While the lifting of the women’s driving ban should have been a cause for celebrating the women’s rights activists in the kingdom, authorities instead saw fit to engage in a spree of repression by arresting at least 10 activists while attacking them in the media as “traitors” and “Embassies’ Clients.”
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — Saudi Arabia’s ongoing crackdown on women’s rights advocates, on the eve of its June 24 lifting of the ban on women drivers, is meant to prove one thing: only one man will be allowed behind the steering wheel to reform and social progress in the ultra-conservative Saudi kingdom, and that man is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud — or MBS, as he is known.
While the lifting of the ban should have been a cause for celebrating the women’s rights activists in the kingdom – whose patient striving for further social rights paved the way for the Saudi rulers’ modest concession – authorities instead saw fit to engage in a spree of repression by arresting at least 10 activists while attacking them in the media as “traitors” and “Embassies’ Clients.”
Photos of the prisoners are also being shared on social media, accompanied by the accusation that they had “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric.”
According to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), prominent women’s rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul, 28, is still being held incommunicado following her arrest in Abu Dhabi by Emirati authorities and transfer to Riyadh in March. The arrest came following her attendance of a review session of Saudi Arabia at the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
The GCHR commented:
It’s alarming that Al-Hathloul was transferred to Saudi Arabia against her will, which is part of the security agreement in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which leaves human rights defenders and critics at risk anywhere in the region.”
Others arrested include 60-year-old mother-of-five Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, a well-known blogger and university professor. Madeha Al Ajroush — a psychotherapist and pioneering activist in her mid-60’s, who was among the group of women that challenged the driving ban in a Riyadh parking lot in 1990. Four men were arrested as well.
Some of the detained leaders were active supporters of the #Right2Drive and #IAmMyOwnGuardian social media campaign. According to rights groups and lawyers, the activists could face around 20 years in jail if found guilty of their alleged threats to national security.
If they are convicted of “treason” or serving in a “spy cell,” as some state newspapers have speculated, they could even face the death sentence.
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
Under the medieval-style misogynistic regime imposed on subjects of the kingdom, males reign over the women in their family as their legal guardians – be they fathers, husbands or brothers. Without the company or written permission of male relatives, women are unable to leave their homes and shop, visit the doctor, study or travel.
“It’s a war on activism,” U.S.-based Saudi writer-in-exile Jamal Khashoggi told NPR news, adding:
[MBS] wants the people to step aside and accept what he is giving them and he will lead them into the future.”
The smear campaign and accompanying repression – which saw the activists’ homes raided – certainly tears the mask of “reformer” from the 32-year-old crown prince, revealing the phony nature of his progressive image and the limitations of his paternalistic social-reform-from-above vision for the kingdom.
MBS slams on the brakes?
Following his designation as crown prince by his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, MBS began promising to advance the country into a realm of “moderate Islam,” riling those committed to the strict interpretation of Wahhabi Islam that has held sway in the kingdom since at least the late 1970s.
Under the paternalistic regime, Saudi women are unable to wear makeup or the clothes of their choice. Instead, a majority of women must wear the abaya, a head-to-toe garment, on pain of facing punishment and fines by the religious police or Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
Throughout the past year, the Saudi kingdom had appeared to be making very modest steps toward basic progress when it authorized women to begin attending games at three sports stadiums in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
Last September, the aging King Salman decreed that women would be granted driving licenses for the first time, riling up conservatives in the monarchy. Saudi rulers quickly faced a withering backlash on social media after women were granted permission to participate in the September 23 Saudi National Day celebrations in Riyadh’s King Fahd Stadium.
Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that the kingdom began to chill the activities of social rights campaigners shortly before unveiling the reforms. She said:
We know that back in September 2017, the authorities called women’s rights activists, including the ones who have recently been arrested, to tell them not to speak to the media and then hours later announced to the world that they were lifting the driving ban.
Again, these arrests are happening largely as a way to silence the critics of Mohammed bin Salman’s reform, in particular, because these women’s rights activists are demanding more than just the lifting of the driving ban.”
Male Saudi netizens also began to mock the newly-permissive stance of authorities, asking if women would be granted permission to travel to nightclubs next.
Toward the end of last year, a vast crackdown on royal family members and business elites was seen as being meant to pave the way for further reforms, but a recent trending topic on Saudi Twitter – an Arabic hashtag translating as “You won’t drive” – shows the depth of reaction to the mildly permissive stance of the Saud regime.
Men in #KSA are using this disgusting hashtag to threaten women who might even think of driving when the ban on female drivers will be lifted.
What good is granting women rights if they can't exercise them in safety? @WCFSW
— Sarah Al-Otaibi (@SarahAlOxoxo) May 14, 2018
The arrests are clearly meant to send the signal that women’s rights activists must shut up and be satisfied with the rights they are granted by the kingdom’s rulers, rather than ambitiously seeking further basic rights reforms.
Rights advocates are realizing now that MBS will throttle the reforms as he sees fit, in a manner that fortifies rather than undermines the Saud hereditary monarchy.
Middle East Human Rights Watch director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement:
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘reform campaign’ has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women’s empowerment … The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail.”
Top Photo | Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Photo: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx)
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.