Saudi Arabia: criminalisation of sisters and WHRDs Manahel and Fouz al-Otaibi (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication sent by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Saudi Arabia on 1 December 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. The Government replied on 25 January 2024, which is currently being translated and will be posted on the UN Special Procedures communications database.

At the time of publication, Manahel al-Otaibi remains in detention without access to family visits.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication Read the Government's response


Topic: the criminalisation of sisters and women human rights defenders Manahel and Fouz al-Otaibi, namely the arrest and ongoing pre-trial detention of Manahel al-Otaibi, in relation to the exercise of their right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Manahel al-Otaibi is a woman human rights defender, certified fitness instructor and artist from Saudi Arabia. She is a social media activist, maintaining an active social media presence through which she frequently promotes content relating to women’s empowerment, as well as her other interests including travel and yoga. Her posts have included advocacy for liberal dress codes for women, LGBTQ+ rights and the abolition of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship laws. She has also called on the government to shut down state-run shelters where women and girls had suffered abuse.

Fouz al-Otaibi is a woman human rights defender and social media activist from Saudi Arabia. She is known on social media for posting content critical of the Saudi Arabian government on X, and for sharing her personal life and marriage via her Instagram account. She has, in the past, sparked controversy among religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia for posting intimate photos and videos of her and her husband. In 2019, she was faced with an adverse reaction and hateful commentary online after she publicly shared her marital contract, which included a list of rules to which her husband expected her to adhere. She has also called on the government to shut state-run shelters where women and girls had suffered abuse.


On 16 November 2022, woman human rights defender and fitness instructor Ms. Manahel al-Otaibi was arrested and detained, along with another health activist. The woman human rights defender’s arrest and detention was allegedly in relation to social media posts which she had posted to her accounts.

The posts in question, which were reportedly brought to the attention of the authorities in Saudi Arabia by religious police, expressed criticism over the male guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia. This was particularly in reference to the Personal Status Law (PSL), which codified the rules on male guardianship and which, on 8 March 2022, transferred these once informal rules under Sharia law into Saudi Arabian legislation. For example, as per article 126 (1) of the PSL, a women’s custody over her child can be terminated by the child’s father and legal guardian if she marries a man not related to her child. In denouncing these rules on social media, the woman human rights defender allegedly used several hashtags known for conveying this opposition, namely “isqaat al-wilaaya” (“abolish male guardianship”), which allegedly translates to #societyisready. Ms. Manahel al-Otaibi’s posts also included criticism of the requirements for women to wear the customary body-shrouding abaya. Although the Saudi authorities announced a relaxation of the dress code for both foreign and Saudi women in 2019, Saudi women still face legal uncertainty and some have continued to be targeted under broad and poorly-defined accusations of wearing “indecent” clothing.

Ms. Manahel al-Otaibi’s sister, Ms. Fouz al-Otaibi, also allegedly used her social media platforms to denounce the same male guardianship laws as her sister. Facing the same accusations and charges as her sister, Ms. Fouz al-Otaibi fled Saudi Arabia before an arrest by authorities could be carried out against her.

The charges brought against both women human rights defenders by the Saudi authorities relate to alleged offences which fall under the draconian Anti-Cybercrime Law of 2007. These include “opposing the laws relating to women, such as the male guardianship system and the hijab law,” “having several photos and video clips in indecent clothes on accounts,” and “going to the shops without wearing an abaya, photographing this, and publishing it on Snapchat.”

In January 2023, Ms. Manahel al-Otaibi appeared in front of judges who referred her case to the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC).

While Ms. Manahel al-Otaibi was charged based on the offences listed above, prosecutors also subsequently levelled the charge of “defaming the Kingdom at home and abroad, calling for rebellion against public order and society’s traditions and customs, and challenging the judiciary and its justice” against the woman human rights defender.

Public prosecutors also accused her of mobilising a movement to incite women and girls to abandon Saudi norms grounded in religion and tradition for more liberal and “immoral” practices.

On 26 July 2023, Ms. Manahel al-Otaibi was due to appear before the Specialised Criminal Court for the first session of her trial, as per the referral of her case the previous November. However, this was ultimately postponed, and there has been no indication of a new date on which this trial will commence.

Ms. Manahel al-Otaibi is currently being held in al-Malaz prison in Riyadh. She has reportedly been subject to physical and psychological abuse by another inmate and the prison authorities placed her in solitary confinement when she notified them of this abuse. The woman human rights defender has also not been permitted to contact her family since 5 November 2023.

It is also alleged that Ms. Fouz Al-Oitabi remains at risk of being detained by authorities, should she decide to return to the state.


In the communication, we express our concern at the arrest and ongoing pre-trial detention of woman human rights defender Ms. Manahel al-Otaibi, which appears to constitute an express act of retaliation against her social media activism for the advancement and defence of women’s rights. This allegation, if proven to be true, would constitute a violation of her right to freedom of opinion and expression, articulated under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Moreover, we wish to similarly express our concern over the charges against the sister of the aforementioned woman human rights defender, the social media activist and woman human rights defender Ms. Fouz al-Otaibi, whose pending possibility of criminalisation has reportedly left Ms. al-Otaibi with no other choice than to flee her home state.

In her report on gender justice and freedom of expression, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression expressed concerns about the weaponization of “public morals” as a ground to police the online social behaviour of women and remove content relating to sexual expression, sexual orientation and gender identity. We wish to reiterate her recommendation to states to recognize non-discrimination and inclusion as central to their duty to respect, protect and fulfil the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and that they should take appropriate measures as part of their national development plans to eliminate gender stereotypes, negative social norms and discriminatory attitudes through legislative measures, social policies and educational programs.

We wish to further share our concern at the pending trial of Ms. Manahel al-Otaibi which is due to take place before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), established in 2008 to try individuals accused of terror-related crimes. This court, in tandem with the vague definition of terrorism advanced in both the 2014 Law on counterterrorism and the subsequent reforms of 31 October 2017, has reportedly been systematically used to quash criticism and opposition to the government and royal family.

Finally, we would like to express our alarm that the criminal charges against Ms. Manahel and Fouz al-Otaibi have taken place in the context of a wider crackdown on human rights defenders and social media users, who have been targeted via state vigilance of their social media accounts. Such a trend has regretfully been enabled by legislation such as the aforementioned Anti-Cybercrime Law of 2007, wherein article 6 criminalises the alleged offence of “producing something that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of private life, or authoring, sending, or storing it via an information network,” imposing prison sentences of up to five years where these laws are breached. The use of this law to stifle feminist or political dialogue online is a direct violation of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.


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