Who is Manahel al-Otaibi?

A young female activist named Manahel al-Otaibi has been arrested and currently languishes in jail due to her social media activities that endorsed recent social reforms and appealed for more substantial rights within Saudi Arabia.

Manahel al-Otaibi, a 29-year-old certified fitness instructor and artist, known for her regular posts advocating female empowerment on her social media accounts, was apprehended in November 2022. Saudi authorities have accused Otaibi, among other charges, of using a hashtag that translates to #societyisready to campaign for the abolishment of male guardianship rules.

Yet to be convicted or sentenced, Otaibi remains in detention. Previous similar cases indicate that public demands for basic women’s rights, encompassing inheritance rights and the ability to end an abusive marriage, have been construed as seditious.

This instance is the latest of several where Saudis have been arrested and incarcerated for utilising social media to encourage reform or question Saudi authorities. Salma al-Shehab, another Saudi woman and former PhD student at Leeds University, received a sentence exceeding three decades from a terrorism court for her Twitter activity, which included following and retweeting dissidents and activists.

Otaibi’s social media profiles depict her as a modern, progressive woman passionate about fitness, art, yoga, travel, and women’s rights advocacy.

Despite its effort to project an image of a country liberalising strict regulations concerning women, including dress codes and work opportunities outside home, the government continues to crack down on women who seek fundamental reforms.

Lina al-Hathloul, a Saudi activist and ALQST’s Head of Monitoring and Advocacy, opined, “Al-Otaibi’s cases exemplify the hollow promises of Saudi Arabia when it comes to reforms. Saudi women still end up in prison and face bogus trials merely for demanding their rights, or believing they are now free to dress as they please.”

Court documents reveal that Otaibi’s use of social media, reported to authorities by religious police, and accusations of indecent attire led to her arrest. Fouz al-Otaibi, her sister, escaped the same charges and fled Saudi Arabia before her arrest. Another sister, Maryam, a renowned women’s rights advocate, was detained, held, and ultimately released in 2017 for protesting guardianship rules.

Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi specialist and regular commentator on US-Saudi relations, observed, “Manahel’s case is an example of the hypocrisy and selective application of severe laws by the Saudi government, which invites foreign Instagram models to promote tourism by posting swimsuit pictures but jails Saudi women for posting photos without Abayas.”

The Saudi crown prince’s government has targeted Twitter users in its wide-ranging domestic and international suppression campaign, which included infiltrating the company to extract confidential user data about anonymous Twitter accounts considered threatening to the royal family.

Meanwhile, the prince indirectly owns a significant stake in Twitter through the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Saudi’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s wealthiest investors, holds the second-largest investment in Twitter after Elon Musk, and a £200 million stake in Snapchat.

Snapchat promotes itself as a platform where users in Saudi Arabia can “live in the moment and be themselves”, indicating a discrepancy between the platform’s philosophy and the country’s harsh reality.

Image Credit: Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash