Five women were arrested in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for continuing their protest–which formally began on June 17–against the nation’s ban on women driving. The mutaween (religious police of Saudi Arabia) detained them for a few hours before releasing at least four of the women to their male guardians. There is currently no information regarding the fifth woman’s whereabouts. Both the women and their guardians were made to sign a pledge vowing never to drive again in order to secure their release. It is unclear whether they will have to appear in court or face any further legal action.
The ban against women driving in the country not a formal law, but rather an implied religious edict enforced by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Saudi Arabia’s religious police. It has been challenged by women before, but the new Women2Drive movement is garnering more attention than previous efforts. The movement began a few months ago, after activist Manal al-Sharif was imprisoned for 14 days for driving her car.
On June 17, an estimated 30 to 50 women got behind the wheel, but the day passed without any reports of arrest. Some have suggested that the nation’s king had told religious police to stand down. Saudi women have continued to drive in recent weeks, posting videos or tweeting about their excursions.
Tuesday’s arrests are the first since the movement began. The women drivers were arrested in two separate encounters in Jeddah. One was surrounded by four police cars before being taken into custody, and her car reportedly was confiscated. The other four women were arrested together.
Activists and supporters of the Women2Drive movement are unclear what this development means for the future of the movement. “This is the first big pushback from authorities,” Saudi activist Eman al-Nafjan told the Associated Press. “We aren’t sure … whether this is the start of a harder line by the government against the campaign.”
The Saudi police decided to wait a few weeks before cracking down in the hope that international attention on the ban on women driving would subside. If Saudi police think arresting women drivers is going to stop what has already become the largest women’s rights movement in Saudi history, they are sorely mistaken. On the contrary, these arrests will encourage more women to get behind the wheel in direct defiance of this ridiculous abuse of our most basic human rights.
To take action in support of Saudi women, you can petition key Saudi and UN officials here. For more on this story, see the upcoming issue of Ms. magazine, on newsstands August 2nd or delivered right to your doorstep.