Saudi's Vaunted Reforms Are Targeting Women Activists

Published June 14th, 2018 - 12:21 GMT

By Eleanor Beevor

It seems that the spate of arrests of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia is far from over, though it started nearly a month ago. On May 15th 2018, a number of veteran activists in the kingdom were detained on extremely strange charges. This was all the odder given that one of the battles they had made their names fighting for appeared to have been won.   

On 24th June 2018, Saudi Arabia’s notorious ban on women being able to drive will be lifted. This was a move spearheaded by the ambitious young Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who was anxious to cement his status as the kingdom’s new power broker, and to refresh Saudi Arabia’s international image.


Lifting drive ban

Lifting the ban made good sense as a part of his political strategy. For if, as he claims, he wishes to energise the private sector and push youth into employment by reining in the Saudi welfare state, then he will have to offer something in return. Greater social freedoms in the notoriously conservative country might be a price that its young population will accept in exchange for reduced government subsidies.

Saudi woman Driving in Riyadh, April 29, 2018, ahead of lifting of ban (AFP)

Moreover, this relatively minor reform won him accolades from foreign leaders. Certainly, many western leaders were uneasy about showcasing their close ties to a nation with a grim human rights record. But Prince Mohammed’s promise of reforms, were meant to be a fresh start - one in which those leaders no longer had to feel embarrassed by their dependence on the controversial Gulf kingdom.

Yet in the past two weeks, that reformist image has been tarnished, perhaps irrevocably. It soon became apparent that the situation of the arrested activists was serious. On 18th May, 2018, a statement from the Presidency of State Security announced that those arrested were being held on charges of “suspicious contact with foreign agencies”. By 21st May, up to 11 activists had been arrested and were also being subject to a smear campaign, online and in national newspapers. A number of news websites and newspapers labelled the arrested as “traitors”.


Wide Saudi highways (AFP)

Start of arrests

Those arrested included high profile campaigners like Eman al-Nafjan, a professor of lingusitics and the founder of a blog called Saudiwoman’s weblog, which discussed women’s and human rights issues. Another was Loujain al-Hathloul, a fiercely committed activist for women’s right to drive. She had previously been detained for 70 days in 2014 when she attempted to livestream her drive from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates.

All of these activists had long campaigned for much more than the right to drive, and they were not about to stop now that one goal had been accomplished. The Saudi system of male guardianship, in which any official step pursued by a woman requires the permission of a male relative, is still in place. The activists had also continued to campaign for women’s rights to escape abusive marriages, and to protect victims of domestic abuse.

Some of those arrested were released a few days later, among them 70-year old Dr. Aisha Al-Manea, a director of hospitals who has been campaigning for women’s rights for two decades. Yet the majority are still imprisoned, and the arrests have not stopped.

70-year-old Dr Aisha Al-Manea, is director of Hospitals (Twitter)

On Wednesday 6th June, Saudi authorities raided the home of Nouf Abdulaziz al-Jerawi and arrested her. She is a writer and media editor, who also runs an NGO designed to encourage youth into charity work. Prior to her arrest, al-Jerawi had published an online letter expressing profound sadness at Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, and of efforts to improve women’s freedoms. She wrote:

Hello, my name is Nouf, and I am not a provoker, inciter nor a wrecker, nor a terrorist, nor a criminal or a traitor. I am the daughter to a great mother who suffers because of me -as I think- and a daughter to an honourable and honest family that has undergone a lot of harm because of what happened to me… Why is our homeland so small and tight, and why am I considered a criminal or an enemy that threatens it! I was never but a good citizen that loved her country and wished the best for it.”

More arrests

A fellow activist and journalist, Hana Al-Khamri, who also published Nouf’s letter on her blog, told Al Bawaba:

Nouf is a women’s rights activist, but she is also widely involved in campaigning for prisoners of conscience. She has been once active in the Saudi national dialogue. These arrested activists have been attacked in state-owned newspapers and called traitors, even before there were any fair legal proceedings. Calling someone a traitor dehumanises them completely. But Nouf’s letter humanises her and these women instead.”

A few days after her arrest, the activist Mayaa al-Zahrani wrote a social media post in support of Nouf. A few hours later, she too was arrested. Clearly, the Saudi authorities are not ready to forgive any activists or sympathisers that step out of line for the time being.

Why the crackdown?

But one could be forgiven for being confused about where this line is drawn. The driving ban was coming to an end anyway, which begs the question of what motivated the crackdown, and with it a fresh spell of bad publicity for the kingdom. The answer is likely a combination of a number of factors, but several analysts have forwarded interesting possibilities. Hana al-Khamri continued:

This is happening in the context of a crackdown on women’s rights activists and human rights defenders in general. I think that this is a message from the Saudi regime to everyone that you should not aspire for more. You should not demand for things to go further up, or for reforms to bring political change. It is revealing the true face of the authoritarian and patriarchal Saudi regime. Now that women are going to be given the right to drive, it might inspire people to demand other freedoms. And so this is a signal to women’s rights activists that you should never challenge the patriarchal system.”


Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a Middle East and North Africa analyst for the charity Equality Now, concurs that this is a signal from the kingdom that the Saudi royal family alone will decide on what rights people have. She told Al Bawaba:

We are very concerned about what’s going on in Saudi Arabia. I think the government is not genuine in the social reforms that they have been trying to implement. These women have been campaigning for lifting the ban on driving, and calling to end the male guardianship system. I think these arrests show that they are not really serious about making a radical change in Saudi Arabia.

My personal analysis is that this is a message to the women that you can’t ask for more rights. Because others who see this change, they will be calling for more rights. The issue of male guardianship is still here in Saudi Arabia. Women cannot apply for a passport, or travel abroad without permission from their male guardian. They will of course be asking for more rights. So I think that this is a clear message to say that “We will grant you what we want to grant you, and you can’t go on and on asking for more.”

There is no doubt truth in the notion that Riyadh under Mohammed Bin Salman’s direction wants to limit Saudi’s expectations of the civil liberties they are going to get. Prince Mohammed has made some positive steps. Allowing women to drive, giving way for cinemas and concerts to take place, and the promotion of inter-faith relations are no doubt welcome changes. But a greater respect for human rights has yet to follow. Moreover, it appears that the Saudi authorities will not allow grassroots activism to take any credit for the changes.

Lifting of ban on Saudi Cinemas was a recent development (AFP/Fayez)

Last September, when the intention to repeal the ban on women driving was announced, many of the activists currently in prison received threatening messages from the authorities. The messages said that they were forbidden from speaking to the international media about the repeal of the ban. This was likely for fear that the activists would be credited with having brought about change. Not only would that divert praise from Prince Mohammed, keen to be seen as the west’s favourite reformer. It would also signal to the Saudi people that civil society activism works, and that with it they might win further political freedoms.

Ultra-conservative Islamists

Also worth noting is that even these relatively minor social reforms have been met with stiff resistance from ultra-conservative Islamists within the kingdom. Indeed, several Islamist clerics were also arrested several months ago for speaking out against these changes. Al Qaeda has exploited the crackdown on these outspoken Islamists, portraying it as a sign that Saudi Arabia is turning against Islam. This will no doubt leave Riyadh more fearful of terrorist attacks on its soil. Thus a crackdown on liberal activists may also help to satisfy Islamists that the kingdom is not giving way to any more social liberties.

But meanwhile, these arrested activists are now in custody, and it is unknown whether they have any legal defences. However, given the vicious swirl of stories in the media against them, before any trial will have taken place, there is serious cause for concern. Suad Abu-Dayyeh continued:

“We are very worried about the issue of access to justice. We don’t know where they are now, which prisons they are in, or whether they have access to any lawyers. We don’t know whether these women are together or not. We at Equality Now and other organisations are putting requests to all the relevant international bodies meant to ensure human rights, to try and put an end to this and to find out what is going on. The lack of information is quite critical.”

It remains to be seen whether world leaders wanting alliances of convenience with Saudi Arabia can continue to call Prince Mohammed a “reformer”. But for now, these activists are in serious jeopardy.

© 2000 - 2021 Al Bawaba (

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