes living abroad and engaged in peaceful political activism against Riyadh were taken against their will to Saudi Arabia, and no one has heard from them ever since.
As awful as all these incidents are, the outcomes, while unclear, do not appear to have ended in assassination. This raises my hopes that the kind, intellectual and patriotic Jamal Khashoggi is alive and has not been murdered, as the story from Turkish sources goes.
Jamal’s Twitter profile reads: “Say your word and leave”. And as much as I feel helpless and devastated now, he would still want us to speak the truth. We might all leave or disappear, but our words against tyranny and injustice can’t be abducted or locked up — our truth will always be free and will always stay.
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