The arrests of at least seven high-profile women’s rights campaigners in Saudi Arabia have been condemned by human rights groups as a sign that tentative social reforms in the kingdom are not as wide-ranging as promised.
Eman al-Nafjan, Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziz al-Yousef, Aisha al-Manea, Madiha Al-Ajroush, Walaa Al-Shubbar and Hasah Al-Sheikh were all taken from their homes on Friday evening, according to reports which emerged over the weekend.
All the women are vocal activists against the conservative country’s guardianship system, where male relatives or husbands have control over almost all aspects of women's lives.
Along with male activists Ibrahim Modeimigh and Mohammed al-Rabe they were arrested for alleged involvement in activities that “encroach on religious and national constants”, a government statement said.
They are accused of “suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country”, state news agency SPA reported, quoting a state security spokesman.
All of those detained have at one point or another been involved in campaigning for the end of the kingdom’s ban on women driving – a rule that new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has moved to abolish from next month.
“It appears the only ‘crime’ these activists committed was wanting women to drive before Mohammed bin Salman did,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The arrests – a devastating blow to the absolute monarchy’s tiny activist community – have been accompanied by a series of harsh denouncements in semi-official media outlets and social media accounts.
“There is no place for traitors among us,” a lengthy opinion piece in Okaz newspaper said on Monday. “Betraying the country is a red line regardless of [activist] goals.” The paper said the activists could potentially face the death penalty.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued a royal decree last November announcing that women would be able to drive from 24 June 2018 for the first time since 1990.
The deeply symbolic move will transform women’s lives in a country where they must still seek the permission of a male guardian to fulfil needs and desires as basic as travel, study and opening a bank account.
In November, several of the arrested women were told by the authorities not to comment on the decision to repeal the ban, a decision widely believed at the time made to ensure the government, rather than campaigners, received credit for the repeal.
Lifting the driving ban is one of a host of social and economic reforms that have been unveiled in the kingdom since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince by his father last June. He has reined in the power of the country's notorious religious police, reopened cinemas and promised a return to a more "moderate" Islam.
The powerful 32-year-old is the driving force behind Vision 2030, the kingdom’s long-term plan to wean itself off dependence on oil by modernising society. Crucially, allowing women to drive will help them enter the workforce.
Critics have said the reforms are a carrot for the Saudi public ahead of the economic hardship they inevitably face in future. The decrees do not go as far as addressing the kingdom’s strict laws on freedom of expression, assembly, or the liberal use of capital punishment.
“It is clear that underneath all the PR hype and spin, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms exclude human rights activism,” said Samah Hadid of Amnesty International.
“Saudi Arabian authorities cannot continue to publicly state they are dedicated to reform, while treating women’s rights campaigners in this cruel way.”
In November 2017, members of the Saudi elite were locked up in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton as part of an anti-corruption drive, a move that spooked markets and earned criticism from international rights groups.
Several civil society activists were also caught up in that round of detentions.
Many campaigners are worried the new arrests mark the beginning of a trend.
“It’s crazy what’s happening in Saudi Arabia now – the targeting of women activists,” said Suad Abu Dayyeh, a consultant with feminist campaign group Equality Now.
“Other activists are now under threat. This is bound to create a chill effect.”
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