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Opinion Why I can’t go back to Saudi Arabia to drive for the first time with my son

A Saudi woman checks a car at the first automotive showroom designated solely for women in January in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. (Reem Baeshen/Reuters)
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Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi women’s rights activist, is the author of “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.”

The recent arrest of women’s rights activists has marred what was meant to be a history-making event in Saudi Arabia next month — the lifting of the ban on women driving.

Last October, I penned a piece just after the historic decree to end the ban, stating, “For the first time, I dare to dream of a different Saudi Arabia in the coming years.” Right now, I am watching with so much heartache as my hopes and dreams vanish into thin air.

I was putting the final touches on the Miles4Freedom website, a campaign to coincide with Saudi women taking the wheel, when the news came through: At least seven Saudi activists were being detained in their homes without a warrant or an explanation.

It’s difficult to know exactly what is happening and why, but given that three of the activists are friends of mine who have campaigned relentlessly for women’s rights, the picture is gradually getting clearer.

On June 24, the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia will finally be lifted. And yet, the arrests do not augur well for the so-called progressive changes in the country.

Understandably, I was in a state of disbelief about these developments. I contacted the women’s families to confirm the news before I tweeted about it. But the families I spoke to have been left in complete darkness about why the activists were detained on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, a month of forgiveness and mercy.

The official statement released the day after the arrests was vague and alarming, much like the arrests themselves. It accused the first seven detainees of forming a “cell,” posing a threat to state security for their “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social and religious fabric.”

A related hashtag describing them as “Agents of Embassies,” along with a graphic showing the activists’ faces with the word “traitor” stamped over them, has also been circulating on social media.

After the initial shock of the arrests, I received more news that three other female activists have been detained, these women being from the 1990 cohort of women who protested the ban on driving. One of them is Aisha Almane, who turned 70 this year. I have a personal relationship with her: I consider her the godmother for women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Every time I meet with her, I am inspired by her dedication and passion. This is a woman who has used all of her wealth as a businesswoman to empower Saudi women through education.

Until these arrests, I had planned to return to Saudi Arabia on June 24. I was to spend the Islamic Eid celebration with Almane, along with my 12-year-old son, Abdallah, who lives in Saudi Arabia. He is banned from visiting me abroad in Australia, where I live with my other son, 3-year-old Daniel. Daniel, in turn, is banned from visiting Saudi Arabia.

I have had to explain to Abdallah over the phone why his mother is not coming in June, why the first-ever road trip that we planned will not become a reality. Of course, the thought lingers in my mind: If I was in Saudi Arabia, it’s likely that I would be among the women arrested and detained.

This is the third wave of arrests after the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, came to power last June. The first wave occurred last September, when more than 80 clerics, social media influencers and university professors were jailed for undeclared reasons. Officials have declined to say much about the arrests, noting only that “it’s to protect the privacy of those imprisoned.” The second wave of arrests followed in November, when hundreds of businessmen and officials were detained in a supposed push against corruption.

The arrests are a complete turnaround from the recent fresh and uplifting changes that Saudi Arabia has experienced, especially the restrictions imposed on the religious police and the improvement in the status of women. These measures were applauded, and encouraging, raising the profile of the young and ambitious crown prince and promoting the image of a new Saudi Arabia that is no longer under the control of religious zealots, a nation that is no longer suffering from the aftermath of the 1979 siege of Mecca.

I, too, was caught up in a renewed hope and optimism, albeit cautiously so. I had heard good things about the crown prince and the rapid but certain changes that were sweeping the country under his leadership.

But my optimism has been dashed by the state-led public smearing campaign against the arrested activists. Accusing them of treason is nothing less than outrageous. Their only “crime” is against the inhumane male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia, against the institutionalized discrimination we have experienced every day of our lives. Their true “treason” is loving their home country too much.

I know these women very well. They were also supporters of the new reforms and tweeted about them. We have shared tears of pain and joy; we have lost jobs and have been separated from our children or banned from travel. But we have never lost or abandoned one shared dream: creating a country that has enough freedom for women. We harbored hope that we were finally witnessing a shift that sees women recognized as adults and full citizens in their homeland.

It has been seven years since the #Women2Drive movement made headway in asserting the rights of women in Saudi Arabia to drive, but it is just one element in a larger campaign to overturn the country’s restrictive guardianship laws, which treat females of all ages as minors.

It is thanks to the tireless efforts of women who have spoken up for a fairer society that women will be driving. But the recent arrests dilute and tarnish the progress that has been made in lifting the ban.

The activists were arrested despite their love for Saudi Arabia — for in an absolute monarchy, dissidents are the true patriots.

Read more:

Manal al-Sharif: Once women take the wheel, Saudi Arabia will never be the same

Jamal Khashoggi: The terrible choice facing Saudi Arabia’s reformers

Bernard Haykel: The rise of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince reveals a harsh truth