#Women2Drive: The work of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia is far from over.
By Zoya Waliany, Country Specialist, Amnesty International USA
After Saudi Arabia lifted the world’s only remaining ban on women drivers this month, women celebrated by driving in convoys around their neighborhoods and touring busy downtown streets. Noticeably absent from the celebrations were some of the key figures of the #Women2Drive movement that fought for the lifting of the ban — Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef. These women could not celebrate their movement’s victory because they had been detained and held incommunicado by Saudi authorities since May 17, 2018.
These women were among 19 Saudi activists and human rights defenders detained since May. After news of their arrests surfaced, state media began publishing statements accusing many of the activists of forming a cell, working with foreign embassies, and serving as a security threat for the Kingdom. Their pictures were circulated on social media along with accusations of treason. This smear campaign painted the activists as traitors for working on issues like gender-based violence and starting a literary salon for young women and men.
While these activists are held without access to lawyers or contact with their families in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has spent a large portion of his year in power peddling a false narrative of progressiveness around the western world. In an attempt to win hearts and minds of future investors and allies, the Crown Prince has been alluding to an interest in expanding women’s rights as part of his supposed modern take on governance in the Kingdom. In addition to declaring the eventual lifting of the women’s driving ban in September 2017, he has addressed the importance of equal pay and spoken out about the Kingdom’s failures to provide women all of their rights. Yet, back home, not only were these changes not implemented, but Saudi authorities continued to routinely arrest activists, writers, dissidents, and any ordinary citizens who expressed views similar to the Crown Prince’s statements on reform.
Through detaining some of the most central leaders of the #Women2Drive movement a month before the ban is lifted, the Saudi regime sends a clear message: the Saudi regime’s vision, rather than your work, led to the lifting of the ban. Any other reforms, this action suggests, will come only at the hands of the progressive Crown Prince. And anyone else who dares to raise their voices and fight for reform will meet a similar fate. Defenders of women’s rights within the international community should not let this intimidation tactic succeed.
The work of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia is far from complete. Saudi women citizens require permission for such fundamental activities as education and travel due to the guardianship system. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable women in Saudi society, migrant domestic workers, remain at the whim of their employers due to the oppressive Kafala system. The Saudi authorities must release the remaining imprisoned women’s rights defenders so they can continue to keep this regime in check.
We are calling on the Saudi regime to release them immediately and ensure access to lawyers of their choosing. Take action here to tell the Saudi authorities that the world knows who is truly to thank for the lifting of this ban.