After nearly three decades of struggle for women’s rights as well as feminist campaigning in Saudi Arabia, the ban on women driving will be lifted on 24 June 2018. This came as part of wider reforms that the government introduced in September 2017. It sought to dismantle some of the longstanding restrictions on women's freedom of mobility and access to public spaces. Yet, the long overdue decision addresses a mere fraction of what Saudi women have demanded and fought for in the last three decades. These include lifting restrictions on women's participation in the labor market and ending the male guardianship system, among other demands. The current government, like its predecessors, has responded to these demands—until as recently as 2016—by claiming that Saudi society is conservative and that social change should occur slowly and from within; it cannot be imposed. Doing so has provided a blanket cover for the government to crush all attempts at building independent civil society organizations.
As welcome as this latest policy change on women’s ability to drive is, it disproportionately benefits women of privileged backgrounds, leaving the social conditions of the majority intact at a time when social change is most urgent. Indeed, domestic violence, for instance, has severely affected women’s lives, with fifty-three percent of Saudi men reporting in 2003 that they have hit their wives. Issues of domestic violence increasingly came to national attention with the highly publicized cases of several women who attempted to escape the kingdom in the last year. Leaving the country is one of the few viable options available to victims of domestic abuse, at least for those who can afford it. Yet the government has tried to prevent them from doing so. Some of these women, such as Amna al-Juaid, have disappeared and their fate is yet to be known.
Government-affiliated institutions such as the King Khalid Foundation launched various campaigns denouncing domestic abuse and encouraging women and children to call the domestic violence hotline. Despite these efforts, Saudi authorities continue to treat domestic violence as a private matter that should be dealt with inside the home. Other than continuing to live with their abusers, which most victims are forced to do, women can seek government protection, upon which they are placed under state custody in what amounts to prisons, where abuse and cruelty are prevalent.
The main issue that does not receive as much attention as the driving ban is that women in Saudi Arabia are still legally treated as minors, incapable of independent living. Despite the aforementioned reforms, they remain legally dependent on their male guardians: a woman cannot go to college, get a job, live on her own, leave the country, or even receive life-saving obstetric and gynecological medical procedures, without the approval of a male guardian. Women, in fact, cannot even be released from prison without the written approval of a male guardian.
As 24 June approached, and excitement inside the country became palpable, Saudi authorities cracked down on feminist activists and campaigners, both women and men, who have led the fight for the basic right to drive a car. Some were rounded up and thrown in jail on 15 May while others were placed under a travel ban shortly after. Another wave of arrests followed on 6 June, adding to the precarity that Saudi Arabian citizens continue to endure. This has cast necessary doubt on the so-called reforms that many in the international community have referred to as "Saudi Arabia's Arab Spring."
The first wave of arrests included such prominent figures as Azizah al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Ibrahim al-Mudaymeegh, and Mohammad al-Rabea. It also included Abdulaziz al-Meshal and another person whose name has not been announced yet.
Aziza al-Yousef is a retired university professor and a longtime activist in both the My Right, My Dignity campaign and the ongoing campaign to end male guardianship. In 2016, she attempted to deliver to the Shura Council a 14,700-signature petition against the guardianship law, which was not met with any meaningful response.
Lujain al-Hathloul is a Saudi women’s rights activist and social media figure. Having actively and publicly challenged the driving ban in 2014, and championed the campaign to abolish male guardianship laws, this was not her first arrest.
Mohammad al-Rabeah is an activist, a writer, and a longtime supporter of women’s rights to drive and to abolish the male guardianship system. He also ran a forum, Tawasul, that hosted intellectuals from all over the world to discuss domestic and regional issues.
Eman al-Nafjan is a blogger and women’s rights activist. Starting in 2011, Eman was the main organizer of the 26 October My Right, My Dignity campaign against the driving ban, whereby dozens of women took to the streets and challenged the driving ban by driving their cars and publishing online videos of themselves driving. She continued to face harassment and questioning multiple times since then.
Ibrahim al-Modaymeegh is a former legal adviser to the Council of Ministers and a lawyer who has represented many political and human rights activists. He was the defense attorney for al-Yousef, al-Nafjan, and many other women's rights activists. In 2014, he represented al-Hathloul before the Specialized Criminal Court–a court formed in 2008 specifically to deal with terror suspects–when she was detained for trying to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia.
Abdulaziz al-Meshal is a businessman who was not, in fact, involved in any kind of activism. All he did was co-sign a funding application for establishing the center for women survivors of domestic abuse. A mere signature on that application was enough to have him labeled a traitor.
The second wave of arrests on 6 June included Nouf Abdulaziz, a human rights activist and a writer whose articles and essays were published in the Saudi feminist website, Noon al-Arabyiah. After her arrest, her friend Mayya al-Zahrani, published a letter that Nouf had written and intended for publication only in case she was arrested. This, in turn, led to the arrest of al-Zahrani herself.
Immediately following the arrests, state-controlled media launched a campaign of character assassination, labeling these activists as "traitors" and "agents of embassies." They did so presumably because some activists are alleged to have contacts with international human rights organizations and media outlets. Such campaigns of character assassination are not new: In the aftermath of the 1990 protest against the driving ban, the Saudi government circulated pamphlets in which it denounced protesters as "wh*res who are backed by communists and secularists," in reference to their husbands. This level of state repression has not only targeted activists but also their family members, many of whom were put under a travel ban.
The reasoning for and timing of these arrests illustrates just how bleak the prospects of actual reform are in the country. Such actions are primarily a government effort to erase, once and for all, the historical struggle to lift the ban on driving and the efforts of the women and men who were at its forefront. This way, the government can claim to be the one and only agent of progress and change in the country. Furthermore, it is an attempt to crush the ongoing feminist movement for ending the male guardianship system and to set a limit on further progress toward gender equality. Lastly, that the government targeted the activists merely for submitting a formal application to establish Amina (Safe) a society for the protection of survivors of domestic abuse, is alarming. By arresting these activists, the new government is criminalizing any attempt to challenge conditions of subordination, discrimination, and abuse, and, importantly, speaking out about them. It is a crime because it supposedly tarnishes the image of the “new” and “more equal” Saudi Arabia that the government is working hard to promote internationally. Indeed, exposing the daily realities of abuse and subordination that women across Saudi Arabia have to endure threatens the Saudi government and exposes its reforms for what they really are: an attempt to present the kingdom in a more modern and liberal light without fundamentally changing the actuality of oppressive social relations.
In order to recognize these feminist activists and the sacrifices they have made, we, the undersigned feminists and activists in Saudi Arabia and their allies abroad, call for an International Day of Solidarity with Saudi Feminists on 24 June 2018, and demand the immediate and unconditional release of all feminist prisoners.
You can sign the petition here and follow the hashtag #StandwithSaudiFeminists.
Alexandra Pomeon O’Neill; Director, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.
Amelia Horgan; Postgraduate Representative, National Union of Students (NUS), UK.
Ariel Gold; National co-director, CODEPINK, US.
Bassem Tamimi; A Palestinian activist, Palestine.
Caren Kaplan; Professor, Author, Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above, UC Davis, US
Chloe Manahan; Chair, Labour Youth Ireland, Ireland.
Cinzia Arruzza; National Organizer, International Women’s Strike, USA, US.
Danny Postel; Assistant Director, Middle East and North African Studies Program, Northwestern University, US.
Dave Zirin; Sports editor, The Nation, US.
Demita Frazier; Original Writer and Signatory, Combahee River Collective, US.
Dr Louise Irvine; Member of Council of the British Medical Association
Eamonn McCan; Activist with People Before Profit, Derry; Author, War and an Irish Town
Eden Ladley; Incoming LGBT+ Officer (Women’s Place), NUS, UK.
Emily Chapman; Vice President (Further Education), NUS, UK.
Eve Ensler; Author, The Vagina Monologues, US.
Frieda Afary; Producer, Iranian Progressives in Translation, US.
Goretti Horgan; Founder member and activist in Alliance for Choice and Derry Women’s Right to Choose.
Hala Aldosari; A Saudi scholar in women’s health and a human rights activist, Harvard University, US.
Hareem Ghani; Women’s Officer, NUS, UK.
Heike Shaumberg; Regional editor of Latin America journal in Argentina, with solidarity from the historic abortion vote.
Ilyas Nagdee; Black Students’ Officer, NUS, UK.
Issa Amro; Palestine Human Rights Defender, Director, Humans of Hebron, Palestine.
Ivana Bacik; Senator, Labour Party of Ireland (Dublin University), Ireland.
Iyad El-Baghdadi; A writer and activist, Kawakaabi Foundation, Norway.
Jane Stewart; National Women’s Seat, Unite Executive Council, UK.
Jess Bradley; Trans Officer, NUS, and activist, Action for Trans Health, UK.
Joseph Daher; Syrian-Swiss activist, founder, Syria Freedom Forever blog.
Kristina Stockwood; Chair of the Board, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Canada.
Leah Rea; International Secretary, the Socialist Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) North of Ireland, UK.
Lindsey German; Author and National Convenor, Stop the War Coalition, UK.
Lola Olufemi; Outgoing Women’s Officer, Cambridge University Students’ Union, and incoming National Executive Council (Women’s Campaign 2nd Place), NUS, UK.
Luisa Morgantini; Former Vice President, EU Parliament, human rights activist, Italy.
Luke Humberstone; Outgoing President, NUS Scotland, UK.
Madawi al Rasheed; A Saudi professor of social anthropology, King’s College, UK.
Madea Benjamin; Co-founder, CODEPINK, US.
Maev McDaid; Activist with Alliance for Choice and the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign
Malia Bouattia; Former NUS President, and former President of the NUS Black Students’ Campaign, activist with Preventing Prevent, UK.
Manal al-Sharif; Saudi women’s rights activist, co-founder #Women2Drive, Author of Daring to Drive: a Saudi Woman’s Awakening
Mariel Whelan; Activist with Galway Feminist Collective, UK.
Maryam Alkhawaja; A Bahraini Women Human Rights Defender, Gulf Centre for Human Rights
Minh-Ha T. Pham; Professor, Author, Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging, Pratt Institute, US.
Minna Salami; Nigerian, Finnish and Swedish writer, blogger and speaker. Founder, MsAfropolitan.
Mona Eltahawy; Feminist author and activist, Egypt/USA.
Mona Kareem; Writer, US.
Rachel O’Brien; Disabled Students’ Officer, NUS, UK.
Rachel Watters; Women’s Officer, National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI), UK.
Radhya Almutawakel; Chairperson, Mwatana organization for Human Rights.
Rebecca Solnit; Writer, US.
Sarah Lasoye; Incoming National Women’s Officer, NUS, UK.
Shuwanna Aaron; Scotland Women’s Officer, NUS, UK.
Stuart Russell; Monitoring Committee on Attacks on Lawyers, International Association of People’s Lawyers, France.
Tithi Bhattacharrya; National Organizer; International Women’s Strike USA, UK.
Yasser Munif; professor, Emerson College, Boston, US.
Yinbo Yu; International Students’ Officer, NUS, UK.