It’s easy to be a feminist where everyone is a feminist. But to be an outspoken, successful, and effective feminist in Saudi Arabia – that takes a whole different level of courage. And right now, the courage of Saudi Arabia’s prime women’s rights activists is being tested.
Last week, the Saudi regime declared war on women’s rights activism, put all of the country’s leading women’s rights activist in jail, and threatened the rest into silence. An eerie hush has fallen over the once-outspoken Saudi feminist scene.
In a past article, I explored the dynamism of the Saudi public sphere, and the blossoming of Saudi women’s rights activism. Little did I know that just over a year later, the brilliant women and men I wrote about would be facing perhaps the most severe crisis of their lives.
The activists are being charged with none less than treason, and an intense smear campaign is being waged against them in state media. Government-friendly social media accounts have even stated that expressing solidarity will also lead to arrest. The viciousness of this smear campaign makes the intentions of the government clear – to end these women’s rights defenders’ careers.
The survival of Saudi feminism is at stake.
News of the arrests broke on the evening of May 18th – the first day of Ramadan in most Muslim countries; this happens to be a few hours before the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The Saudi regime wanted to send a loud message to its own citizens, while the world is looking elsewhere.
I write this article today in solidarity with some of the bravest people I know – and to illustrate the perils of social evolution without political rights.
But before analysis, let’s talk about the activists.
Here are some of the most prominent of activists arrested.
Loujain Al Hathloul
Despite her young age (28), Loujain has quite an activism CV. In 2014, she attempted to drive her car into Saudi Arabia across the border from the UAE, leading to her arrest. She was charged with terrorism (!), and detained for 73 days before being released with the case still open.
Last February, she attended the 69th session on the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Shortly after returning home in UAE, she was stopped by the police and transferred to AL-Hayer prison in Riyadh for three days, then slapped with a travel ban and barred from social media activity, and prevented from completing her master’s degree in the UAE.
In 2016, Loujain was invited to the One Young World summit in Ottawa, where she posed with other powerful women. Seen here is Loujain with Fatima Bhutto, niece of late Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto; Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland — and, yes, Meghan Markle, the latest addition to the British royal family. On the day that Meghan Markle was getting married, Loujain Al Hathloul was in prison.
Aziza Al Yousef
Aziza Al Yousef (60) is a retired lecturer and a businesswoman. She is a leading campaigner for the right to drive and to end male guardianship laws in the country, and has worked tirelessly to foster young engagement in demanding reforms. She participated in defying the driving ban in Riyadh in 2013, and has been harassed and interrogated by the authorities for years before her arrest. She stopped using her social media account few months back after receiving a call from the Royal Court to refrain from commenting on the decision to life the driving ban last September.
Aisha Al Mane’
Dr. Aisha Al Mane’ is considered the godmother of Saudi women’s activism – she had first defied the driving ban in 1990, when she along with 50 women were arrested, deprived of their passports, and forced out of their jobs. That did not end her activism – she continued to coordinate community workshops on women’s rights, and to pushed for eliminating the kingdom’s “male guardianship laws” by contracting a legal jurist to review the laws, revealing them to have no legitimate religious basis. She donated all of her wealth to educate and empower Saudi women. Dr. Aisha Al Mane’ is 70 years old, and reportedly in frail health after a heart attack last year. She serves as the dean of al-Manes health science University and the director of the Al-Mane’ hospital and is one of the founders of the Eastern Province Businesswomen Forum to empower women in business.
Madeha Al Ajroush
Dr. Madeha Al Ajroush is a psychoanalyst and an artist. She was one of the 50 women who defied the driving ban in 1990, and has participated in all subsequent women’s movements in Saudi Arabia since, particularly when it comes to supporting female survivors of violence. She was previously interviewed on NRK’s Urix.
Dr Hessa Al-Sheikh
Dr. Hessa Al-Shaikh is a professor of sociology, board member in several state-run charity organizations for orphans and children, and a veteran supporter of women’s rights reforms since her participation in 1990 driving protest. She is one of the most dedicated advocates of supporting women survivors of violence through her research and community work – most recently, she had worked over the last four years on researching and publishing a groundbreaking study on Saudi feminism movements since 1990.
Also detained were several men involved in women’s rights advocacy, including Harvard-educated lawyer Dr. Ibrahim Al Modaimeegh, young intellectual and social media activist Mohammad Al Rabea, and businessman and philanthropist Abdulaziz Al Mishal.
As you can see, these are not rabble-rousers or armchair activists – they are among the most impactful human rights activists anywhere. All are committed to nonviolence – a far cry from the Saudi state itself. So what did they do to deserve to be treated as such a threat?
Why, and Why Now?
Two months ago, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) completed a US tour which saw him meeting with celebrities, business leaders, and entertainers. Many who watched his interview with CBS’s famous show “60 Minutes” bought into his charm offensive. His plan to modernize the kingdom, dubbed “Vision 2030”, calls for economic and social reforms including increasing labor participation of women, and giving them the right to drive, attend sports, and visit movie theaters. So, what happened?
We saw it coming. MBS’s “Vision 2030”, while emphasizing social and economic reforms, has no space for political reforms. His transformation project is driven not by liberal ideals, but by economic necessity – Saudi Arabia’s oil-based economy is unsustainable; the IMF has even warned in 2016 that the country’s large cash reserves are projected to be depleted “within 5 years”.
The most dangerous moment for a dictatorship is when it starts to reform – the very acknowledgement of a need to change is an acknowledgement of vulnerability. The proposed Saudi “reforms” need buy-in and investment from international business, tech, and entertainment – but the regime knows that this “opening up” could create space for political demands, and is intensely threatened by the prospect of an awakened population that presses for its rights as a new social contract is possibly being formulated. Women’s rights activism happens to be among the most dynamic and long-standing avenue of human rights work in the country, because of the massive restrictions imposed on women in all levels
When a journalist inquired after the reason behind one of the arrests, an official responded with a clear message: “To let them know that nobody can twist the government’s arm”. The Saudi regime wants to pose the reforms as a gift bestowed by an all-benevolent monarch who is graciously “allowing” the women to drive, rather than this being a victory achieved as the result of activism. If the moves are seen as a victory for activists, then this will be clear message that activism works. The Saudi regime wants a pliable society that does not dissent, does not try to negotiate with those in power, and does not try to advocate for its own interests.
June 24th is the date chosen by Saudi authorities for women to finally be allowed to drive. On this date, international media will flock the kingdom to cover the event, probably with festive celebrations and pre-arranged interviews with happy women in cars thanking the benevolent government. But the women who fought and won the right to drive will be in jail, charged with treason, and threatened with long jail terms. Their families and children will bore the brunt of the ongoing smear campaigns against them for years to come.
The Saudi regime is vulnerable and needs international cooperation if its transformation project is to work. The world needs to use this moment to press for releasing these brave campaigners. The reputation damage has to mount, not only upon MBS, but upon every brand, celebrity, or entertainer who agrees to work with him before they are released. Today, and every day till June 24th and beyond, we should ask: Where are the Saudi feminists?
If you would like to help or show your support to these women’s rights activists, please get in touch at [email protected].