Apr 25, 2019

On Wednesday April 17, the spokesperson of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia to the United States posted this message on Twitter:

 

The statement came just one day after Princess Reema bint Bandar was sworn in as the Kingdom’s first female ambassador to the U.S.. Manal received this invitation when she was halfway through her Freedom Drive campaign, during which she is driving across the U.S. to raise awareness of the women who have been imprisoned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and who remain in jail in Saudi Arabia. Manal partnered with the Human Rights Foundation for this drive, which was launched during the Women in the World summit earlier this month. Manal’s Freedom Drive will culminate in a protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in D.C. on Friday, April 26. The following is Manal’s response to the Saudi Embassy’s invitation:

As I write, I am driving coast to coast across the United States of America. Everywhere I stop, I speak to people about my country’s violations of fundamental values — the same values that this country and other democracies are proud to espouse as their own.

To begin with, I would like to thank and congratulate our first and only female ambassador on her appointment. I am amenable to meeting her, although I will only do so outside the embassy, with the safety of the public. I plan on asking her about the condition of my friends: Loujain, Aziza, Eman, Nassima, Hatoon, Samar, and the rest of the Saudi women’s rights activists who have been targeted, harassed, imprisoned, tortured, and sexually assaulted by the Saudi government. These women are equally deserving of the gratitude of the ambassador —after all, it was in part through  their tireless, life-threatening work that helped make this long overdue appointment even possible. While our first female ambassador assumes her duties in the U.S., these women remain in jail awaiting trials based on arbitrary charges, facing continued torture.

I plan on speaking to the ambassador as one Saudi woman to another Saudi woman. I will ask Princess Reema how it feels to represent the millions of other Saudi women in one of the world’s most powerful countries while still needing her father’s permission to fly to D.C. to do so.

Perhaps I’ll also ask her about the “Georgia Sisters”—Wafa, 26, and Maha, 29 —who fled an abusive male guardian and remain stranded in Georgia after the Saudi government decided to cancel their passports. Even as they are prevented from moving, their appointed guardian is waging a campaign to force them back to Saudi Arabia. What is our country doing to women to cause this epidemic of flight?

I’ll gladly meet our esteemed new ambassador — just as soon as my fellow women’s rights activists are released, their unfair trials are thrown out of court, and the Saudi officials responsible for their torture — such as Saud al-Qahtani — are put on trial instead. I’ll gladly sit across the table from her — right after Ishraq and Areej Alsadhan are reunited with their brother Abdulrahman, who disappeared in March 2018 and has not been heard from since, and after all the families in similar situations have their loved ones back home. I’d like to hear what she has to say about the estimated 13,000 prisoners of conscience who MBS has thrown in jail since becoming Crown Prince.

Last year, I promised my 12-year-old-son that we would celebrate the lifting of the women’s driving ban with a roadtrip across Saudi Arabia. I wanted to tell my son my story about being sent to jail for the simple act of driving as a woman. I wanted to share my hopes and dreams for a country that respects and protects his right to live with dignity, be himself without anyone’s permission, share his thoughts without fear of retaliation and be politically active. I wanted to share my dreams of a homeland that respects his mother’s choices; my desire not to witness the day when he turns 18 and becomes my own guardian. But a few weeks before the official repeal, friends of mine who had resisted and fought one of the most patriarchal systems in the world were arbitrarily arrested and sent to jail. They were detained without charge or trial, and the men who supported them were targeted, too. I knew then that lifting the ban wasn’t about women’s rights. The drive with my son was postponed indefinitely, and I remain in a self-imposed exile from Saudi Arabia until I get answers.

In the past two years I traveled around the world on tour for my book. During that tour, many Saudi women approached me to tell me how they had risked their lives fleeing the “Kingdom of Men.” So horrific were their stories that they can only be compared to a real-life version of “The Handmaid’s Tale”; in fact, I sometimes wonder if Margaret Atwood’s work was inspired by Saudi women’s lives. But Rahaf’s story was the tipping point in a long line of painful injustices.

I love my homeland, and I love my people, but the government is not my homeland, nor even a representative of those it claims to serve. People and government are two separate things, and nowhere more so than in Saudi Arabia, where our government is part of an absolute monarchy. We are led by a man who thinks he owns our destinies, and our system enslaves men and women alike by stripping away their basic civic, political, and human rights. It terrifies me that my country has become known as a place from which men flee to die and women flee to live. My countrymen and women deserve better, and citizens in democracies deserve governments that protect the values they claim to stand for.”