Last September, Saudi Arabia announced the country would finally lift their driving ban on women and stop being the only country in the world with the prohibition of issuing driving licenses to women. This was considered by many to be a huge milestone for equal rights in the country and a great step forward for a very conservative nation that has finally decided to listen after years of demanding change. However, about a month before the driving ban is officially lifted on June 24, women are being let down by the authorities once again.
Human rights groups have been reporting in the past few weeks that female activists are being arrested, with a number of 11 people including Loujain al-Hathloul, a social media figure and one of the most powerful women in the country who has already been arrested for her activism, Eman al-Nafjan, a blogger and educator, Aziza al-Yousef, who authored the petition seeking to end male guardianship back in 2016 that both of the women previously mentioned signed and Aisha al-Manea, who has been campaigning for this movement since the 1990s — all publicly identified by Amnesty International.
Although the precise motives of the arrests were not clear, the women were accused of “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric,” including suspicious contact with foreign entities and offering financial support to overseas enemies, followed by a campaign all over the media against the activists, calling them ‘traitors’ and ‘agents of embassies.’
These arrests have raised a lot of concern towards Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, which have been oriented to diversify the Arab economy and make the country less socially conservative. Some tend to think this is a strategic move from the government to take the credit away from the women who protested and give it to Salam, while his defenders say he could have been pressured to appease religious conservatives who have been making efforts to stop progression in the Kingdom.
“It sends a message domestically […] about opposing […] government policy, but the message internationally is completely different,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen from Rice University’s Baker Institute. “It reinforces the perception that policymaking now is more unpredictable and concentrated in the hands of one man who perhaps lacks some of the decades of experience that his predecessors had.”
Following the thread of controversy, the magazine Vogue Arabia has decided to put in the cover of its June issue a woman wearing leather gloves and high heels in the driving seat — Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah al-Saud, who has expressed her support for the decision. The cover has been both praised for making a bold move that showcases female empowerment and criticized for not directly nodding to the activists who have been arrested for fighting for the rights of women to drive in the Saudi Arabian Kingdom.
It has recently been reported that car sales in Saudi Arabia are expected to rise up to a 10% with the lift of the driving ban, following the first car showroom for women in Jeddah last January and it will also have a positive impact in the car insurance market, which has been suffering losses lately.
Featured Image Credit: Marwan Naamani/AFP