By Middle East Affairs
Women’s rights activists and champions of Saudi Arabia’s upcoming law that grants women the right to vote have been arrested and threatened with death for daring to speak out about heading behind the wheel.
Manal al-Sharif, an activist who filmed a video of herself driving in 2011, was then jailed, and now faces death threats for speaking out on behalf of the arrested activists, despite being out of the kingdom and in Australia.
She says in speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “If you ask me why they’ve been arrested, it’s just to send a message for women’s rights activists who’ve been campaigning to drive to just shut up.”
After decades of banning women from driving, the kingdom will be granting women the right to drive on June 24, but ahead of the new law, the government is set on keeping women quiet. Activism is forbidden in the absolute monarchy.
Activists who attended protests against the driving ban had been warned by the monarchy not to make any comments on the lifting of the ban. Some of the activists have since been arrested, but refuse to keep quiet.
“I am getting threats now, but I don’t really care,” said al-Sharif who is worried by her fellow activists.
“They say: ‘You’re next. Don’t think that because you are in Sydney, we’re not going to get you.’ But I really don’t care because it’s just a smearing campaign – and I know because I’ve been subjected to that when I was in jail,” the 39-year-old Al-Sharif said to Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have campaigns asking for the detained women to be released from prison. They have also released the name of the men and women who have dared speak out, Eman al-Nafjan, Lujain al-Hathloul, Aziz al-Yousef, Aisha al-Manea, Ibrahim Modeimigh and Mohammed al-Rabea are six among the arrested.
In addition to their support of women having rights to drive, in 2016 Nafjan and Hathloul signed a petition calling for the end to the monarchy’s male guardianship system. Under the current system, women are required to have a male relative’s consent for major decisions. Hathloul has twice previously been arrested for her activism.
The monarch said that it had arrested seven people on charges of “suspicious contacts with foreign entities and offering financial support to enemies overseas.”
It is likely that their charges are tied to their vocal criticism of the driving ban which the monarchy sees as a crime against the state.
Saudi authorities have released the names and faces of the activists across newspapers calling them traitors, Amnesty has called that a smear campaign to discreet the activists.
Middle East director at Human Rights Watch Sarah Leah Whitson said, “It appears the only ‘crime’ these activists committed was wanting women to drive before Mohammed bin Salman did.”
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, lifted the driving ban in what is being called the monarchy’s transition to more progressive rulings, but with the lift, a new rise on arrests has been made to curb dissent.
Al-Sharif is hopeful that the Prince’s age and his involvement with Vision 2030, an initiative which seeks to raise women’s participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030 as a step forward.
She said, “That’s the shock. What’s happening here? We’re all happy and all supportive when the (driving) ban was lifted. I thought, ‘Finally, I can dream of a new society.’ But right now, I see my dream being shattered.”
Al-Sharif remains fearful for the arrested, she said “It’s so disappointing. I was so hopeful, but the way that these women are being treated is not promising. It’s alarming.”
Amnesty’s Middle East Director of Campaigns Samah Hadid agrees, she said “Saudi Arabia cannot continue to publicly proclaim support for women’s rights and other reforms while targeting women human rights defenders and activists for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.”