The Prince's Prisoners
"Once women start driving, they will have opened a door that can never be closed. Activism and demands for social change will boom, and they will never be able to control it.” - Loujain Al Hathloul
Nothing has been heard from Loujain AlHathloul, Aziza AlYousef or Eman AlNafjan since their surprise arrest last month
These were Loujain's words of optimism to me when we met last summer. Unfortunately, it would appear she was not the only one to foresee the potentially revolutionary consequences of the Saudi government’s long-awaited decision to lift the country’s infamous ban on women driving. In a country that does not tolerate any manifestation of civil society or public discontent, the government’s apparent acuquiecense to a group of activists, and women no less, could set a precedent that would be difficult to reverse.
In order to make their position perfectly clear; that activism doesn’t pay, and that the ruling royal class remains in absolute control of both the scale and speed of present reforms, the government chose to skim the crème de la crème from Saudi’s limited activist circles.
Key activists were plucked from every generation. Dr. Aisha Almana, Madeha Al Ajroush and Hessah Al Sheikh, now all in their sixties or above, were protagonists of the first women’s driving protest in 1990. Dr. Eman Al Nafjan and Aziza Al Yousef shared a car in the 2013 demonstration and have been outspoken on both the topics of driving and male guardianship before and since. More recently Loujain Al Hathloul and Walaa Al Shabarr have ridden the wave of Saudi Arabia’s social media boom to become the most recognisable faces of a new generation of activists
What is more, these women also represent the eastern, western and central territories of the relatively young Kingdom, which maintains strong regional identities. Finally, four men were interred, a warning that those who aid and abet will not be sheltered by the patriarchy.
A civil coup on this scale was not executed on a whim. Some newspaper reports have linked the arrests to a recent request submitted by the women to establish an NGO offering support to victims of domestic violence. However, this was unlikely to have been the trigger. Firstly because the government has collaborated openly on such social welfare projects in the past, and secondly because the arrests of May 15th were likely the result of much longer-term planning.
The women and men detained pertain largely to an educated and affluent sector of society, and often spend time abroad. Several complained of travel restrictions in the weeks leading up to their arrest; it appears there was an effort to contain as many as possible within the country before the operation was launched.
Dr. Aisha Almana for example, was detained at immigration on the bridge between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as she attempted to make a routine visit to the neighbouring Kingdom.
Of the country’s high-profile activists, only one escaped the cut. Manal Al Sharif currently resides in Australia. She is not unaware that it is only her geographical position that has spared her the same treatment. Her planned visit to the country in June to visit her young son who lives with his father has had to be indefinitely postponed.
A lone voice on Twitter, the accounts of her comrades eerily silent since 15th May, she continues to provide updates on those still incarcerated and lobby for their release.
As for what exactly the detained activists have been charged with, government statements are intentionally vague. Firstly, because it is clear that these women have committed no crime; secondly, because a lack of clarity feeds an atmosphere of fear. Maintaining a level of opacity surrounding the rules of the game, discourages other would-be activists from taking chances.
For now, the Saudi Associated Press claims the group, “carried out an organized work to violate the religious and national principles of the state. They also had communications with foreign bodies to support their activities … as well as providing financial support to hostile elements abroad with the objective of undermining the Kingdom’s security and stability.” It’s a profile that fits well with existing public suspicions regarding these non-traditional, largely western-educated women.
Given the more moderate image the Kingdom has endeavoured to project in recent months, the world reacted with shock to the news of the arrests. But Crown-Prince Mohammed Ibn Salman models himself on reformer kings of a different era. His tactics of ‘shock reform’ have resulted various purges over the last year, including the imprisonment of high-ranking muttawah (who have never been heard of since) and famously, the confinement of his own relatives at the Ritz-Carlton.
Reform has been notoriously challenging in the Islamic kingdom due to the delicate balance of power between church and state. But now that he has committed to a program of modernisation he is determined to steer the ship through the storm with an iron fist.
But if previous waves of arrests and disappearances were met with barely an international shrug of the shoulders - the safety of corrupt princes and over-zealous religious police enforcers tend not to score highly on the priorities of human rights watchdogs - this latest development has evoked a definite shudder. Women’s rights were the only area where civil society seemed to have gained a definite foothold, and have also been broadly associated with a drive towards strengthening human rights in general.
The women detained have been branded traitors by pro-government social media accounts
For many observers, it’s another case of two steps forward, one step back. Much has been made of recent breakthroughs in the country including the introduction of cinemas and entertainment, the reduction of powers conferred to the religious police, and of course the decree to reverse the ban on women’s driving.
But the fact is, that while he is keen to appease his international critics, Mohammed Bin Salman is aware that the moderate, liberalising rhetoric he is spouting abroad, has little foundation in the mindset of the conservative majority of his subjects.
His order to detain the very women who battled for three decades to win the right to drive, just weeks before their dream is realised is symbolic more than punitive; he is still the one in control, not these women or their interfering Western allies.
It’s a gamble. In the internet age, there is no way to hide what is no way to close the curtains to the international stage, despite ordering the detainees and their families not to talk to the press. The ‘early’ release of Almana and Al Ajroush, the oldest of the women, is perhaps a sign of his awareness that the world is watching.
What many in the country are sadly unaware of, is that the individuals targeted are not ‘just’ activists. Dr. Aisha Almana has personally funded the higher education of hundreds of young women, both at her college and internationally; the hospitals she directs have raised the bar for national healthcare. Madeha Al Ajroush almost single-handedly launched the National Family Safety Program which led to the criminalisation of domestic violence in the country. Dr. Eman Al Nafjan and Aziza Al Yousef were both long-serving university professors.
More importantly, all of these women had the means and the opportunities to leave Saudi Arabia long ago, and pursue rewarding careers in countries where there would be no need to fight for their basic rights.
I once asked Madeha Al Ajroush why she hadn’t. Her answer was one of puzzlement, “I am part of the fabric of this society, I belong here… I work in the field of humanity and it’s my job to make a difference, to help people live better lives.” A traitor to her country indeed.