NEW YORK—PEN America announced today that it will award the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award to journalist, blogger, and activist Nouf Abdulaziz, activist and social media commentator Loujain Al-Hathloul, and blogger, columnist, and activist Eman Al-Nafjan—three Saudi women imprisoned for challenging, through their writing and their activism, the restrictive guardianship system that governs Saudi women and limits their ability to travel, marry, work, or receive education and healthcare without approval from a male guardian. Abdulaziz, Al-Hathloul, and Al-Nafjan each used their digital and news-reporting platforms to speak out on women’s rights and other forms of human rights repression in Saudi Arabia, including the long-standing ban on women driving. The ban was lifted in June 2018, yet immediately thereafter, many of those who had advocated for this change were arrested. Today these three writer-activists are among those still incarcerated for their dissent, reportedly facing torture, isolation, and threats of rape. In early March, Saudi authorities announced that they are planning to indict a number of those detained on national security-related charges; initial hearings in the trials of Loujain Al-Hathloul and Eman Al-Nafjan began March 13.

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, conferred annually, recognizes an imprisoned writer or group of writers targeted for exercising freedom of speech. Of the 43 jailed writers who have received the Award since 1987, 37 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure it generates. This year’s Award will be presented May 21 at the 2019 PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, have been the center of a global controversy following the gruesome murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist, Washington Post columnist, and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi last fall at the hands of government agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. His brazen killing was a vivid illustration of the depraved indifference of the Saudi government to international norms regarding press freedom, free expression and the right to dissent. 

This year’s honorees likewise attest to the Saudi government’s ready resort to intimidation and brutality to stifle those who challenge the government or demand human rights. In June 2018 when the driving ban was lifted, Saudi officials initiated a systematic wave of repression and imprisoned many who had championed the reforms; several dozen activists were arrested without formal charge or access to lawyers, and at least 10 remain in prison under harsh conditions. Some have reportedly been subjected to sexual harassment, electric shock treatment, waterboarding, and flogging during interrogations. Al-Hathloul and Al-Nafjan were not shown the charges against them and were not allowed to consult with their lawyers in advance of their March 13 court appearances.  

“The fleeting hope that generational transition in the Saudi leadership would open the door toward greater respect for individual rights and international law has collapsed entirely, with individuals paying the highest price as the government resorts to rank barbarism as a blunt means to suppress and deter dissent,” said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America. “These gutsy women have challenged one of the world’s most notoriously misogynist governments, inspiring the world with their demand to drive, to govern their own lives, and to liberate all Saudi women from a form of medieval bondage that has no place in the 21st century. We are proud to honor these drivers of change—Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan—for their fearless words and actions, and to send a strong signal that international pressure on the Saudi Kingdom to respect dissent and adhere to international norms of free expression will not relent.”

Abdulaziz, Al-Hathloul, and Al-Nafjan remain detained incommunicado, and Saudi authorities refuse to disclose information about their health conditions. Allegations of torture have been considered credible by a range of human rights groups, but were denied as unfounded by the Saudi government. 

Nouf Abdulaziz is a journalist, blogger, and human rights activist. She is a supporter of constitutional reform in Saudi Arabia and has written about human rights violations and feminist issues in both her blog and for the feminist website The Arab Noo. Abdulaziz was arrested on June 6, 2018. Shortly thereafter, fellow women’s rights activist Mayya Al-Zahrani shared a letter Abdulaziz had written, which she had wanted published in the event of her arrest (Al-Zahrani was subsequently arrested as well). In her letter, Abdulaziz describes herself as “a writer, a reading addict since I was six-years-old…a quiet girl except for the questions that storm my mind,” and asks, “Why is our homeland so small and tight, and why am I considered a criminal or enemy that threatens it?”

Loujain Al-Hathloul has a long history of women’s rights activism and is one of the most outspoken human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, primarily via commentary on social media. She gained notoriety for campaigning against the driving ban, including posting videos of herself driving as part of a 2013 campaign, and has advocated for an end to the male guardianship system. In 2014 she was arrested and detained for 73 days for defying the driving ban; she was detained again in 2017 for uncertain reasons and released days later. In May 2018, she was arrested at her home. Around the same time, her husband, Fahad Albutairi, a comedian and fellow critic of the Saudi government, was arrested in 2017 while in Jordan, and returned to Saudi Arabia, where he was reportedly released.

Eman Al-Nafjan is a prominent figure in the Saudi women’s rights movement, a professor of linguistics, and author of the Saudiwoman blog, which launched in 2008. On her blog, she frequently posted commentary on the male guardianship law, which she called “the abuse system,” and she called for an end to child marriage and abuses by the religious police. She also exposed how Saudi authorities were spying on Saudi citizens through social media applications. Al-Nafjan has written for The Guardian, CNN, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and Amnesty International. Foreign Policy named her one of the 100 Global Thinkers of 2011.

In addition to Abdulaziz, Al-Hathloul, and Al-Nafjan, the 2019 PEN America Literary Gala will honor peerless investigative journalist Bob Woodward with the Literary Service Award and Scholastic Chairman and CEO Richard Robinson for his outstanding leadership in publishing. Past Freedom to Write honorees include Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo (2018), Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov (2017), Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji (2016, freed in 2018), Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova (2015, freed with restrictions on her movement in 2016), Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega (2012, freed in 2018), and Chinese Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Independent Chinese PEN Center founder Liu Xiaobo (2009, died in state custody in 2017). The Gala raises essential funds that fuel PEN America’s free expression advocacy efforts.  This year’s event will be hosted by comedian and political commentator John Oliver.

 About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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