(New York, NY) — As Saudi Arabia hosts the first virtual Women 20 (W20) Summit and Nasrin Sotoudeh faces additional state harassment in Iran, PEN America calls on participants in the W20 to condemn the jailing of dozens of women’s rights advocates in both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and reiterates its call for authorities to release women imprisoned for their expression and activism, among them the emblematic political prisoners Loujain Al-Hathloul and Nasrin Sotoudeh.

“The cruel and unjust incarceration that women such as Loujain Al-Hathloul and Nasrin Sotoudeh face represent the harrowing experiences of many others detained in the prisons of Saudi Arabia and Iran for their free expression and advocacy,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Free Expression at Risk Programs. “We urge the W20 summit attendees to condemn the unjust punishments meted out to these women, who are trying to advance the same goals that the W20 summit represents, and for the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia to stop punishing those individuals who speak out in favor of women’s rights and inclusion.”

One of the summit’s key objectives is to be a space for women around the globe to formulate solutions for women’s empowerment through inclusive decision making. This echoes the goals of the United Nations’ Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the 65th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Yet, women in Saudi Arabia and Iran face severe retribution for their activism to advance women’s rights. PEN America recently joined with PEN International to submit a written statement to the CSW, focusing on the need for women to be able to speak, write, and advocate for greater gender equality and inclusion without fear of retribution for their ideas and expression. The statement emphasized that the jailing of women for their non-violent expression and activism is a grave impediment to the full inclusion and empowerment of women in public life. 

Loujain Al-Hathloul was arrested with fellow PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Awardees Nouf Abdulaziz and Eman Al-Nafjan between May and June 2018 as part of the Saudi government’s brutal crackdown on defenders of women’s rights, including those who campaigned against the ban on women driving. They were reportedly subject to imprisonment, solitary confinement, torture, and threats of rape, with access to phone calls and family contact severely limited. Al-Nafjan was granted temporary release in March 2019, but in March 2020, Saudi Arabia suspended all court appearances due to COVID-19, leaving Al-Hathloul and Abdulaziz detained indefinitely and with limited contact with their families.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, Iranian women’s rights activist, writer, and lawyer, who was honored with PEN America’s Freedom to Write Award in 2011, has been jailed since 2018. Convicted of several national security-related offenses stemming from her legal defense of young women protesting Iran’s veiling laws, she was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes, of which she has to serve at least 12 years.  She undertook a hunger strike in August 2020 to protest the conditions in Evin prison during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitalized due to cardiac complications in late September, Sotoudeh was transferred back to Evin prison five days later. Although the state of her health remains critical and she urgently needs medical care for her heart condition, she was recently misled and transferred without explanation to the notorious Qarchak prison, where conditions for prisoners are dire.