Human Rights Watch reported on Tuesday, 22 May, that three more activists had been detained leading up to the month before Saudi lifts its ban on female drivers. In total, it was reported that at least 13 activists had been arrested since the weekend. Those arrested were advocating against the lopsided administrative system in Saudi Arabia which was unfavourable to women, such as the guardianship system and the ban on women driving.
Saudi State news reports the activists’ alleged charges included having suspicious contacts with foreign entities supporting their activities, recruiting persons holding sensitive government positions and providing dubious support to foreign and hostile elements. Amnesty International Middle East Campaign Director, Samah Hadid said that these intimidation tactics cannot be justified, further noting that Saudi’s crackdown campaign is a worrying development for women’s human rights defenders and activists in Saudi Arabia. Kristin Smith Diwan, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington commented on the arrests of these women, which included naming and shaming them and arresting them at their homes when normally they would have been asked to report to the authorities. Diwan predicted that the new unprecedented arrests show Saudi Arabia’s increase in trials of activists to keep them under control.
As mentioned earlier, those arrested were campaigning for the lifting of the driving ban and advocating against the guardianship system in Saudi. The guardianship system heavily restrains a women’s life choices, including women requiring permission from male relatives or their husbands.
The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been acknowledged for his more liberal drive. He had undertaken a global tour with the aim to reshape his country’s image. One of his breakthroughs was expanding women’s rights last year by allowing women’s involvement with the military for the first time and allowing women to join some cultural and sporting events. Additionally, he looked at the country’s religious police to solve the issue of strict rules of public behaviour which targets women. A recent triumph for the Crown Prince is the lifting of the decades-old driving ban on women which would come into effect on 24 June.
Given the efforts the Crown Prince has put in reshaping his country’s image alongside his own reputation, it is no surprise that the recent crackdown had caused confusion on the Crown Prince’s stance. Gregory Gause, a professor at Texas A&M University had similar thoughts with people who heard the news about the crackdown. Professor Gause said the news about the activists was very surprising, given that the Prince crowned himself for liberal change, improving the position of women in Saudi society.
While it is encouraging to see the improvements made in Saudi society, the efforts of advocates of these changes should not be forgotten. Furthermore, their voices should not be suppressed, especially in such a supposedly modern and changed society in Saudi Arabia. The awareness that was spread through the good works of these activists gives hope to women to find their voice and their place in the society. It would be delightful for authorities and governments who make decisions on behalf of the citizens to take into consideration the voices of these people in shaping a better future for a peaceful society.
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