A PDF version of this letter is available here.

His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
King of Saudi Arabia and Custodian of the two Holy Mosques

His Royal Highness Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia

His Royal Highness Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz
Minister of Interior, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

His Excellency Waleed bin Mohammad Al Samaani
Minister of Justice, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia


November 6, 2018

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellency:

It is more than four months that Dr. Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, world-renowned Saudi scholar, professor, writer and women’s rights advocate has been in detention in Saudi Arabia. Her arrest, on 21 June, coincided with the lifting of the ban on women’s driving in the kingdom. We are very concerned about Dr. al-Fassi. Furthermore, her arrest and that of other women’s rights advocates provide evidence of the deeply troubling turn in what has been publicized as a reformist, modernizing agenda.

Until recently, Dr. al-Fassi was Associate Professor of Women’s History at King Saud University in Riyadh where she had been a faculty member since 1992. She is the author of two important books — Sanawat fi ‘Umr Al-Mar’ah Al-Saudiyyah [Years in the Lives of Saudi Women] (2018) and Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia: Nabataea (2007), and numerous articles and book chapters on the lives and status of women in the Arabian Peninsula, in the ancient world as well as in the contemporary period. A highly-respected historian of international stature, she has received numerous honors and accolades, among them, induction in 2008 into the prestigious “Ordre des Palmes Académiques” – a French order of knighthood for distinguished academics and figures in the world of education and culture. Alongside her scholarship, Dr. al-Fassi has written since 1993 a widely-read, weekly column on contemporary social affairs in al-Riyadh newspaper.

Dr. al-Fassi is, as well, a prominent advocate for women’s rights. In Saudi Arabia, she was engaged, for years, in efforts to lift the ban on women driving. She was also involved in initiatives to allow and encourage women’s full participation in municipal elections, and she co-founded the “Baladi” campaign to empower women who wanted to participate. In addition, she led the campaign to include women in the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Assembly) in Saudi Arabia. That campaign resulted in the appointment in 2013, for the first time, of thirty women members. In 1993, she founded the Sunday Forum, a monthly gathering of women with lectures on a wide range of issues; the Forum continues to convene and remains an important resource for women.

Dr. al-Fassi has done much to enhance the lives of women and she has done so with wisdom, dedication, dignity and altruism. She enjoys an enormous and devoted following, not only in the Gulf region, but throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in Asia, Europe and North America. She is, indeed, one of the best known and most respected of Middle Eastern women scholars and rights advocates.

In the weeks leading up to the much-anticipated lifting of the ban on women driving on 24 June, a reported sixteen advocates for women’s rights were detained in the Kingdom; and since the lifting of the ban, several more women have been detained. At a time when the Saudi leadership seeks to present an image of itself as engaged in a program of progressive change, these arrests undermine that program by demonstrating a disconnect between stated policy and practice.

We call upon the Saudi government, at this historic moment, to release Dr. Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi and other women’s rights advocates who remain in detention. Dr. al-Fassi should be allowed to continue her most valuable work as scholar, writer, mentor and advocate for the greater good of her country, her fellow citizens, and women throughout the region and the world.


Khaled Abou El-Fadl, Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Los Angeles School of Law

Susan Abulhawa, novelist

Lila Abu-Lughod, Professor, Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality, Columbia University

Karen Abu Zayd, Commissioner, Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, United Nations Human Rights Council

Zainah Anwar, Executive Director, Musawah

Talal Asad, Professor of Anthropology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Sabrine Azraq, Projects Coordinator, Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW)

Margot Badran, Georgetown University

Upendra Baxi, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Warwick and Delhi, Distinguished Professor of Law, National Law University of Delhi

Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

Victoria Brittain, journalist and author

Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley

Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Helena Cobban, Executive President, Just World Educational

Michele Dunne, Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Mohammad Fadel, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toronto Faculty of Law

Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law, Princeton University

Nahla Haidar el Addal, member: United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

Abdellah Hammoudi, Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Anthropology, Princeton University

Amy Hawthorne, Deputy Director for Research, Project on Middle East Democracy

Homa Hoodfar, Professor of Anthropology, Emerita, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

Islah Jad, Associate Professor, Gender and Cultural Studies, Bir Zeit University

Suad Joseph, Distinguished Research Professor of Anthropology and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, University of California, Davis

Deniz Kandiyoti, Emeritus Professor, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies & Director of Middle East Institute, School of Public and International Affairs, Columbia University

Rami Khouri, Adjunct Professor of Journalism and Journalist-in-Residence, Media Studies Program, American University of Beirut

Asma Lamrabet, doctor and writer, Morocco

Miriam Lowi, Professor, The College of New Jersey & Chair, Committee on Academic Freedom – MENA wing, Middle East Studies Association

Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government, Columbia University

Stephen McInerney, Executive Director, Project on Middle East Democracy

Ziba Mir-Husseini, Professorial Research Associate, Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law, SOAS, University of London

Chandra Muzaffar, President, International Movement for a Just World (JUST)

Mira Nair, film director

Aryeh Neier, President Emeritus, Open Society Foundations

Suzanne Nossel, CEO: PEN America

Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology, Columbia University & Centennial visiting Professor, the London School of Economics

Kate Seelye, Vice President, Middle East Institute

Judith Tucker, Professor, Georgetown University & President, Middle East Studies Association

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow, Baker Institute of Public Policy, Rice University

Amina Wadud, Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies, Visiting Scholar: Starr King School for the Ministry

John Waterbury, Emeritus Professor, Princeton University

Tamara Cofman Wittes, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution



*Signatories have signed in their personal capacities; institutional affiliations are provided for the purpose of identification.