WMC Press Releases

Five Prominent Women Activists and Two Male Allies Arrested in Saudi Arabia

Some Activists Believe 'Silent, Underground Railroad' and Shelters are Part of Detention Motivation

NEW YORK — The seven people, five of whom are women’s rights activists, who have been arrested in Saudi Arabia just ahead of the lifting of the driving ban were possibly detained because of a rumored “underground railroad” helping women runaways from forced marriages, according to Robin Morgan, activist, writer, and cofounder of The Women’s Media Center. Morgan, who is in touch with activists on the ground, stresses that the arrested women have been prominent on driving issues and working to change the male guardianship policy in Saudi Arabia.

The activists who discussed the situation with Morgan did so with the understanding that their identities would remain anonymous for their and their families' safety.

The women activists arrested include: Aisha al-Mana, Madeha al-Ajroush, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Najfan, and Loujain al-Hathloul. The men arrested include Ibrahim al-Mudaimigh, a lawyer who has represented the activists, and Mohammed al-Rabea, a writer who has been supportive of the women’s rights movement.

Aisha al-Mana was trying to cross the bridge from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, according to Morgan's sources. She was stopped; she had been banned from traveling without being told that she was banned. State security arrested the others in their homes.

For the past two years, these women were also trying also to register an NGO to establish a women’s shelter to be called “amana”; one of the men arrested had donated land to build the shelter, but so far, all attempts to obtain registration have failed.

Al-Mana and al-Ajroush, two of the original drivers who defied the ban in 1990, are older women, and al-Mana is in ill health.

No charges for the arrests have been given, although the Saudi Interior Ministry has confirmed that those arrested were being accused of communicating with “foreign entities,” infiltrating the government and providing financial support to “hostile elements abroad to undermine the security and stability of the kingdom.”

Yesterday morning, activists in Saudi Arabia conveyed to Robin Morgan that they believe there are multiple reasons for the arrests.

One theory is that there is a rumored "underground railway" that has helped women escape from abusive and/or forced marriages, although no one has suggested that those arrested were part of this underground railway – simply general activists for women’s rights.

Another potential reason for the arrests is that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman might want no mention of successful protests having led to his June-scheduled lifting of the driving ban.  By detaining the prominent women – some who have fought the driving ban for 30 years – the Crown Prince could continue his modernization campaign without credit accounted to activists who have risked life and family fighting for rights, according to Morgan’s sources. 

But Morgan notes that all women's rights activists – in Saudi Arabia and globally -- will celebrate the lifting of the driving ban and the Prince will receive international credit for this move forward. This detention is needless and could cause negative press for the royal family rather than silence critics, she said.

By way of background, Morgan has discussed the freedom to drive campaigns on multiple occasions with activists, including this exclusive interview in 2013 with Madeha al-Ajroush, one of the original Saudi women drivers in 1990, now rearrested in 2018. It ran as a Breaking News Special on “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan” October 26, 2013, marking the third major driving action of women across Saudi Arabia. All such actions are blocked from being reported on Saudi media.

The Women’s Media Center is re-releasing this interview because the words are strikingly relevant to the current detention.

Madeha al-Ajroush: “One thing that really helps us and protected us is [international] media coverage, and having the world know more about us, and supporting us . . . I mean, we do want the world to see us and stand by us . . . it’s a global world, a small world, and every woman out there is our sister.”

Madeha al-Ajroush: “We will not stop….We’re moving forward the next action.”

Robin Morgan: “You were telling me earlier that the more seasoned, older women activists were picking up the tone and the audacity of younger ones and the intergenerational gap was vanishing.”

Madeha al-Ajroush: “Yes, because we know that they have their own rhythm, their own language, their own beat. And old as I am, I’m trying to dance their beat and I’m loving it... And it’s actually working.”

In answer to Morgan noting that previously al-Ajroush and other Saudi activists had done interviews anonymously and that now al-Ajroush was openly using her name:

“I’m using my name, I don’t know if there’s any repercussions, but however, I dare to do so, and whatever happens, I just have to be responsible enough to face it, because that’s where we are right now. We need to bond together with names and move forward, and be strong enough for the next step, whatever it may be, whatever it may be. But we no longer could stand aside anymore, because revealing our names is extremely important and it’s a sign of moving forward and facing any consequences that may come. .  . And we’re not very few, in numbers. We’re much larger.”

On Saturday, Morgan asked supporters to “tweet @SaudiEmbassyUSA with appeals for their release. Keep the tone respectful or it will be counterproductive,’’ she said.

The Women’s Media Center, co-founded by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, and Gloria Steinem, works to make women visible and powerful in the media. We do so by promoting women as decision makers and as subjects in media; training women to be effective in media; researching and exposing sexism and racism in media; and creating original online and on-air journalism.

Interviews with Robin Morgan can be requested through Cristal Williams Chancellor, director of communications. cristal@womensmediacenter.com or 202-270-8539. For more information about “WMC Live with Robin Morgan” go to: www.wmclive.com.