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On June 27, 2018, Saudi women celebrated a hard-fought human rights victory – the lifting of the ban on women drivers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). That victory was, however, also tinged with defeat, as many of the activists who campaigned for the right were behind bars when the ban was finally removed.

Since May 15, 2018, at least seventeen women’s rights activists, both male and female, have been detained in Saudi jails, where they have often been held incommunicado. Although there have been no official charges, some of these detainees are accused of having “suspicious” relations with overseas contacts, according to a statement from the UN. Eight unidentified detainees were reportedly temporarily released in June,  pending their procedural review. 

Activist Loujain al-Hathloul is among six activists, four women and two men, who were initially detained in May, when the crackdown began. She is still in detention. Al-Hathloul has been an instrumental voice in the campaign to secure women’s right to drive in the Kingdom. In 2014, al-Hathloul protested the driving ban by attempting to drive a car from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. She was arrested at a border crossing, and detained for seventy-three days

As reported by ALQST, a Saudi human rights group based in London, on June 27, the Saudi government arrested Hatoon al-Fassi, a women’s rights activist and author, but like others, she has not been charged. Even expressing solidarity with other activists has resulted in jail time for activists in Saudi Arabia. Activist Mayaa al-Zahrani was detained on June 10 for publicly supporting another arrested activist, Nouf Abdulaziz al-Jerawi. Abdulaziz was herself arrested for expressing support for the activists arrested in May. Other activists who have been detained since May include, but are not limited to, blogger Eman al-Nafjan, women’s rights advocate Aziza al-Yousef, Aisha al-Mana,  Madeha al-Ajroush, Walaa all-Shubbar, Hasah al-Sheikh, lawyer Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, Mohammad al-Rabea and Abdulaziz al-Meshaal. 

In its statement on these arrests, the UN urged Saudi Arabia to release the activists, calling the decision to arrest them “truly worrying and perhaps a better indication of the Government’s approach to women’s human rights.”

Indeed, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) September 2017 decision to lift the driving ban is by no means a reflection of Saudi commitment to human rights, whether for women or otherwise. Instead, it is a calculated, strategic decision motivated by economic reasons and intended to create a veneer of reform. As many have pointed out, in order for MBS to realize his Vision 2030 plan for Saudi Arabia, women must be full economic participants – being able to drive themselves to work is key to realizing this objective.

So why has the Saudi government chosen to detain these activists? Some have suggested the detentions are meant to quell conservative anger against the ban’s removal. While this may be true, these unjust and unlawful imprisonments also send a clear message to women’s rights activists, who want to push for more reforms. As the government has made clear, it is the sole arbiter of human rights in Saudi Arabia. By imprisoning those women who fought for the right to drive, the government is making clear this victory does not belong to them.

Although women can now legally drive in Saudi Arabia, realizing the full extent of their rights is more unlikely now than it has ever been.

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