Leading Activists Responsible For Lifting Driving Ban On Saudi Women Remain Behind Bars

Leading Activists Responsible For Lifting Driving Ban On Saudi Women Remain Behind Bars

Saudi Arabia’s lift of the ban on women driving on June 24 marked a long-awaited moment for Saudi Arabia’s activists.

But not everyone was celebrating. That day, several leading figures of the Saudi women’s-rights movement were still detained on unspecified charges and unable to mark the achievement of a goal they had been working toward for years.

Protests against the ban had begun in 1990. Many of these activists had campaigned for years against the world’s last remaining ban of its kind, as well as against the country’s male guardianship system. Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan are three of at least 11 people linked to the Saudi women’s-rights movement who were detained as part of a broader crackdown in May.

According to human rights observers, the women were targeted in a “smear campaign” on social media and state-linked media outlets, accusing them of being traitors to the state and collaborating with “foreign entities.” Local media reports say that nine people currently detained are being referred to the country’s Specialized Criminal Court and if convicted, could be facing up to 20 years in prison. Other activists in the country have been placed under travel restrictions and warned not to comment on the lifting of the driving ban.

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has openly spoken about his desire to reform Saudi Arabia’s economy and society, with the lifting of the driving ban pitched as part of that effort to modernize the country’s conservative culture. However, the renewed crackdown on activists marks a “worrying contradiction,” according to human rights observers.

“On the one hand the crown prince is promoting himself as a reformer and as a progressive, and on the other hand he has intensified this crackdown on dissent, on free speech, on allowing any form of free thought in the kingdom,” Samah Hadid, Middle East Director of campaigns for Amnesty International, tells TIME. “You can’t rebrand yourself as a reformer if you are arresting peaceful activists simply because they are calling for reforms.”

Here, more on three of the most prominent women’s-rights defenders detained in the crackdown.

Loujain al-Hathloul

28-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul is one of the most visible campaigners advocating for Saudi women’s right to drive. She was previously arrested and detained in 2014 and 2017 for defying the driving ban and attempting to drive between Saudi Arabia and the neighboring United Arab Emirates.

Al-Hathloul gained international attention when she used social media to document her 2014 arrest. In a short video posted to YouTube, which has since been viewed over a million times, she filmed herself driving and attempting to cross the border from the UAE into Saudi. She also live-tweeted the experience of her arrest and start of her detention.

In 2015, al-Hathloul stood in Saudi Arabia’s landmark first elections that permitted women to run for office as well as vote. However, she was one of two activists whose names were later disqualified from the ballot. “We have to all realize that criticizing some phenomena in our home country does not equate to hating it, wishing evil upon it nor is it an attempt to shake its balance, it’s the total opposite,” she wrote in a 2016 article in response to social media backlash to her activism, indicating her hope for a better future for Saudi Arabia.


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