On May 18, the Saudi Press Agency publicly announced that the government had detained seven members, both male and female, of a group that was “organizing” against the “security and stability of the Kingdom, its social safety and national unity.” It quickly became clear that all those arrested have a rich history of defending women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, including Loujain Hathloul, Aisha Al Mana, Madeha Al Ajroush, Aziza Al Yousef, and Eman Al Najfan. The arrested men — Mohammad Al Rabea and Ibrahim al Modaimeegh, who was Al Hahloul’s legal representative — are also women’s rights activists. The arrests came at a particularly noteworthy juncture, only a few weeks before women will officially be allowed to legally drive in the country on June 24.
Arrests are regular, everyday fodder for activists working in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, some of the detainees have been arrested for their activism in the past. Al Hathloul was charged with terrorism in November 2014 for attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the UAE. Al Najfan, who has written extensively about driving on her blog Saudiwoman’s Weblog and Al Yousef, a university lecturer, were both arrested for defying the driving ban in 2013.
Yet the timing of these arrests — so close to what many have described as a “dream come true,” — is off: Why now? Why arrest the loudest and most recognizable voices advocating against the driving ban when the goal they have worked towards for years is finally coming to fruition?
The answer lies in the fact that the arrests are a threatening reminder to the leaders of the Saudi women’s rights movement, indeed to all activists in general, that they should not demand anything further. They are a signal to Saudi activists that allowing women to drive does not mean the state is willing to partner with its critics and activists to reform the country and that it, and it alone, remains in complete control.
In fact, despite the lifting of the ban, nothing much has changed for Saudi women. They are still largely beholden to strict legal and social customs that vastly limit their mobility and independence. The country’s conservative dress code laws remain intact, ensuring women do not associate with unrelated men remains the norm, and most importantly, and male guardianship persists. Women in Saudi can still only drive, work, travel or access healthcare with a male guardian — or a note from a male guardian authorizing the woman to do so.
The allegations made against the activists, all of which boil down to defaming the state, make it clear that criticizing the Saudi state in any way is tantamount to being an enemy of the Saudi state. This all would be unexceptional, standard practice for the authoritarian Saudi state if it was not on a public relations campaign to romance the West with new, dazzling visions for openness and reform. The arrests and detentions of the country’s most prominent women’s rights activists show, however, the real story behind those “reforms,” unmasking the entire narrative to reveal the hollow farce that lies underneath.