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Why is the Saudi Government Still Arresting Activists?

The Saudi Arabian government recently arrested and subsequently released a group of activists who are known to advocate for change in the traditionally conservative and patriarchal nation.

International organizations suspect that up to 11 activists were detained, most of whom were women standing up for themselves. Several of these activists have been known to protest the ban on women drivers, which, ironically, is being lifted in just less than a month.

One of the women detained was Aisha al-Mana, a 70-year-old activist who is well-known for her involvement in the first protests against the driving ban in the 1990s. She is reportedly in “frail health” following her detainment.

Other activists detained and then released with al-Mana include Hassa al-Sheikh and Madeha al-Ajroush, who have also been protesting the driving ban since the 1990s, as well as a younger activist named Wala’a al-Shubbar.

“We can confirm the release of Aisha al-Mana, Hessa al-Sheikh, and Madeha al-Ajroush, but we don’t know the conditions behind it,” Samah Hadid, Middle East Director of Campaigns at Amnesty International, said. “We call on Saudi authorities to release all other human rights defenders unconditionally and immediately.”

These other defenders Hadid refers to include a variety of activists and protesters being detained by the government. Seven people from the recent arrests still remain in detention. Some of these people were supposedly arrested for suspected contact with foreign entities, and are being labeled as “traitors.”

The remainder of these seven are activists including human rights campaigner Mohammed al-Bajadi, who was a founding member of a banned organization called Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. He had previously been arrested in 2012 for insurrection and was released in 2015.

Other activists still in detention include Eman al-Nafjan, Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Ibrahim Modeimigh and Mohammed al-Rabea. The first two are prominent figures in the women’s movement, both having a strong presence in the media. Al-Nafjan is a professor as well as the voice behind the Saudiwoman’s Weblog. Al-Hathloul uses social media to share her thoughts, which have gotten her arrested for long periods of times twice.

Their fellow activists fear that it may be quite a while before they are released from detention. According to Reuters, the activists may have to spend months in jail before they are even formally charged. 

These arrests come at a very interesting time in Saudi Arabia’s history when there have been many changes to how the country functions. Not only is the nation’s crown prince lifting the driving ban on June 24th, he’s also been making other changes, including opening sporting events and cinemas to women. 

These fast changes have angered some conservative power players in Saudi Arabia, and many diplomats and political experts imagine that the national government was trying to appease those players with this round of arrests.

Even though the country has made some big steps, there are many issues that remain apparent in Saudi Arabia. Women must still be accompanied by a male relative, and must also wear full-body coverings called abayas, even though one religious authority said that they do not need to.

The biggest problem, though, might be that Saudi men still see women as second-rate citizens, even saying things like “women only have half a brain.” Until this mindset shifts, it may take a while to see big, permanent changes in the conservative nation as well as an acceptance of activists.

Featured Image by Yuan Thirdy on Unsplash

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