LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Saudi Arabian activist jailed for daring to drive said on Monday she had received fresh death threats after the arrest of fellow campaigners, which she called an “alarming” tactic aimed at silencing dissent in the conservative kingdom.
Manal al-Sharif hit world headlines in 2011 when she was jailed for filming a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that had banned women from getting behind the wheel.
Although women will be allowed to drive starting on June 24, activists and analysts say the government is keen to avoid rewarding activism, which is forbidden in the absolute monarchy.
“If you ask me why they’ve been arrested, it’s just to send a message for women’s rights activists who’ve been campaigning to drive to just shut up,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Sydney, Australia, where she is now based.
Women who previously participated in protests against the driving ban said last year that two dozen activists had received phone calls instructing them not to comment on the decree lifting it.
Some of those arrested this week nonetheless continued to speak out.
Al-Sharif said she had also received the call telling her to keep quiet, but she refused.
“I am getting threats now, but I don’t really care,” the 39-year-old said, adding that she is only concerned about the detainees.
“They say: ‘You’re next. Don’t think that because you are in Sydney, we’re not going to get you.’ But I really don’t care because it’s just a smearing campaign – and I know because I’ve been subjected to that when I was in jail,” al-Sharif said.
Global rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on the authorities to release the detainees.
They identified six of them as Eman al-Nafjan, Lujain al-Hathloul, Aziz al-Yousef, Aisha al-Manea, Ibrahim Modeimigh and Mohammed al-Rabea. Some are women, and others are men who have campaigned for women’s rights.
A government statement said seven people had been arrested for suspicious contacts with foreign entities and offering financial support to enemies overseas, without elaborating.
Amnesty denounced what it called a public smear campaign by Saudi authorities and government-aligned media to discredit the activists, whose faces have appeared online and on a newspaper front page labeling them as traitors.
The decision to end a decades-old ban on women driving cars has been hailed as proof of a new progressive trend under reform-minded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, but has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent.
Al-Sharif said she was hopeful the prince’s young age and his work on the country’s Vision 2030, which aims to lift women’s participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030, would open more doors.
“That’s the shock. What’s happening here? We’re all happy and all supportive when the (driving) ban was lifted. I thought, ‘Finally, I can dream of a new society.’ But right now, I see my dream being shattered,” she said.
“It’s so disappointing. I was so hopeful, but the way that these women are being treated is not promising. It’s alarming,” she said.
Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Claire Cozens; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories