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Vogue Arabia cover featuring Saudi princess sparks backlash

The cover of Vogue Arabia's June issue, featuring a Saudi princess lounging in the driver's seat of a red convertible...

Posted: Jun 1, 2018 9:21 AM
Updated: Jun 1, 2018 9:21 AM

The cover of Vogue Arabia's June issue, featuring a Saudi princess lounging in the driver's seat of a red convertible, has drawn widespread criticism following a string of arrests of women's rights activists.

The June issue, which claims to be "a celebration of the trailblazing women of Saudi Arabia" features Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah al-Saud, the daughter of the late King, pictured glamorously on the front cover. It was intended to mark the end of a ban on female drivers.

Critics, however, have accused the title of being tone deaf, pointing out that at least 11 activists have been arrested since May 15, most of whom are women who have fought for the right to drive.

According to a state security spokesman, the women arrested were accused of wanting to "destabilize the kingdom and breach its social structure and mar the national consistency."

Many of the detainees were held incommunicado, while state media quickly labeled the women as "traitors" and "agents of embassies."

Although several women have since been released, others remain in custody, including three prominent activists: Loujain al-Hathloul, who was previously detained for 73 days in 2014 after trying to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia; Aziza al-Yousef, who, at 70, was one of the first activists for the right to drive; and Eman al-Nafjan, a well-known blogger.

Twitter users have called for the women to be freed, while condemning Vogue Arabia for its lack of awareness.

"Let's put a princess who never struggled from the driving ban on the cover," wrote one user. "Who her family issued the driving ban in the first place, put so many women in jail for driving, and just imprisoned prominent women's rights activists who risked their life and freedom to lift the ban."

"A Saudi princess is on the cover of @VogueArabia to celebrate women finally being allowed to drive. Yet, her family is currently jailing the pioneering women that actually fought for that right," wrote another.

Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi activist who was the public face of the Women2Drive movement, and is now based in Australia, tweeted a video response to the cover, urging people not to forget the detained activists.

"These amazing women they fought for women's rights, they fought specifically in the Women2Drive movement," she said.

The outrage has cast a shadow on the lifting of the ban on women drivers, a decision which has been hailed as a revolutionary step forward for the conservative Muslim kingdom.

Saudi Arabia currently bans the mixing of sexes at public events, and religious police impose rules on women, such as requiring the permission of a male guardian to work or travel. However, in recent years, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced reforms to ease restrictions and increase the number of women in the workforce, including the royal decree issued last September to allow women to drive.

"In our country, there are some conservatives who fear change," Princess Hayfa said in the Vogue interview. "For many, it's all they have known. Personally, I support these changes with great enthusiasm."

In the face of the arrests, however, some are unconvinced of the crown prince's progressive promises.

"The crown prince, who has styled himself as a reformer with Western allies and investors, should be thanking the activists for their contributions to the Saudi women's rights movement," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of the Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

"Instead, the Saudi authorities appear to be punishing these women's rights champions for promoting a goal bin Salman alleges to support -- ending discrimination against women."

Elizabeth Throssell, a UN human rights office spokesperson, echoed this sentiment on Tuesday at a Geneva news conference.

"Given the significant loosening of certain restrictions on women's activities in Saudi Arabia in recent months, including the forthcoming ending of the ban on women driving, it's perplexing why both women and men engaged in campaigning for such positive developments are now being targeted by the authorities," said Throssell.

The June issue is not the first time that Vogue has stirred controversy. In 2011 a Vogue magazine article described Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as "a rose in the desert."

The fawning profile piece, which was published after the Syrian uprising had begun, was widely ridiculed for being tone-deaf to suffering in the country.

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