Saudi Arabia Ends Ban on Women Drivers but Continues Arresting Female Activists

A lot of people celebrated Saudi Arabia’s decision last year to let women drive (we noted it was important and long overdue), but it turns out the country isn’t living up to its own stated rules.

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Saudi Arabia has arrested at least five women activists to keep them from claiming victory due to the end of the driving ban, which is set to take effect next month. The women fought for the right to drive and to end the kingdom’s male guardianship system, but the government apparently wants to stop them from declaring any kind of victory.

One of the rights activists, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the latest arrests were tied to advocacy for women driving: “They detained them because they do not want them to publicly claim success.”…

Women will be allowed to drive starting on June 24. The authorities have opened driving schools in preparation, instituted new regulations and hired women traffic police.

Activists and analysts say, however, that the government is keen to avoid rewarding activism, which is forbidden in the absolute monarchy, and seems determined not to antagonize sensitivities of religious conservatives opposed to modernization.

I suppose it makes sense to avoid unnecessarily angering strictly religious people who have been prone to fundamentalism and violence, but if modernization is truly their goal, the kingdom has some better options than simply arresting the very people who are finally celebrating access to basic rights. They could just protect them, for example.

Women who previously participated in protests against the ban told Reuters last year that two dozen activists had received phone calls instructing them not to comment on the decree.

Some of those arrested this week spoke out about the ban after the decision, though it was not clear what specifically led to their arrest nor what charges, if any, had been made against them.

The activists have a point when they say these arrests are likely meant to stifle others like them who want to mark the end of the ban on women driving in a public manner. Saudi officials don’t want to encourage more activism, because they don’t want to give women more rights.

What they don’t realize is that arresting women activists, especially at a time when women are gaining confidence based on recent wins, will only lead to more pushback. For women who have faced death threats for their activism, a couple of baseless arrests aren’t going to stop them.

So ironically, this move by the Saudi government might help embolden even more women activists, pushing the country further into the 21st century. And for that, we thank the activists.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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