By Ensaf Haidar
January 5, 2018
I was astonished when, in late September, Saudi Arabia decided to allow women to drive, putting an end to an old, discriminatory practice. This was only one of several cautious social reforms that have been introduced in the country. In the past two years, King Salman bin Abdulaziz has restricted the powers of the notorious religious police and relaxed male guardianship laws. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has spoken about embracing “moderate Islam” and increasing social freedoms.
Prince Mohammed is being credited for the effort to transform Saudi Arabia, but the changes might not have been possible without the Saudi activists and intellectuals who struggled and suffered over the years — enduring the loss of jobs, imprisonment and exile — to increase the freedoms in their country.
As I look forward to seeing Saudi women drive starting in June, I remember the 47 women who drove their cars in 1990. They were arrested, lost their jobs and were prohibited from travelling. Two years later they were allowed to return to their jobs. Some faded into private life; others focused on helping women at schools and universities and in programs for abused women and children.
The courage of Wajeha al-Huwaider, a women’s rights activist, is unforgettable. On Aug. 4, 2006, three days after the first anniversary of King Abdullah’s accession to power, she stood on Fahd Causeway — the bridge that links Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — and held a poster with a single sentence written on it: “Give women their rights!” She was arrested but treated respectfully and released the same day.
In 2007, al-Huwaider and a colleague started a petition demanding that Saudi women be granted the right to drive. In March 2008, she filmed herself driving a car and uploaded the video on YouTube to remind the world of the prohibition.
When the uprisings of 2011 engulfed the Arab world, Saudi female activists started the “Women2Drive” campaign, using social media to organize. They called on women with international driver’s licenses to take to the roads.
Manal al-Sharif and Loujain al-Hathloul, two renowned activists, became the public face of the campaign. Ms. Sharif spent nine days in detention for posting a video of herself driving; Ms. Hathloul spent 73 days in prison after attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates in 2014. If it were not for their willingness to struggle and sacrifice for what they believed in, we would never have achieved this change.
Other incremental social reforms have also illustrated the Saudi leadership’s responsiveness to years of protests and activism by women’s rights activists. Saudi women have long chafed under the “male guardianship” laws, under which a woman must have a male guardian — father, husband, uncle or son — without whose approval she cannot see a doctor, file a police complaint, leave a prison, travel outside the country, apply for a passport, marry or use various public services.
A movement against guardianship laws intensified in recent years, picking up steam after a 2016 Human Rights Watch report about it. About 14,000 women signed a petition calling for an end to the guardianship laws and advocated the change online using the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian.
Though the guardian system remains on the books, a royal decree relaxed its grip in June and women are now allowed access to health care, education and travel without a guardian’s permission.
Advocacy, outrage and subsequent official responsiveness also helped in getting the Saudi women relief from the religious police, who focused on a prohibition of alcohol and drugs, maintaining gender segregation and aggressively targeting Saudi women who weren’t “appropriately” covered.
King Salman divested the religious police of authority to chase or arrest people suspected of breaking the strict moral regulations and directed the force to report its observations to the regular police. Saudi Arabia had seen widespread outrage in February 2016 after the religious police assaulted two young women outside a shopping mall in Riyadh.
But demanding greater social and political rights has often exacted a severe cost on Saudi activists and intellectuals. I know this from experience.
My husband, Raif Badawi, a blogger and activist, was a harsh critic of Saudi Arabia’s clerical establishment. He called for the elimination of the male guardianship system and insisted in his writings on restricting the powers of the religious establishment. In 2007, he acted as the spokesman for Salman al Harissi, a Saudi citizen who was arrested and killed by the religious police during interrogation. Raif exposed the torture by the religious police and demanded justice and compensation for Mr. Harissi’s family.
Raif founded the “Free Saudi Liberals” website in 2006, where like-minded bloggers discussed issues such as separation of state and religion, and women’s rights. I always remember how he defined liberalism: “For me, liberalism simply means live and let live.”
On June 17, 2012, Raif was detained on charges that included apostasy, cybercrime and disobeying his father. According to Saudi law, children can be separated from their parents if they are accused of apostasy. I feared that Raif’s father or my family might deprive me the custody of my children. Raif and I decided that I should leave the country to ensure that our children stay with me. Along with my children, I sought asylum in Canada.
In May 2014, Raif was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, and fined a million Saudi Arabian riyal for creating an online forum for public debate and “insulting” Islam. On Jan. 9, 2015, Raif was struck with 50 lashes in a public square in Jeddah, but the lashing was stopped on medical advice. He remains in prison. Only a pardon from King Salman can get him released.
Prince Mohammed has the opportunity to rewrite Saudi history and bring freedom and openness to our country. He could start a process of national reconciliation by reconsidering the cases and imprisonment of prisoners of conscience like my husband. By securing their freedom, Prince Mohammed would give us hope and make our country a place exiles would prefer to return to and participate in building our collective future.
Ensaf Haidar is the president of the Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom, named after her husband, who is in prison in Saudi Arabia.