Saudis Question Recent Reforms After Arrest of Women Rights Activists

Published May 20th, 2018 - 10:35 GMT
Saudi women rights activists detained by the authorities on May 18, 2018. (Twitter)
Saudi women rights activists detained by the authorities on May 18, 2018. (Twitter)

By Randa Darwish

The arrest of female rights advocates in Saudi Arabia launched a debate among Saudis over the past few days raising concerns over the reasons behind the arrest and the recent reforms made in the Kingdom by the controversial Crown Prince, Mohamemd Bin Salman.

On Friday, the official account of the Saudi Interior Ministry tweeted that seven people were arrested for “organized activities to beat the religious and national basis and for communicating with foreign entities”, in addition to providing financial support for hostile elements abroad to undermine the security and stability of the country. The authorities did not provide the name of the detainees.

On the other hand, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement saying that seven women rights defenders were detained in Saudi Arabia since May 15, 2018 and among them are two male activists alongside the Saudi blogger, Eman al-Nafjan, and Lujain al-Hathloul, who had been arrested earlier in 2014 for an attempt to drive into Saudi Arabia. They, then, demanded an end to the driving ban imposed on Saudi women.

Al-Nafjan and al-Hathloul were known for publicly advocating for rights of Saudi women for many years. They signed a petition delivered to King Salman in September 2016 demanding the abolishing of the male guardianship system in the Kingdom. They also participated in a campaign against the driving ban before it was officially lifted it in 2017.

Moreover, in September 2017, the same day when the authorities announced the lifting of the ban, the Saudi Royal Court called on prominent activists in the Kingdom and warned them not to speak to the media, according to the HRW statement citing Saudi rights defenders. Some of those activists are now among those detained.

“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,” HRW director in the Middle East Sarah Leah Whitson said.

“The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail.”

Saudis have taken to hashtag “أين الناشطين الحقوقيين؟” (Where are the activists?) to talk about those arrested. Opinion is split between those suspecting the real reason behind the arrest and others dismissing the authorities announcement. Some said they are satisfied over the arrests of such “infiltrators” and "traitors" while others said the news was overblown, saying “al-Hathloul was accused of treason and infidelity” already.

Conservative Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to prohibit women from driving. However, in September 2017, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz issued a decree ending 30 years of oppression against women. The step was believed to be only a start that will pave the way for other reforms regarding women rights in the Kingdom.

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