A month before the draconian ban on female drivers was scheduled to be lifted, the authorities in Saudi Arabia arrested at least seven prominent women’s rights activists, sparking international outrage with human rights organizations across the world calling it a “chilling development” and demanding the detainees to be released.
Those detained weren’t all women who challenged the kingdom by getting in cars and driving. The men who supported for these women were also reportedly arrested.
The detainees reportedly included women’s rights advocate Loujain al-Hathloul – whose associates claimed she was arrested by security forces in the United Arab Emirates where she was studying and was forcefully brought back to the kingdom, activists Aziza al-Yousef, Madeha Alajroush, Aisha AlMan and Eman al-Nafjan, who have long opposed the driving ban as well as the kingdom’s enduring guardianship laws.
Hathloul’s lawyer Ibrahim Mudaimeegh was also detained along with Mohammed Alrabea, a male women’s rights supporter.
“It appears the only ‘crime’ these activists committed was wanting women to drive before Mohammed bin Salman did,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If they are in jail because of their advocacy the authorities should release them immediately.”
Not only were these activists reportedly accused of working “together in an organized manner to violate religious and national values” and having “suspicious communication with foreign agencies,” Saudi state media also didn’t waste much time discrediting these rights activists as “traitors.”
Semi-official #Saudi account is posting this kind imagery of arrested women’s rights activists. The red stamps over activists’ pictures read: “traitor”. State is shockingly brazen. Some of these activists gained immense popularity & credibility during anti-guardianship campaign. pic.twitter.com/ePxMugx7Km— Nora Abdulkarim نورة الدعيجي (@Ana3rabeya) May 19, 2018
#Saudi @al_jazirah newspaper front page features 2 absolute most amazing #Saudi feminists you could possibly know of: @LoujainHathloul & @AzizaYousef. The title, in bold red letters, smears all arrested: “You & your betrayals failed”. I have no words. Never thought I’d see this. pic.twitter.com/hnj8teZ9Ps— Nora Abdulkarim نورة الدعيجي (@Ana3rabeya) May 19, 2018
Okaz newspaper with a full-page feature of arrested #Saudi women’s rights activists. Again, brands them as “traitors” with “no place among us”. It states that sources predict sentences up to 20 years for 6 violations of Royal Decree A.44. (first pic via @SarahDadouch). pic.twitter.com/eXfWiBVZPt— Nora Abdulkarim نورة الدعيجي (@Ana3rabeya) May 20, 2018
Okaz features #Saudi Shura Council voices defending arrests of #Saudi women’s rights activists. Both members been publicly pro-women rights/driving in past, but are nonetheless “hazm” nationalists. Thus, they state: “No matter the goals (of activists), the nation is a red line”. pic.twitter.com/Yd6FNE6ryy— Nora Abdulkarim نورة الدعيجي (@Ana3rabeya) May 20, 2018
Meanwhile, activists believe the crackdown aimed to discourage the campaigners who had been working to get the government to lift driving restrictions for decades – as the detainees had reportedly been forewarned to be silent or risk being arrested.
“This chilling smear campaign is an extremely worrying development for women human rights defenders and activists in Saudi Arabia. Such blatant intimidation tactics are entirely unjustifiable,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Campaigns. “Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has presented himself as a ‘reformer,’ but such promises fall flat amid the intensifying crackdown on dissenting voices in the kingdom. His pledges amount to very little if those who fought for the right to drive are now all behind bars for peacefully campaigning for freedom of movement and equality.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made headlines for his efforts to cultivate a modern image of Saudi Arabia, yet incidents like these do little to help his cause. Instead, they highlight a rather harsh reality of being a woman in the conservative kingdom.
Thumbnail/Banner Credits: Reuters, Reem Baeshen