Recent arrests of women’s rights activists exposes illusion of Crown Prince’s “reform”

When King Salman issued a royal decree last September to allow women the right to drive, female activists across Saudi Arabia rejoiced. It seemed as if they were finally making progress in a long struggle for recognition.

Manal al-Sharif, one of the faces of the campaign who was arrested for driving in 2011, tweeted:

In an article piece headlined, “Change Can Happen in Saudi Arabia“, Eman Al-Nafjan, a professor of linguistics in Saudi Arabia, wrote, “Now, with the driving ban lifted, other issues seem conquerable. The biggest issue at the moment is the guardianship system.”

Al-Nafjan is now detained in an undisclosed location in Saudi Arabia. She was arrested along with at least 10 other activists earlier this month, weeks before the driving ban is lifted on June 24. Several of the women were released on May 24, but the status of the others, including Al-Nafjan, is unknown.

A Common Goal of Rights

While the arrested activists come from an array of different backgrounds, they share a common thread: they seek further advancement for women’s rights in the male-dominated society. Several of them have spoken publicly against the male guardianship system. This requires females to obtain permission from their guardian, often their father or husband, to carry out basic activities such as travelling outside the country or enrolling in university. Aziza al-Yousef, one of the women detained, delivered a petition in 2016 with thousands of signatures to the royal court calling for the end to the guardianship laws.

State-backed media followed the arrests with a smear campaign calling the activists traitors and “agents of embassies” The exact charges have not been disclosed, but an official statement claimed the detainees were in “suspicious contact with foreign parties” and of undermining “security and stability.” Saudi Arabia has broad counterterrorism laws that are often used to silence any form of political dissent.

The Limits of Change

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has acknowledged the need for moderation and modernization to advance the Kingdom’s interests and fuel its faltering economy, part of his Vision 2030 plan. While he has made several reforms in the social and economic sphere, the political environment has moved in the opposite direction — this is the third major crackdown since he has risen to power.

In the wake of these developments, the limited reforms on women’s rights appear to be gestures to appease Western constituencies. When the driving ban was lifted, it was broadcast simultaneously across State-run television in Saudi Arabia and at a major media event in Washington, D.C. The same day, Saudi officials contacted leading activists and warned them not to respond. In an interview with the Atlantic after the ban was lifted, Saudi scholar Hala al-Dosari explained, “This is the problem with women’s rights in Saudi Arabia — it’s always used by the political system as a negotiation card, more so than being about empowerment.”

The lift of the ban offered a simple, surface-level solution that could easily be showcased in the media — perfectly suited for Mohammed bin Salman’s “reformist” agenda. But the problems for liberation of Saudi women run much deeper than being able to drive. The guardianship law is based on one verse in the Qur’an, and its ramifications have long been contested by activists.

Support for scrapping the guardianship laws has taken off over the past two years, with thousands of activists joining the #IamMyOwnGuardian movement. Human Rights Watch has issued a comprehensive report calling for an end to the system, catalyzing international pressure. But Mohammad bin Salman has made is painfully clear that change will come from the top — and any alterations that could upend the political status quo will not be tolerated. In a society driven by a patriarchal system, with the rulers as the ultimate “guardians” of the kingdom, empowered women could mean turbulence.

These arrests have proven that change for women in Saudi society will continue to be a slow, arduous process, hindered by an increasingly restrictive political environment.