When Saudi Arabia announced last September that it would lift its ban on women driving, activists celebrated a step toward women’s equality in a nation known for restrictive, patriarchal laws. This week, the first driver’s licenses were issued to 10 Saudi women, though they won’t officially be able to drive until the lift goes into effect on June 24.
But over the past several weeks, 17 women’s rights activists, many of whom campaigned for the right to drive, were arrested by Saudi authorities. The crackdown, reported by several human rights groups, comes just weeks before the ban is set to be lifted. Government officials report that eight of the activists have been released.
Among those arrested were Loujain al-Hathloul, an activist with a large social media presence; Eman al-Nafjan, a blogger and activist; and Aisha al-Manea, a veteran driving activist — all three women were public leaders in the campaign to end the driving ban. Four activists have reportedly been released, according to Reuters.
“What the Saudi authorities seem to be trying to do is to make it clear that firstly, any reform taking place is only due to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” says Rothna Begum, the women’s rights researcher on the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch. “They are attempting to revise the history of the actual activism that took place by these women’s rights activists. “
The government’s harsh actions shed a different light on the crown prince (commonly referred to as MBS), welcomed by many in the international community as a young reformer when he announced the driving ban lift last year. But Begum warns that this particular crackdown is a sign of more to come from MBS, who, she says, “knows that he can get all of the credit for these reforms” while pushing a repressive agenda domestically.
A transcript of my conversation with Begum follows, edited and condensed for clarity.
The lift on the women’s driving ban is coming next month. How surprising is it that all these arrests are happening now?
On the one hand, it’s not surprising. Since Mohammed bin Salman has come into power, we have actually seen an intensification of the repression of human rights defenders in the country, including women’s rights activists. What has actually been very shocking is the way in which they’ve conducted these arrests.
Shortly after they were arrested, we saw a campaign against these activists from the Saudi authorities: issuing a statement they had breached national unity, that they were in contact with foreign organizations, and they were getting funding from outside the country. Local state media outlets have pictures of these women calling them traitors and going after them. You had a social media campaign as well, with the hashtag #EmbassyStooges or #EmbassySpies.
What’s the message behind these arrests?
What the Saudi authorities seem to be trying to do is to make it clear that firstly, any reform taking place is only due to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They are attempting to revise the history of the actual activism that took place. And secondly, to make clear that there will be only one reformer: the crown prince. You can only go to him for this reform; you cannot demand it. It’s sending a really clear message to both activists and to regular men and women that you can expect that your activism could be turned against you.
What does all of this say about Mohammed bin Salman, who was hailed by many abroad as this kind of new, more progressive reformer when he first came into power?
I think on his side, it’s really a domestic campaign. Domestically, he needs to show that his rule is completely justified. He has completely centralized power. And you know, people shouldn’t get the wrong idea. This is a country that bans protests, that doesn’t allow independent human rights organizations. There are no trade unions in the country. Power is very much centralized in the royal family, in the king’s office, basically.
The crown prince is unusual in that he’s basically acting as a king. But with that level of power, whenever there’s been activism, the authorities have really gone against [the activists]. They see activism as disobedience.
In September of last year when the driving ban was announced, that was the same day that the royal office actually called women’s rights activists, including the ones who have been arrested, and told them not to speak to the media. One of the women said, “What if I want to say something positive?” They said, not even then. It’s clearly related to the fact that they want to choose the messengers, that they don’t want the critics to either take the credit for their activism or to be somewhat critical.
[MBS] is regarded by the world as a reformer. He’s young, he’s already opened cinemas [previously banned in Saudi Arabia]. He seems like he could be bringing about the changes needed. But it was never about how young you are. It was never about the old guard versus the young guard.
It’s always been about what you consider reforming the country. Do you consider this to be a state which allows citizens the right to free expression? To ensure that a country progresses? Or do you still believe that this is a country in which the government is essentially centralizing power and will do reforms when he chooses to and keep things conservative where he chooses to?
He is not a change agent in that respect. He is very much part of the old guard in the way he conceives of power relations with the citizens. If anything, he has been far worse than the old guard. Under his power, the repression of human rights activists has intensified.
I’m curious if these arrests are going to have a chilling effect among women who want to start driving when the ban is lifted.
Since the arrests, the women on Twitter have been quite quiet. [Discussion has] revived a little bit, but to be frank, I think [the arrests] are sending a real message to people in Saudi society that it is very difficult to be an activist. We know the rise of social media, particularly Twitter, has led to change, and people are also now taking to social media to demand things. But this level of harassment — the way in which your reputation can be completely smeared in this matter — it’s very scary.
If these prominent women’s rights defenders can be attacked in this way and the world isn’t coming to their support, what woman, what regular woman, is going to want to come out and be an activist? It’s a really scary thought for what this means for feminism inside Saudi Arabia.
I’m curious about the driving ban itself — even when it goes into effect, how much of a step is it toward gender equality? Saudi women still need permission from men to do most things.
If we take women’s rights activists out of the question and we don’t have any critics to push [the government] on further change, it’s really unclear how many more reforms the crown prince will actually make.
So one of the reasons why the activists chose the driving issue — which is not the biggest issue — is that it was considered the lowest-hanging fruit. No one else in the world bans women from driving. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s illogical, even with the arguments proposed by the religious authorities. This should be an easy fight.
It was done in mind to call for further reforms, like to end of the male guardianship system, which is the biggest impediment to women’s rights in the country. [Under the male guardianship system], from birth until death, they must have a male guardian to conduct a number of things, including traveling abroad, obtaining a passport, her education, and even marrying or exiting prison. So it really has a huge impact on their lives.
One of the things that’s really hard to watch is the deafening silence by governments around the world when [the activists] were arrested. Many of these governments came out to laud and congratulate Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi authorities when they said they would lift the driving ban, when government leaders met with him on his world tour, when he promised all sorts of things.
And yet when [these activists] were arrested, no one really came to their aid. The Canadian foreign minister issued a statement calling for their release, but it’s the lone voice. These are the champions of the driving ban being lifted. These are women who were known to the world long before people knew who Mohammed bin Salman was. Loujain al-Hathloul, for instance, was only 25 when she tried to drive across the border from the UAE and Saudi in 2014. She was held for 73 days. She was renowned, she’s met with government officials, she’s known. Yet no one has come to their aid.
And that says a lot. Because what it means is that Mohammed bin Salman knows he can get all of the credit for these reforms, and when he becomes oppressive and arrests these women’s rights activists, no one will say anything. He’ll get all the pats on the back, and very little will be said about the repression campaign back at home.