Saudi Arabia issued its first driver’s licenses to 10 women on Monday as the kingdom prepared to lift the world’s only ban on women driving in three weeks, but some who campaigned for the right to drive remain under arrest.
The surprise move to issue some women licenses early came as activists who had campaigned for the right to drive remain under arrest, facing possible trial.
Saudi Arabia’s prosecutor said Sunday that 17 people had been detained in recent weeks on suspicion of trying to undermine security and stability, a case activists said targeted prominent women’s rights campaigners.
The three are among the most outspoken and well-known women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. They not only risked arrest by pushing for the right to drive for years, but also called for an end to guardianship laws that give male relatives final say over a woman marrying or traveling abroad.
Nearly 50 women took part in that first driving protest some 28 years ago. The women were arrested, lost their jobs, had their passports confiscated for a year and faced severe stigmatization.
Others were detained over the years during various efforts by women’s rights activists to drive. While Saudi law has never explicitly banned women from driving, women were not issued driving licenses. Often, police would detain a female driver until a male relative could pick her up and sign a pledge on her behalf that she would not drive again.
The spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssell, has described the crackdown as “perplexing.”
“If, as it appears, their detention is related solely to their work as human rights defenders and activists on women’s issues, they should be released immediately,” she said.