Eman al-Nafjan was granted temporary release from prison on 28 March 2019, after nearly a year in detention in Saudi Arabia.
Eman al-Nafjan has become a prominent figure in the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia for fighting the driving ban on women and the male guardianship system. She is one of 13 people who have been arrested since 15 May 2018 for their activism.
She is the author of the blog SaudiWoman, launched in 2008, on which she describes herself as ‘a mother of four or at least I try to be’. She continues: ‘I am also an assistant professor of linguistics at a university in Riyadh.
There are so many non-Arabs and non-Saudis out there giving “expert” opinions on life and culture here, hence my blog. Get it straight from the source: Saudi, genetically Wahabi and a woman.’
The blog led to assignments in international media, including The Guardian newspaper, al-Monitor, Skoll, Open Democracy and Foreign Policy, the latter naming her one of the 100 Global Thinkers of 2011.
In an article for Foreign Policy that year, titled ‘What do Saudi women want?’, she wrote: ‘Women in most countries may take their aspirations for freedom for granted, but for many of us, it is brand new. An exasperated expatriate in Riyadh once expressed to me how frustrated she was with the requirement to wear an abaya everywhere. She wondered: How do you all put up with having to cover your faces for your whole adult lives? What she didn’t realize was that many Saudi women look at her and wonder: How can she walk around without an abaya? How is it that she doesn’t feel exposed and naked? Yet I am happy to say that I am one of many women hungry for self-determination – women who have realized that though liberty and rights come with responsibility, it also gives them and their daughters the autonomy to pursue their happiness.’
She attracted national and international attention on 17 June 2011, when she drove a car through Riyadh during the Women to drive movement, a campaign by Saudi women for the right to drive motor vehicles on public roads. Dozens of women had previously got behind the wheel in 1990 and were arrested and had their passports confiscated. In 2007, activists submitted a petition to King Abdullah to lift the driving ban on women. The 2011 movement emerged during the (small and mostly Shiite) Saudi Arabian protests that followed the so-called Arab Spring started in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.
In an interview with The Guardian about the five women drivers who were arrested at the time, al-Nafjan said, “This is the first big push-back from authorities it seems…We aren’t sure what it means at this point and whether this is the start of a harder line by the government against the campaign.”
She was arrested herself on 26 October 2013, while filming a woman driving. On CNN, she explained her arrest, saying, “The vibe I got [from the police] was that they didn’t know what to do with us. We could see the police going around, calling, waiting.” She said she believes this is a sign that the driving campaign has gained momentum and that many in Saudi Arabia, including officials, think the time has come to allow women to drive.
In September 2017, it was announced that the driving ban for women would be lifted in June 2018. At the same time, al-Nafjan and other activists were warned to keep quiet. However, in January she broke her silence: “We have been quiet for too long,” she said.
“Eman al-Nafjan is a very popular activist in Saudi Arabia, very honest about her principles,” Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the NGO Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), with whom al-Nafjan sometimes works, told Fanack Chronicle. “She felt the need to defend human rights and began writing about it and became very involved in activism. I think she is a really fantastic and great woman, who has dedicated her life to defending women’s rights. The driving ban will be lifted thanks to her and women like her. They succeeded in demanding their rights, in a country where rights are not given.”
The GCHR issued a statement on 29 May 2018 about her and the other women’s rights activists arrested. ‘On 19 May 2018, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) publicly acknowledged the arrest of seven of the activists (naming six of them) and accused them of treason and conspiracy against the country, stating that they are being charged with “organizing for trespassing the country’s religious and national foundations, suspicious communication with foreign entities recruiting people working in government positions, funding hostile groups abroad to undermine Saudi national security, stability, social peace and to destroy the social cohesion.’
Shortly after, official and semi-official media outlets began naming and shaming the activists on their front pages and social media accounts, calling them ‘traitors’ and ‘embassy agents’. They could face up to 20 years in prison, according to Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper.
“They face serious charges and we are very worried, especially that we have no news about where they are and in which conditions they are being held,” Ibrahim added. For him, there is absolutely no doubt that al-Nafjan and her colleagues were arrested for signing a petition in September 2016 calling for the abolition of the male guardianship system. The petition received 14,000 signatures and was given to royal authorities, which have so far not responded.
At a time when the increasingly powerful Saudi crown prince is promoting his openness to economic and some social reforms, al-Nafjan and other activists are fighting for women’s rights that go beyond the lifting of the driving ban. Yet their arrest is a clear sign that further improvements in women’s rights are a long way off.
Ironically, the last blog post al-Nafjan published on 17 September 2017 on SaudiWoman is titled ‘Change can happen in Saudi Arabia’.