Millennium Post

Of Saudi women

Of Saudi women
Female activists get arrested in Saudi Arabia. Even as the reforms initiated by the Crown Prince are on, this development is akin to taking a step forward and then two steps back. It seems just like the other day when Saudi women could enter a football stadium as spectators. And, now, this. Indeed, weeks before Saudi Arabia is due to lift a ban on female drivers, authorities in the kingdom detained four women who had campaigned for the right to get behind the wheel. Activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef and Aisha Almane were arrested, along with four male supporters, according to Saudi media outlets close to authorities. They have been accused of "suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country," state news agency SPA reported, quoting a state security spokesman. The spokesman said the women wanted to "destabilise the kingdom and breach its social structure and mar the national consistency." The statement did not name the activists, but local media did, with one headline branding them as "traitors." The arrests have raised alarm amongst women's rights campaigners and those monitoring the social reform agenda of the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. "We are back to square one," Sydney-based Saudi activist and author Manal Al-Sharif said. "We used to live in a police state; if you speak up you go to jail. And, then, there would be a defamation campaign against you, saying all sorts of untrue things. We are seeing the same pattern again now." Understandably, Amnesty International condemned the arrests and the negative campaign against those arrested that followed in the local media. The broader political message here is that authorities are signalling that they are the ones in charge of the change. Human Rights Watch said that the arrests fall into a wider campaign of political repression. "Since 2014, Saudi authorities have tried nearly all peaceful dissidents in the Specialised Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia's counter-terrorism tribunal," the organisation said in a statement. The women along with other activists arrested have been calling for an end to Saudi Arabia's repressive guardianship system which requires women to acquire the permission of a male guardian for almost everything. Last year, the Kingdom began to ease some of the restrictions in that system especially those regarding education. Other recent social reforms include the opening of movie theatres, music concerts and allowing women into sports stadiums for the first time. It is not as if the Prince is unaware of such developments. He must act decisively to send positive signals to all concerned in his kingdom.

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