Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being lauded by international leaders for the upcoming end to the kingdom’s ban on women driving, and has even appeared on news shows to discuss how he granted this freedom to Saudi women.
But it is not the Crown Prince that should be receiving such positive recognition—it is the grassroots feminist activists who have been working for decades in the region for such change, many of whom were arrested by the government in mid-May and dubbed traitors who had betrayed the state.
For women in Saudi Arabia, the driving ban’s end is only the beginning of a long road toward equality. The kingdom has long side-stepped its commitment to human rights, claiming exceptionalism in their firm bind to an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law and denouncing feminism as a Western force that corrupts individuals. Its government leverages cultural relativism as a justification for policies that infringe on the rights of women—including a law that requires women to have the permission of a male guardian to marry, travel, enroll in most schools, gain employment or even divorce.
Nevertheless, Saudi women bravely organized to end the driving ban over many years, repeatedly facing arrest—and it is their hard-fought victory that should be celebrated on June 24, when women will finally be able to take the wheel.
During the Arab Spring, a new movement to challenge the driving ban was ignited after the Crown Prince declared an end to the voting ban for women. On the same day as his announcement, Najla al-Hariri, a Saudi woman, was detained for questioning about her previous attempts to drive. She was forced to sign a pledge to never drive again and later faced trial. Earlier that year, a woman was arrested after driving herself alone to the hospital to seek care for severe bleeding; she was detained, subjected to inhumane conditions and later released to a male guardian. Saudi news outlets denied that the story even existed. And just this past May, several prominent activists who had organized against the ban—including Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aisha Al-Mana, Aziza al-Yousef and Madeha al-Ajroush—were detained.
Al-Mana and al-Hathloul had gained the attention of the state after protesting the driving ban, as well as the guardianship system, in 2016; during that time, the Saudi monarchy and its security affiliates carried out a smear campaign to discredit the activists and paint them as terrorists. The monarchy accused the women of being foreign infiltrators; authorities claimed they had “the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric.”
“Saudi Arabia’s highest authorities apparently want to make it clear that it was not the courageous advocacy of those feminists that led to this moment, when the kingdom is about to finally lift its ban on women driving, but rather the grace of a crown prince engaged in ferocious revisionism,” feminist author and activist Mona Eltahawy wrote in the New York Times. “To allow feminists to celebrate what is, in all regards, a victory of their years of activism would nurture the idea that activism works—a truism that authoritarians hate.”