The government of Saudi Arabia has arrested numerous women’s rights activists less than a month before the country is due to formally legalize female drivers. The women, who worked as vocal campaigners’ in the #women2drive movement, have been charged with suspicious activity and crimes of treason, a common smear and intimidation tactic employed by Saudi authorities to denigrate political activists.
The imprisonment comes in response to their involvement in feminist advocacy both within and outside of the kingdom. Whilst Saudi officials have refused to comment on exactly who they have arrested, and have barred most of them from outside contact, it is believed that 11 high profile activists have been jailed. They have also made no comment on the status of the Female Drivers Act, set to go into effect June 24.
Activists in the #women2drive campaign, Aziza Yousef, Eman AlNafjan and Loujain Hathloul were three of the most prominent figures arrested. The human rights defenders were pivotal to winning the right to drive for women and had been driving illegally for years in protest. Amnesty International has denounced the imprisonment as political repression consistent with the countries oppressive reputation and designed to intimidate Saudi Arabian women from speaking out against sex discrimination.
The World Economic Forum ranks Saudi Arabia as 138th out of 144 countries on gender parity. The kingdom formally discriminates based on gender, and has laws that require women to obtain permission from a male relative in order to apply for a passport, travel, marry, get divorced, open a bank account, get a job, or have certain medical operations. Women are also separated from men outside of their family and are required to wear abayas, full length robes, in public.
The driving ban crippled women’s freedom and independence. Women could only travel if they were with a chaperone or chauffeur, preventing them from fully participating in the Saudi society and economy. In September, the monarchy announced that the ban would be lifted. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has worked to paint himself as a reformer, took credit for the decision as part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, but the monumental step would not have been possible without the brave feminist activists in Saudi Arabia who have been participating in acts of civil disobedience for decades.
The Saudi Arabian feminist movement has achieved multiple victories this year, including the right to watch soccer and join the military, though only in certain positions. In March, the Saudi Information Ministry announced that women would be able to gain custody of their children after a divorce without having to file a lawsuit, as long as there are no disputes between the parents. In addition, they can also now collect child support and apply for and collect their children’s passports, though they are still not allowed to leave the country with their children lacking a judge’s permission.
Work Cited: The Telegraph 2/18/18 ;Feminist Majority 9/28/17 ; CNN 5/21/18 ; AP News 5/22/18