This picture taken 10 February 2021 in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh shows a woman viewing a tweet posted by the sister of Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul, Lina, showing a screenshot of them having a video call following Hathloul's release after nearly three years in detention. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why is Saudi Arabia locking up women’s rights activists?

Women like Loujain al-Hathloul are “premature reformers”: their crime is to demand social change before the state is ready to concede it

Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from prison last week after a thousand days in jail. However, the delight of her family and many supporters has not diminished their sense that al-Hathloul was detained for no valid reason.

Reforms are intended as acts of arbitrary generosity by the state

The Saudi state has a problem with women’s rights and those who demand them. The opposition of the conservative state to these demands used to be monolithic: women who wanted to drive, dress how they wanted or overthrow the system male guardianship were deemed enemies of the state and treated as thus. When Peter Theroux interviewed women’s rights activists in the 1980s (whose stories later appeared in his memoir Sandstorms), many of these women ended up in prison.

Now things are changing.

Under the reign of the crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has tried to present an image of modernity. This has meant reforms, some token and others significant, such as when the state allowed women to drive in 2017. With that reform, a single domino fell. None have fallen since.

Once Saudi Arabia conceded to one demand of the activists, the kingdom’s problem with those demanding reform changed.

The state wants to be seen as the sole guarantor of women’s rights and new reforms are intended as acts of arbitrary generosity. Saudi Arabia wants to do this in its own time and reap the rewards and international recognition, without the pressure.

Those who pressure the state are unwelcome, and duly punished. For her part in opposing the system of male guardianship, al-Hathloul was kidnapped from the UAE and confined in several prisons.

A recent major report in Newlines magazine details the cruel treatment of other female activists in the country; disobedient women are confined to Dar al-Reaya – “Homes of Care” where the conditions are akin to prison – to undergo social or religious “correction”.

Those detained often got there by accusing their guardians of abuse or were handed over to the state by a male relative.

So many women’s rights activists fled Saudi Arabia in 2019 that it became known as the “year of runaways”. Many escaped because of the poor treatment mandated under law or the repercussions of attempting to protest against them.

Why would the state target these women while it attempts, in its own words, to reform the place of women – culturally and legally – in Saudi society?

It seems the Saudi state dislikes these activists because they represent an alternative to delayed, arbitrary reform: women like al-Hathloul are arrested because they demand too much, too fast.

Could al-Hathloul’s imprisonment be a prelude to another showy reform?

At the height of the Red Scare in the mid-twentieth century, there was a suggestion in socialist and communist circles that their political affiliations had tarred them for longer than they thought. Those who had fought in Spain against Franco, for example, largely with communist and anarchist militias, spread the rumour that this was the root of their problems with the government at home. While the American state was not at war with fascism, these people were. And so, they said, somewhere in an FBI archive there was a label on each of their respective files which branded them “premature anti-fascists”.

Whether this rumour was true or not, it remains a relevant analogy in the case of Saudi women’s rights activists.

The women arrested and imprisoned for political agitation by the Saudi state are not accused of ordinary crimes; many of them have suffered because they support social reform that has later been implemented by the kingdom. They are “premature reformers” whose sole crime was to advocate for change before the state was ready to adopt their worldview, thereby showing them up to the world.

The fact that al-Hathloul was imprisoned for so long for opposing male guardianship, which remains a part of Saudi law and life, and then suddenly released could show that a precedent is forming in Saudi Arabia. Could her imprisonment be a prelude to another showy reform, or is it merely an attempt to distract from the bad press surrounding the case?

If this is a PR effort, it coincides with another push of the dynamic, reforming schtick. There has been a recent push to promote various projects of the Saudi state on social media including its promised city of the future, Neom: a hypermodern vision of a sleek technological state reformed which is no longer dependent on oil or repression.

Neom is no closer to fruition than when the idea was first unveiled, alongside a string of other social reforms which have been demanded since long before al-Hathloul was imprisoned.

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