Kingdom crackdown


Loujain al-Hathloul PHOTO/Wikimedia Commons

Saudi Women Who Fought for the Right to Drive Are Disappearing and Going Into Exile

On the evening of September 26, 2017, 28-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul sat at home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, eyeing her smartphone. A stream of notifications cascaded down the screen as her social media feeds erupted with messages of shock, joy, and speculation. Moments before, an ordinary Tuesday had turned historic: King Salman al-Saud took to state-run television to issue a stunning royal decree: Saudi women, at long last, would be granted the right to drive. The abrupt announcement, orchestrated in concert with a simultaneous press event in Washington, D.C., and a warm commendation from U.S. President Donald Trump, had sent millions of Saudis reeling. For decades, the government had remained intractable on the issue of women’s right to drive, siding invariably with conservative clerics who justified the ban on religious grounds. Human rights groups viewed the ban — unique the world over — as an emblem of a broader oppressive stance toward women, and had long called for its repeal. Yet even the most earnest advocates would have thought such a reversal unthinkable mere hours before.

Al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist with thick, dark hair and penetrating brown eyes, had felt her own flood of emotions on that balmy evening one year go, but surprise was not among them. She’d already had days to process the news, having been tipped off to the coming reform by the Saudi government itself. The phone call from the Royal Court, however, had not been a pleasant one: After informing al-Hathloul of the impending announcement, the government official had instructed her to refrain from making any public comment on the reform, even in praise.

As one of the country’s foremost activists, boasting a large and active social media presence, al-Hathloul struggled to abide by the order. Reflecting on the king’s decree, her mind cycled through the years she’d spent advocating for the right to drive, among other social and civil rights for women — and the international attention she’d garnered for the cause. She recalled the 73-day detention she’d served just two years prior, after being arrested for attempting to drive a car inside the kingdom, an experience that had shaken her deeply without deterring her. Images of women — her mother, sisters, fellow activists, and friends — flicked through her mind. The ability to drive would significantly impact their daily lives, from expanded work opportunities to the simple, radical joy of mobility. She even dared to imagine that this policy change was a sign that the Saudi regime might be open to further, more fundamental reforms. Even with the Royal Court’s warning echoing in her ear, the dynamic al-Hathloul itched to express her elation and tentative hope.

She was not the only one under a gag order that Tuesday night. The government had made similar calls to several other women’s rights advocates in the preceding days, including two who were abroad at the time, ordering them to remain silent when news of the driving reform broke. “We got the impression that they didn’t want activists claiming credit for the change — the message was, this was a top-down decision made by the king, and not a reward for activism,” said one human rights advocate, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals. Most complied with the orders, although al-Hathloul took a gamble with a single, seemingly innocuous tweet: “Al-Hamduililah” — thank God. Shortly after, she was contacted by a government affiliate, admonishing her to heed the court’s instructions.

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