Godmother of women’s rights released from prison; many other activists still detained in Saudi

By MiddleEast Affairs

Dr. Aisha al-Manea, one of Saudi Arabia’s earliest feminist was released a week after being arrested for her outspoken candor about women’s rights and driving released Amnesty International.

The Middle East Director for Amnesty International Samah Hadid said, “The Saudi Arabian authorities’ endless harassment of women’s rights defenders is entirely unjustifiable.”

Just weeks before the driving ban for women is lifted, Saudi has made a harrowing number of arrests on prominent women’s rights activists, who were previously threatened and told to remain quiet.

Manal al-Sharif, an activist who has been involved in driving campaigns since 2011, wrote on her Twitter about the arrests of driving activists, “The only treason they committed was against the inhumane male guardianship system in Saudi, was against the patriarchy my countrywomen live under, was against denying them the full citizenship as Saudis.”

Currently, Amnesty International says that Saudi has 11 activists under arrest, all have championed for women’s rights and have spoken out against the kingdom’s male guardianship system that requires a male relative to give his permission before a woman makes any major decision.

Hadid said,”We welcome her (Manea) release but we still do not know the conditions around it, and we call on authorities to release the other human rights defenders immediately.”

She also said, “Unfortunately, the chilling smear campaign of these women and men has caused damage and tarnished not only these women but any form of activism and dissent in the country.”

Well known blogger and activist Eman al-Nafjan, one of the arrested in Saudi’s massive crackdown on critics of the driving ban for women. (social media)

Last week the kingdom released a statement which said that seven people had been detained on charges of suspicious contacts with foreign entities and offering financial support to “enemies overseas”. Authorities have released the names and photos across various media outlets, with various human rights groups calling it a vicious smear campaign inciting hatred towards the activists.

The arrests were made in a sweep of home raids that were made to humiliate the arrested and frighten the remaining household members, writes ALQST, an NGO that advocates for human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Manea who is now 70 years old has been campaigning for women’s right to drive since the 1990s. She is also of the author of The Sixth of November, the title of the books is a reference to the first ever demonstration that took place in Saudi over women’s driving ban. In the same year, 47 women took their cars and got behind the wheel in a sweeping campaign to normalize driving, they were met with job suspensions and travel bans.

Amnesty has revealed the other six prominent activists who were arrested along with Dr. Manea, they include Dr. Ibrahim al-Mudaimeegh, Professor Eman al-Nafjan, Professor Aziza al-Youssef, leading activist Loujain al-Hathloul, activist Mohammed al-Rabiah, Dr. Aisha al-Mana, and activist Madiha al-Ajroushan.

Professor al-Nafjan previously wrote in a 2013 blog post on Amnesty International, “If there was one word to describe what it is like to be a Saudi woman, it would be the word patronizing. No matter how long you live, you remain a minor in the eyes of the government.”

Saudi media has attacked the activists calling them traitors and accused them of working for foreign governments. Activism is currently banned in the kingdom. The hashtag #AgentsofEmbassies has appeared on social media posts accompanied by the women’s pictures.

Human Rights groups have called on the U.S, a close ally of Saudi Arabia to put pressure on the kingdom after its recent campaign to target critics of the kingdom. Widespread arrests for prominent human rights lawyers and activists are reported in Egypt as well, the U.S. government has said that it would privately discuss the crackdown with both governments.

Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association member Dr Mohammed al-Qahtani, human rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair and journalist Alaa Brinji all remain in jail for speaking out publicly against the driving ban.

Prince Salman has made efforts of reform in his kingdom and has been friendly to Western allies hoping to secure business deals outside the oil industry. The ban on women driving which has been in place for generations will be lifted in June, however, since its announcement, dissent arrests have been rampant. The government does not want its citizens thinking that public opinion can sway legislative change.

Outside of Mecca, there is no public transportation system in place in Saudi Arabia. This means that should a woman want to get from point A to point B, she needs to have a male relative drive her or employ a driver.

A female driver in Saudi. (social media)

When asked for the reason of the driving ban government officials, including former King Abdullah have said that the ban is not in place on legal conditions or on the bases of Islam, but socially maintained. It is, however, reinforced by police on duty from the kingdom.

The Prince wants to be seen as a reformer who takes his country towards a progressive turn. On the subject, Samah Hadid, director of Amnesty has this to say “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.”

The kingdom is also known to have made threatening phone calls to activist ordering them to be silent, but more than 20 driving activists have chosen to speak out.

Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist who is now based in Australia was also one of the women threatened, she has taken to Twitter to voice her opinion on the kingdom’s actions towards women. On the day of the arrest of Dr. Aisha al-Manea, she wrote, “She is like a Godmother and idole [sic] to the new generation of female activists and to me. She donated all her wealth to educate & empower Saudi women. And today that same country she loved and dedicated her love and life to is treating her this way… Shame!”

In its annual Global Gender Gap report, the World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia in 2016 as 141 out of 145 countries for its treatment of women. Under its legal male guardianship system, male relatives have the power to legally marry off their female relatives as they see fit. The male guardian usually a father, brother, uncle or husband have the power to ban a woman from receiving an education. Among the many other decision that a male guardian can make on behalf of a female, what her job should be, as well as having the approval of any international travel that she might be considering.


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