Seven women’s rights activists have been arrested in Saudi Arabia. The reason behind their detainment remains unclear, with authorities having failed to provide adequate explanations so far. The detainees, including Eman al-Nafjan, Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, along with two male protesters, have been held since May 15th. These activists are known for championing the abolishment of the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia, as well as the seeking of the end to the abolishment of females being allowed to drive. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the detainees were contacted by the royal court and warned to refrain from speaking to the media the same day the announcement was made that the driving ban would be lifted on June 24th. This is to happen as part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s reform campaign – a campaign that protesters have been notably skeptical of as they argue that it is purely superficial and will not properly reverse restrictions against women in Saudi Arabia.
According to Sarah Leah Whitson, a director at HRW, “Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s reform campaign has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women’s empowerment.” Whitson further stated that “The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the Crown Prince’s rights agenda faces jail time.” Rothna Begum, a researcher at the Human Rights Watch, further declared that “What we know is that the Saudi prince wants to make it clear to all of his citizens that they are his subjects who must be grateful for whatever liberties he gives them, but they must not demand any of their rights.”
The imprisonment of prominent human rights activists is extremely troubling. HRW has stated that either they should be charged with a criminal offence to justify their detainment or they must be released immediately. In a kingdom currently focused on purportedly reforming and dismantling the restrictive guardianship system in place, the arrests are indicative that achieving actual, measurable change is not a priority.
The discriminatory guardianship system is a prominent subject of women’s rights activism in Saudi Arabia, stating that all females must have a man acting in the role of their keepers with the ability to make important choices on their behalf. Male guardians are predominantly fathers, husbands or brothers, though in some instances even sons may operate within this role. A keeper’s approval is required for a range of important decisions, including applying for a passport and studying abroad. Lifting the driving ban represents a vital step towards increasing women’s mobility and their ability to seek employment. However, it is only one of the many blatant barriers to gender equality in the kingdom.
It is crucial that organizations such as Human Rights Watch persist to pressure Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and the royal court to continue to show that the international community will not tolerate the silencing of political activists. Since 2011, almost 30 protesters have already been sentenced in the Saudi judicial system and some of these individuals have received sentences of up to 15 years. Positive change can be achieved through non-governmental human rights organizations who have the ability to draw global attention to these gross injustices, thereby spurring international action with the goal of releasing political prisoners, reducing the likelihood that more activists will be similarly convicted in the future.
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