The crackdown has been seen by some as a warning from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to other activists: Reforms are a gift from the leadership to Saudi citizens, not rights that can be won.
The activists did not limit themselves to the driving campaign. They fought for survivors of domestic violence, women shackled by restrictive guardianship laws and political prisoners. They represented different generations of Saudi women, trying over decades to bend the will of a harshly conservative and often obdurate state. Some garnered international acclaim. Others toiled at home, enlisting Saudi women in a struggle for rights.
Here is a look at four of the imprisoned activists.
Eman al-Nafjan, 39
In one of the first entries on her Saudiwoman blog, her widely read chronicle of life and women’s activism in Saudi Arabia, Eman al-Nafjan wrote a post titled “Upbeat feminist news from Saudi :).” She had seen a picture of a Saudi female astronaut in a newspaper, “no hijab and free-floating with a group of men and women including Steven Hawking.” And she noted the “buzz about women being allowed to drive,” citing another newspaper report that speculated that the ban might be lifted by the end of the year.
That was in 2008. The driving ban would stand for another decade.
In the interim, Nafjan, a professor of linguistics, traced the recent history of the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia, writing in English about the women who led the movement and the men who stood with them. She described, in simple terms, the elaborate system of social control that Saudi women were seeking to dismantle — “gender apartheid,” as she called it in one post.
“Yes it is true. If you are a woman you have to have special travel documents,” she wrote in a post titled “Women Travel Documents.” “If your main mahram (legal male guardian) is with you then him escorting you will suffice. But if you happen to be a Saudi woman and need or want to leave the country without your main mahram, you have to have a special yellow card.”
Other posts tackled poverty, the rights of Palestinians and Bob Dylan. She wrote lists of Saudi heroes that included people who have since fled into exile or been arrested.
In September 2017, when the lifting of the driving ban was announced, Nafjan posted her last article on the blog.
“The manner in which the ban was lifted seemed too simple to be real,” she wrote. “Initially, I was overwhelmed with my own powerlessness as a woman living in a patriarchal absolute monarchy.
“Were our efforts the reason the ban was lifted? Or was it a decision that had been made regardless of our struggles?”
Loujain al-Hathloul, 28
Asked once about the 73 days she spent in prison in 2014, for driving her car from Abu Dhabi across the border to Saudi Arabia, Loujain al-Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s most visible women’s rights activists, offered a positive spin. Her experience in prison had been “enriching” and “a unique opportunity to meet women who are not acknowledged,” she told a reporter from the Financial Times a few years after her release.
But the social blowback for her activism had been withering, too — replete with the accusations of treason, harming the public interest and sullying the reputation of Saudi Arabia abroad, charges well-known to her fellow activists. Her description of the backlash, in a letter posted on her website two years ago, illustrated the toll taken on the activists because of attacks by their fellow Saudis.
“Naturally, many accused me of using the opportunity for my own publicity without any interest nor regard for the advancement or well-being of fellow Saudi women, but this opinion is not important,” she wrote.
“Others laid blame on me and claimed that what I did was going to delay the official decision to lift the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, especially since my attempt was seen as a direct challenge against the government; they ignored the fact that their silence for 22 years did not have any positive outcome either.
“We have to all realise that criticising some phenomena in our home country does not equate to hating it, wishing evil upon it nor is it an attempt to shake its balance,” she continued. “It’s the total opposite.”
Aziza al-Yousef, 60
When a Saudi cleric was accused of raping and beating to death his 5-year-old daughter, Aziza al-Yousef helped start a rare public awareness campaign that focused international attention on the case as well as on the larger issue of inequality in Saudi Arabia’s justice system.
The intervention was typical for Yousef, who is widely seen as one of Saudi Arabia’s most dogged human rights advocates — leading campaigns to lift the driving ban and repeal male guardianship laws while supporting survivors of domestic violence.
“Fathers and husbands who murder their children or wives are consistently sentenced to five to twelve years in prison at most. This leniency is not extended to mothers and wives,” Yousef wrote in a news release on the case that she co-authored with Manal al-Sharif, another activist.
The preacher, Fayhan al-Ghamdi, was sentenced in 2013 to eight years in prison but was released in 2015, after paying compensation to the mother of his daughter, Lama.
Yousef, a retired computer science professor at King Saud University and a mother of five, continued pressing for equal justice and repeal of the guardianship laws, appearing on television shows, meeting with officials and hosting a regular salon at her house to discuss women’s rights. Her activism was local: She encouraged her peers to resist exile and “stay home and fight for their rights,” another activist said.
In the run-up to a driving protest she helped organize in October 2013, she told journalists she had been defying the driving ban for at least two years.
“I’ve been driving around Riyadh since then and haven’t had any real problems,” she told a reporter for the Telegraph newspaper. “Twice someone ran at my car and made threatening gestures — one old man, one younger — but it was no big deal.
“I’ve driven all over the world. Why not in my homeland?”
Nouf Abdulaziz, 31
Weeks after the other activists were arrested in May, Saudi authorities detained Nouf Abdulaziz, a feminist, writer and television producer who had expressed support for the women on Twitter. The show of solidarity was a reflex for Abdulaziz, who is also an outspoken defender of Saudi political prisoners.
Her activism had cost Abdulaziz plenty. She had struggled to find work before her arrest, largely, she and those who knew her suspected, because of her reputation for speaking out. “She has intellectual integrity,” said Hana al-Khamri, a writer and activist who knows Abdulaziz. “She did not let the fear that was planted by the regime following the arrests intimidate her.”
“Hello, my name is Nouf, and I am not a provoker, inciter nor a wrecker, nor a terrorist, nor a criminal or a traitor,” Abdulaziz wrote in a letter a friend posted online after her arrest. “A daughter to an honorable and honest family that has undergone a lot of harm because of what happened to me.
“Maybe they see that being rid of me is the path to a better country,” she wrote. “I was never but a good citizen that loved her country and wished the best for it.”
After she posted Abdulaziz’s letter, the friend, Mayaa al-Zahrani, was also arrested, according to Saudi activists and Human Rights Watch.