Saudi Arabia celebrates its first female astronaut, but jails women’s rights activists

While the mission of Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Saudi woman in space, has ended, Saudi repression continues on earth. Fatima al-Shawarbi was sentenced to 30 years for tweets defending political prisoners. Manahel al-Otaibi is in jail awaiting trial for demanding an end to male guardianship.

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – The first space mission by a Saudi woman was cause for celebrations in Saudi Arabia, but other Saudi women fighting for their rights in the kingdom have been rewarded with arrests and long prison sentences.

The Saudi propaganda machine has been working overtime to highlight the reforms and liberalisations undertaken by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, but for women, it has been largely a façade, except for the right to drive and access to some professions.

When it comes to true equality, Saudi women’s journey is still long and hard, one that can land them straight in jail.

This is what happened to Fatima al-Shawarbi, who was sentenced to more than 30 years for tweeting anonymously about political prisoners, women's rights and against unemployment, as well as a 30-year and six-month travel ban

Rights group Alqst reports that Shawarbi, who hails from Al-Ahsa province, is thought to be under 30. She was convicted by the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), reportedly for using  her anonymous Twitter account to highlight the plight of the Howeitat, a tribe whose members have been forcibly displaced for the Neom megaproject.

She supposedly told friends whom she met online to sound the alarm if she stopped tweeting for more than a month but had not shared her real name or photo so they could campaign if she disappeared.

Sources told Alqst that Shawarbi was arrested in November 2020 and is believed to have been sentenced by the SCC earlier this year, but the case was reported only recently.

Manahel al-Otaibi (pictured), 29, was held in November on various charges, including using a hashtag (translated to #societyisready) calling for an end to male guardianship.

A certified fitness instructor, the young women’s rights activist was arrested and jailed for having Twitter and Snapchat accounts that embraced recent social reforms but also advocated women’s liberation and demanded more fundamental rights inside the kingdom.

She is presently held in preventive custody waiting for her trial, but past cases bode ill; previous open demands for fundamental women’s rights – including inheritance rights, and ability to end a marriage by an abusive husband – have usually been deemed seditious.

Fatima Shawarbi and Otaibi are but two in a long series of women arrested and convicted for using social media and the internet to fight for their rights.

The latest crackdown began last August when Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years (later reduced to 27) for demanding the right to drive and calling for the release of Loujain al-Hathloul.

Nourah al-Qahtani, a mother of five, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for tweeting from two anonymous accounts.

Dual Saudi-American Saad Almadi got 16 years for tweeting, increased to 19 years on appeal before her release in March, although she still faces a 16-year travel ban.

Abdullah Jelan, a university graduate who dreamt of becoming a health educator for the Saudi government, was handed down 10 years in prison, plus a 10-year travel ban, for anonymous tweets about unemployment.

Finally, Manahel al-Otaibi and her sister Fouz were charged.

By contrast, Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Arab woman in space, has received a totally different treatment after she completed the Axiom Mission 2, "the beginning of a new era”, to quote her.

The four-member, privately crewed mission, which included a wealthy American aboard the SpaceX Dragon Freedom, splashed down yesterday off the coast of Florida, back from the International Space Station (ISS).

Barnawi is the first Saudi woman in space, a historic event for Saudi women, but her feat is not enough to hide the ongoing crackdown against other Saudi women, those fighting every day, in every walk of life, for their rights and freedoms.