The night the Saudi government declared an end to its ban on women driving, Aziza Alyousef was elated. The retired professor was inundated with celebratory calls and messages after years of fighting for the freedom. She couldn’t wait to get in line for a license.
“I want to be No. 1,” Alyousef told a reporter after the government’s announcement in September.
Alyousef now awaits the milestone behind bars. She was detained last month, along with some of the most outspoken women’s rights advocates in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom. With days to go before the ban is lifted, nine of the 17 people arrested remain in prison, accused of aiding enemies of the state.
Indeed, the women targeted have been fighting for more basic freedoms than the right to drive, including the end to guardianship, the Saudi legal system that requires women to have the approval of a male relative to travel outside the country or get married.
After the announcement that the driving ban would be lifted, Alyousef and other activists celebrated their breakthrough. Then the mood changed. One by one, they started receiving calls from authorities warning them to stay silent.
The arrests have sent a chill through Saudi Arabia’s intellectual elite. People who once talked freely with foreign journalists are now canceling meetings, saying they’re worried about the risk.
Women are unlikely to push for change in public now, observers say. The future is “state feminism” led by the government, said Al-Dosari, the researcher.