As Saudi women get the right to drive, activists who fought for that right remain jailed

The Gulf Arab kingdom is anxious to promote its progressive image, even as it accuses women's rights activists of endangering national security.

Three of the high-profile activists who remain jailed in Saudi Arabia: Loujain al Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Youssef. CREDIT: Twitter screenshot.
Three of the high-profile activists who remain jailed in Saudi Arabia: Loujain al Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Youssef. CREDIT: Twitter screenshot.

As the first women finally get the right to drive in Saudi Arabia this week — the only country in the world that continued to ban women from driving — several activists behind the campaign to fight for that right remain behind bars.

Among the women being held since mid-May are Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, and Eman al-Nafjan.

The AP reports that according to the country’s chief prosecutor, 17 people have been arrested in recent weeks, with eight of them being temporarily released. It’s unclear what the terms of that release are, but those arrested are being held under suspicion of threatening national security.

Rothna Begum, Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa region, told ThinkProgress that she was shocked at the timing of the arrests, but not at the fact that the activists were targeted in the first place.


“In a way while this was still shocking, it wasn’t that much of a surprise because we know that it was linked to the driving ban being lifted, because the same [detained] women and others were called on the day that they announced that they were going to lift the driving ban and had been told not to speak to the media,” said Begum.

The women were told not to even say anything positive, and their arrests, said Begum, is clearly designed to prevent any government criticism and to make it clear that they can’t ask for further reforms.

There’s a very coordinated smear campaign against women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia right now, where they are being called “traitors” by state media and face prison sentences from three to 20 years.

While the Saudi government has used similar tactics in the past, Raed Jarrar, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International, calls this media campaign “an escalation.”

“The level of exaggerated charges is very worrisome, as is the fact that they have these so-called ‘confessions’ without access to their attorneys,” he added, referring to reports over the weekend in Saudi state media that indicated that some of those detained had confessed to a number of actions, including contacting “aggressive foreign entities” and “recruiting individuals in sensitive government bodies.”


“Amnesty International is concerned with two things. The first is that Saudi Arabia has a long history of getting confessions under torture and ill-treatment, so we’re worried that this is another example of that. But more importantly, our second point is that we know, as a fact, that all of these confessions happened while the activists were kept incommunicado, with no contact with their attorneys,” said Jarrar.

These arrests and pending cases send a chilling message to rights activists in Saudi Arabia, said Begum, adding, “We don’t know what’s going to happen to women’s rights activism after this. If they’re able to get away with arresting and sentencing women with heavy sentences like this, what woman in Saudi Arabia is going to want to come forward and be an activist?”

The ‘reformer’ who jails activists

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has been on a media blitz for the past few months, trying to promote himself and his country as one that is moving from the strict, ultra-conservative laws to being more progressive.

“The distinct thing that has happened under his rule is that while there has always been a repressive crackdown on human rights activists [who are currently serving long prison sentences], this is the first time that we’re seeing such a serious crackdown on women’s rights activists,” said Begum.


MBS is allowing women to drive and attend sports matches. He’s allowing Hollywood movies to be shown in theaters in Saudi Arabia. Begum points out that there is also less enforcement in some areas of the “strict sex-segregation” laws that have largely kept women out of public spaces and certainly limited their access to employment.

MBS seems to have gotten some traction with this gambit, at least in some quarters in the United States, where his visit in April was met with much fanfare by some media outlets, the White House, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and weapons manufacturers.

The image the Saudi government would like the West to focus on: A Saudi woman practices driving in Riyadh, ahead of the lifting of a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia in the summer. (CREDIT: Yousef Doubisi/AFP/Getty Images)
The image the Saudi government would like the West to focus on: A Saudi woman practices driving in Riyadh, ahead of the lifting of a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia in the summer. (CREDIT: Yousef Doubisi/AFP/Getty Images)

MBS finally allowed women to drive on Monday — well, so far, 10 women, all of whom, according to the Associated Press, already had driving permits in other countries.

Begum said this is an important thing to note: “If he wishes to provide you with rights, then that’s something you should be grateful for, but  he does not want women or men demanding for more of their basic human rights.”

In other words, human rights aren’t something to which Saudi citizen are entitled. They are gifts from a benevolent leader, to whom, said Begum, citizens “owe an obedience — that has always been the case. There is no real obligation on the part of the state to provide for their citizens or to respect the right of their citizens.”

Men still run the lives of Saudi women

Women will officially be allowed to drive in the country on June 24, although they still live under strict  guardianship law that sees virtually every aspect of their lives — including legal agency — controlled by men.

These rules are often applied arbitrarily and ways that are not required by law.

The guardianship laws were also being protested by some of those who remain jailed.

Begum said the driving ban was seen as “low-hanging fruit,” one that authorities were loath to give up for decades.

Women are continuing to push against those laws and in April 2017, there was a decree saying that they shouldn’t be applied arbitrarily, although Begum said that there’s no punishment for doing so.

International community largely silent

Very few governments have made any public statements about these arrests. (Canada is among the notable exceptions.)

“You cannot have a reformist agenda and still at the same time have one of the most repressive campaigns against human rights defenders in the country — it’s totally incongruous,” said Human Rights Watch’s Begum.

Jarrar said that while the U.S. State Department has said that it is “keeping an eye” on the situation, the statement, issued in a press briefing a week after the arrests, falls well short of what rights groups such as Amnesty International were hoping for.

“We are calling on them to issue a strong statement and to bring up the issue with their Saudi counterparts…because the U.S. is a strong partner of the Saudi government and there is definitely a lot of political cover that was given to the Saudi government and the new Saudi leadership by the U.S. government,” he said.

So far, though, he added, that the response from the U.S. government “has been too weak” and that what’s needed is a strong statement coupled with direct communication with and pressure on the Saudi government to free the activists.

The State Department told ThinkProgress that it is “following up with the Saudi government.”

“We have made our views on these announced detentions clear,” said a department spokesperson, answering questions via e-mail, adding that the detention of the activists is cause for concern and that the U.S. “supports space for civil society and free speech.”

“We urge the Government of Saudi Arabia to ensure due process, transparency and rule of law for all citizens and residents,” the spokesperson said.