Saudi Arabia cracks down on feminists, branding them 'traitors' weeks before driving ban is lifted

In a development that human rights observers have called “chilling,” Saudi Arabia arrested a group of prominent women’s rights advocates on Saturday and subjected them to a "smear campaign" in pro-government newspapers.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, has branded himself as a reformer, pushing to loosen or lift the conservative kingdom’s restrictions on women’s clothing, their right to drive, their ability to launch a business and their ability to attend sporting events. He’s even said that women are “absolutely” equal to men.

However, international observers are baffled by the timing of the recent crackdown against female activists, coming just weeks before the driving ban is set to be lifted, who have called for more equality with men.

Saudis have also noted that the activists saw their pictures circulated in government-friendly media outlets and on social media along with the word "traitor."

According to Amnesty International, the six activists and one other individual were accused of forming a “cell,” and posing a threat to national security for their “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric.”

Each of the activists was pushing for modernization and gender equality in the kingdom. One of the arrested activists, Aziza al-Yousef, had campaigned to end the country’s male guardianship system. Another, Loujain al-Hathloul, fought to have the driving ban on women lifted. Another, Mohammad al-Rabea, started a literary salon for young men and women in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh.

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“This chilling smear campaign is an extremely worrying development for women human rights defenders and activists in Saudi Arabia. Such blatant intimidation tactics are entirely unjustifiable,” Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Campaigns, said in a statement.

The recent detentions do fit a pattern that has played out over the last year: as the crown prince has asserted his rule, a wide range of businessmen, activists, clerics and princes have been rounded up and arrested. Some of those swept up in the original crackdown were released.

“Saudi Arabia cannot continue to publicly proclaim support for women’s rights and other reforms, while targeting women human rights defenders and activists for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly,” Hadid added.