Vogue Arabia Hails Saudi Reform, Ignoring Jailed Activists

The June cover of Vogue Arabia.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is putting women in the driving seat — and so are we.”

That’s how Vogue Arabia described its June cover, which features a glamorous woman behind the wheel of a classic car, parked in the desert.

But the problem for some has been which woman the magazine decided to put in the driver’s seat in an issue that “celebrates the women of the kingdom and their wide-reaching achievements,” but makes no mention of the country’s most recent crackdown on women’s rights activists.

Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah al-Saud — one of the late King Abdullah’s 20 daughters — sits behind the wheel, even as some prominent female activists who fought for the right for Saudi women to drive remain locked behind bars.

In mid-May, at least 11 activists were arrested and labeled “traitors” by the Saudi government, a move that surprised many as the country is just weeks away from allowing women to drive. Some of the activists have been released, but others remain detained.

The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, announced last September that the notoriously conservative nation was lifting the ban on female drivers as part of a reform effort. Saudi women have long been restricted in most aspects of public life, from what they can wear to where they can travel, in part because of the country’s strict guardianship laws.

On June 24, Saudi women will legally be able to drive for the first time. But critics say the Vogue coverage fails to highlight some Saudi women whose activism helped draw international attention to the issue, and who now face persecution.

The issue does feature Manal al-Sharif, one of the Saudi activists who took part in the 2011 protests against the restrictions and was later arrested for the action, but does not mention the latest arrests.

Twitter users were swift in their reaction, calling out Vogue Arabia for what some saw as an oversight.

Others photoshopped faces of two detained women’s rights activists, Aziza al-Yousef and Loujain Hathloul, over the face of Princess Hayfa. Both women are still being held by Saudi authorities, according to Human Rights Watch.

Others voiced support for Vogue Arabia, including Ms. Sharif, the activist featured in it. She said she was happy that her “country women are being celebrated” — but also urged readers not to forget the detained activists.

Vogue Arabia launched in November 2016, with a staff of 25 and its headquarters in Dubai.

One of a series of pushes into new and potentially lucrative foreign markets by the magazine publisher Condé Nast, the new title was pitched as a digital-first, bilingual effort to attract the hearts, minds and money of women in the 22 countries of the Arab League. Saudi Arabia makes up most of the readership, Vogue Arabia said.

After just two published print editions, the editor in chief, a Saudi princess named Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, was abruptly replaced by a male Condé Nast veteran, Manuel Arnaut. And last year, there was an outcry on social media after the models Gigi and Bella Hadid were selected as cover stars for two issues — Gigi in March and Bella in the inaugural September issue (the most important of the annual calendar) — rather than celebrities from the Arab world.

With content ranging from profiles on modest fashion designers to articles on how to style your hair under a hijab, and news articles on local events such as Saudi Arabia’s first fashion week, Vogue Arabia has made efforts to connect and promote the burgeoning Muslim fashion scene, as well as that of the West.

Glossy magazines in North America and Europe have long blended fashion and lifestyle content with broader conversations on politics and social issues. Vogue Arabia’s June issue was its first step into such waters.

In Princess Hayfa’s interview with Mr. Arnaut, she glosses over the dueling narratives in the country, and steers clear of anything that could be perceived as critical of the government. Her father ruled the country from 2005 until his death in 2015.

“In our country, there are some conservatives who fear change,” she told the magazine. “For many, it’s all they have known. Personally, I support these changes with great enthusiasm.”

Members of the princess’s own family have been singled out by the crown prince, who is her cousin.

A number of her father’s 14 sons were detained last year in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in what the government called an anti-corruption campaign. Critics dismissed the move as a money grab, and associates of King Abdullah’s children say the government is trying to take wealth that they consider their inheritance.

One of Princess Hayfa’s brothers, Prince Turki bin Abdullah, is still detained. The Saudi authorities have never explained why.

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Women in Saudi Arabia have been fighting for the right to drive for 30 years. Four key milestone moments paved the way for the surprise overturning of the ban by the country's king. Meet the women behind the movement.

In his editor’s letter, Mr. Arnaut applauded “exciting and progressive changes transforming the kingdom and, by ripple effect, our region,” but made no mention of the driving activists.

In an emailed statement, he said, “Informing and initiating healthy debates around meaningful topics are a priority for us, and we therefore decided to emphasize this with an iconic and powerful image that is completely fulfilling its purpose: bring focus to the region and to the role of women in Saudi society.”

Mr. Arnaut said the publication had seen an “outpouring of positive sentiment” from the region.

“Overall, I firmly believe we fulfilled our mission: Saudi Arabia, its women, and its issues are being widely debated by the world,” he said. “It is an incredible moment for the region — of drastic changes and adjustments — and I’m proud that Vogue Arabia is an active voice in this debate.”

International human rights groups have criticized Saudi Arabia’s decision to detain the activists and are demanding their release. Human Rights Watch criticized Crown Prince Mohammed’s conflicting messaging on female drivers.

“Saudi authorities appear to be punishing these women’s rights champions for promoting a goal bin Salman alleges to support — ending discrimination against women,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The United Nations has called the decision to imprison the activists “perplexing.”

“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,” Elizabeth Throssell, spokeswoman for the United Nations human rights office, said at a news conference in Geneva earlier this week.

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