Who Really Put Saudi Women Behind the Wheel?

A Saudi woman checks her future car at a showroom ahead of being able to practice the right to drive.CreditFaisal Al Nasser/Reuters
A Saudi woman checks her future car at a showroom ahead of being able to practice the right to drive. Credit Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters

Feminism terrifies authoritarians.

Why else would the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman — the heir-apparent of an absolute monarchy that has ruled since 1932 over a country named after its patriarch, hold Loujain al-Hathloul, a 28-year-old graduate student, incommunicado for weeks?

Why would he, after being lauded on CBS’s “60 Minutes” for “emancipating women”on the eve of a visit to America last March, send forces in May to arrest 17 women’s rights activists, among them Ms. Hathloul, and also Aisha al-Mana, 70, a director of hospitals and a college for health sciences who suffered a stroke last year?

What threat does a 60-year-old retired professor, Aziza al-Yousef — a mother of five and grandmother of eight who was also arrested — pose that merits a pro-government newspaper putting her picture on its front page under the headline, “You and Your Treachery Have Failed”?

And what is to be made of a full page in that newspaper in which “traitor” in red ink is stamped on photographs edited to look like mug shots of seven of the 17 women’s rights activists arrested in May? Among them was Eman al-Nafjan, a linguistics professor and mother of four, including a toddler.

The answer to these questions is simple: 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. 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.

That explains why last month, within days, Ms. Hathloul, Ms. Mana, Ms. Yousef and Ms. Nafjan — three generations of women’s rights activists — were arrested and dozens more were banned from traveling abroad, even as Saudi Arabia prepares for June 24, when it is set to finally lift the world’s only ban on women driving.

The women’s rights activists were accused of communicating with organizations opposed to the kingdom. On June 3, Saudi Arabia temporarily released eight of the 17. In a statement reported by Reuters, the public prosecutor said the nine still in detention had “confessed,” but the statement did not name them.
When you see a pro-government Saudi media video hailing a “monumental moment in the history of Saudi Arabia” as it shows a (male) police officer giving a woman a driver’s license, remember that it is the women’s rights detainees who deserve the credit, not an absolute monarchy and its ultraconservative clerics who have conspired to keep women in the stranglehold of patriarchy.

Lest there be any doubt where the clerics’ allegiances rest, Reuters reported on June 2 that the chief of the religious police — the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — had “hailed the prosecutor’s statement and warned against groups and individuals who ‘target the government’s security and stability.’ ”

For Western allies and friends, Prince Mohammed is happy to hype what Norah O’Donnell of “60 Minutes” called his “revolutionary” reforms, and to play along. Meanwhile, there is little to no pushback on the bombing campaign on Yemen that he started more than three years ago. That campaign has killed thousands of civilians. Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles was one of the few Americans who met with the crown prince and in public stressed human rights issues during the Saudi’s three-week cross-country American tour.

During that tour, the crown prince brokered arms deals with President Trump and met with celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Dwayne Johnson to Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. Since he returned home, a little more than a month later, Prince Mohammed, who had insisted that women were “absolutely” equal to men, has made it clear that freedom is given by him, rather than seized by the feminist activists who have long sought equality.

Ms. Mana and two other women arrested in mid-May as part of the crackdown on women’s rights activists (all three have since been released), took part in the kingdom’s first driving protest in 1990, in which 47 women were arrested.

The arrests in May of leaders of that older generation of feminists, as well as younger ones such as Aziza Al-Yousif, Ms. Nafjan and Ms. Hathloul, all of whom have taken part in more recent protests against the driving ban, add up to an attempt to erase cross-generational feminist activism.

For years, the royal family and the ultraconservative clerics who gave it legitimacy denigrated feminism and women who challenged what I call gender apartheid as “Western” and “foreign.” But those detained activists, defamed as “traitors” in pro-government media, are nothing of the sort. They are upstanding Saudi citizens. Among them have also been some men. In fact, among those detained in May were at least three men — lawyers and activists for women’s rights.

For decades, the Saudi regime brushed aside any attempt to criticize its abysmal record on women’s rights by claiming a form of exceptionalism. It wrapped itself inside an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam imposed on members of the public, who were described as “unready” for women to have more rights.

The women and their male allies whom Prince Mohammed detains have demolished those excuses. During the several waves of driving protests, the women would post videos of themselves and others flouting the ban; by their account, fellow civilians on the road gave them displays of support, like a thumbs-up. The women also shared stories of supportive male relatives who either accompanied them during driving protests or went to police stations to pick them up after they were arrested.

Some people have suggested that by arresting women’s rights activists now, Prince Mohammed seeks to appease more conservative elements in Saudi Arabia who are upset at his “reforms.”

But perhaps the biggest threat the detained feminists pose to him and the Saudi regime is that their brave work has always been about more than abolishing the driving ban. It is about abolishing the guardianship system, the embodiment of patriarchy that renders women perpetual minors who need permission from a father, brother or even a son to travel, study, marry or gain access to some government services.

When this decade began, there was no political revolution in Saudi Arabia like those in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries of the “Arab Spring.” But a social revolution has begun now in Saudi Arabia.

Its vanguard is not a crown prince who claims to be an emancipator of women. The true leaders are the feminists he has detained and banned from travel for daring to demand their freedom.

For those who have long dismissed a Saudi feminists’ revolution as unrealistic, remember that Irish feminists, too, were long told it was impossible to slip the stranglehold of the Catholic Church on their country. Last month, as Saudi Arabia was arresting feminists, Ireland was hailing its feminists for defeating the conservative patriarchy by repealing, in a popular referendum, the constitutional amendment that banned all abortions.

There is a reason that feminism terrifies authoritarians.

Mona Eltahawy is the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, and a contributing opinion writer.

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