Manahel al-Otaibi
Saudi activist Manahel al-Otaibi, 25, has been living in Riyadh without wearing the abaya for four months. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP

Manahel al-Otaibi is a feminist and certified fitness instructor who has been advocating for women's rights for over a decade. She is well-known to the Saudi Arabian authorities for regularly sharing empowering posts on social media. However, she was arrested in November 2022 for "her choice of clothing and support for women's rights."

Recently, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison for charges related to what the government called "terrorist offences". According to Amnesty International and ALQST, the Saudi human rights organisation based in London, the 29-year-old was sentenced at a "secret hearing" before the kingdom's Specialised Criminal Court took the case on January 9.

The human rights organisations also reported that al-Otaibi's sister is facing similar charges. Fearing that she would soon be arrested, she successfully fled Saudi Arabia in 2022. Al-Otaibi has been charged for using a hashtag, which translates to #societyisready calling for the kingdom to end its guardian rules.

She has also been charged with anti-terrorism offences, which punishes those who "creates, launches, or uses a website or a program on a computer or on an electronic device to commit terrorism" and "any person who, by any means, broadcasts or publishes news, statements, false or malicious rumours, or the like for committing a terrorist crime."

The Saudi mission in Geneva stated that it found al-Otaibi guilty under its "counterterrorism law". The law criminalises anyone who uses websites to "broadcast or publish news, statements, false or malicious rumours, or the like for committing a terrorist crime."

However, in response to the controversial sentencing, Amnesty International's campaigner on Saudi Arabia, Bissan Fakih, said: "With this sentence, the Saudi authorities have exposed the hollowness of their much-touted women's rights reforms in recent years and demonstrated their chilling commitment to silencing peaceful dissent."

Manahel Alotibi
(Screenshot: Manahel Alotibi/ Instagram)

Saudi Arabia has a notorious record on gender equality, which has seen women stoned to death for adultery. Although the government granted women a "personal status" in 2022, under the law, a woman's financial independence is subjected to her "obedience" to her husband. The law, which the kingdom's authorities consider progressive, also orders women to obey their husbands "reasonably."

According to Amnesty International and ALQST, al-Otaibi had been a loud supporter of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's "radical changes", which included the alleged relaxation of female dress codes and relaxing the restrictions on women's movement. However, she is just one of many female activists who have been imprisoned by the kingdom's authorities on charges relating to "anti-terrorism" and dressing inappropriately.

Salma al-Shehab is serving a sentence of 27 years, Fatima al-Shawarbi has been sentenced to 30 years, and Sukaynah al-Aithan is serving 40 years. Nourah al-Qahtani is currently serving a lengthy sentence of 45 years for charges relating to her presence on social media and the possession of religious materials.

Amnesty International has also reported that al-Otaibi was a victim of severe abuse when she disappeared for five months between November 2023 and April 2024. When she was finally permitted to contact her family, Amnesty International claimed that al-Otaibi was held in solitary confinement, where she was subjected to a series of beatings. The severe abuse left the 29-year-old with a broken leg, the rights group alleged. However, Saudi officials have denied the claims.