The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On International Women’s Day, these female journalists and activists are behind bars

Demonstrators from Amnesty International stage a protest on International Women's day outside the Saudi Embassy in Paris on March 8 to urge Saudi authorities to release jailed women's rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

International Women’s Day, marked each March 8, is intended to highlight the achievements of women around the world. But even as celebrations take place to honor the role women have played in advancing their societies in a wide variety of fields, many of the women who have fought hardest for their rights remain behind bars for doing so.

From China and Iran to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, female journalists and activists who were detained for speaking out against their governments or shedding light on human rights violations have been jailed. This week, the Committee to Protect Journalists said that at least 32 female journalists are behind bars around the world. And in recent years, activists who have stood up for their rights to drive, worship, dress, move and speak freely have been detained, harassed and, in some cases, allegedly tortured.

Here are a few of their stories.


At least seven female journalists are behind bars in China, including six held on anti-state charges, CPJ reported. Gulmire Imin is serving a life sentence on charges of “separatism, leaking state secrets and organizing an illegal demonstration,” the journalist advocacy group said, after reporting for Uighur language websites. A number of detained female journalists in China have been convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” including Wang Jing, who was arrested after publishing articles about alleged police harassment. CPJ reported that she is suffering from a brain tumor and that her health is deteriorating. The group also reported that Chimengul Awut, an editor at Kashgar Publishing House, was arrested as part of a broader crackdown on the Uighur minority after she was accused of producing “dangerous” books.


Last year, Egyptian activist Amal Fathy broadcast her experience on social media about being sexually harassed at a bank. In the 12-minute video, she accused the Egyptian government of not protecting women from this type of behavior. Then she paid the price.

Fathy was soon arrested and detained, spent months in prison, facing charges for spreading “false news” because of the video, as well as other charges that she belonged to a terrorist organization. She had also worked as an activist in the “April 6 Movement,” a pro-democracy group. In December, she was released on house arrest, but an Egyptian appeals court then upheld a two-year sentence over the publication of the Facebook video. At the time, her lawyer said she could be sent back to prison “at any time,” the Associated Press reported. While under house arrest, she was required to report regularly to the police station and could leave home only to pick up necessary medications.

Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s North Africa campaigns director, said in a statement at the time that Fathy’s verdict “makes a mockery of justice.”


Atena Daemi was 26 when she was arrested in 2014 for protesting the death penalty in Iran.

She is now serving a seven-year prison term on charges that include “propaganda against the state,” after handing out leaflets criticizing the death penalty and posting about human rights violations on social media, human rights groups have said.

“These arrests, detentions, threats and intimidations are the sacrifices we need to make to gain our freedom and rights,” Amnesty International has quoted her as saying. “No victory comes easily, and no injustice lasts forever.”

After reports emerged in 2018 that she and another female activist, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, had been beaten in custody, a group of U.N. experts called their cases “illustrative of a continuing pattern of harassment, intimidation and imprisonment of those undertaking peaceful and legitimate activities in the defense of human rights.” Both women have participated in hunger strikes to protest their treatment in prison.

Saudi Arabia

Even as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman touts himself as a reformer, several prominent women’s rights activists remain behind bars. A number of female Saudi activists were arrested last May, and that group includes Loujain al-Hathloul, who famously defied the country’s driving ban that barred women from taking the wheel. Although the driving ban was lifted last year, Hathloul, one of its most vocal critics, remains in prison. When U.S. pop star Mariah Carey performed in Saudi Arabia this year, Hathloul’s siblings asked her to speak out on behalf of their sister. In an op-ed for CNN, her brother said she had been “whipped, beaten, electrocuted and harassed on a frequent basis.”

Three dozen countries, including all 28 European Union members, issued Saudi Arabia with its first rebuke at a United Nations rights forum March 7. (Video: Reuters)

This week, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on Saudi Arabia to release the women, citing reports that they had been tortured in custody. But Saudi officials have claimed they have found no evidence to support those claims, Reuters reported.

“The persecution of peaceful activists would clearly contradict the spirit of the country’s proclaimed new reforms,” Bachelet said.

Read more

A not-so-sweet fantasy: Mariah Carey to perform in Saudi Arabia, despite backlash

‘The last power these men have over women’: Fate of Saudi teen sheds light on male guardianship laws

Jailed Saudi women’s rights activists said to face electric shocks, beatings and other abuse