Video screengrab of Loujain Hathloul driving her car.

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities detained two women on the Saudi side of the border with the United Arab Emirates on December 1, one of whom tried to drive a car across to Saudi Arabia. Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch that Lujain al-Hathloul, 25, and Maysa al-`Amoudi, 33, both Saudis holding valid UAE driving licenses, are in detention but do not know whether they will face criminal charges.

Given that both women appear to be detained because they were driving, Saudi officials should immediately release them and end the discriminatory driving ban on women, Human Rights Watch said.

“After years of false promises to end its absurd restrictions on women, Saudi authorities are still arresting them just for getting behind the wheel,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “The Saudi government’s degrading restrictions on women are what bring shame to the country, not the brave activists standing up for their rights.”

Saudi driving activists told Human Rights Watch that al-Hathloul drove to the Saudi border from Abu Dhabi on November 30 and attempted to cross into Saudi Arabia, but authorities confiscated her passport and held her at the border crossing in her car overnight. She was joined on December 1 by al-`Amoudi, who drove to the border from Dubai to bring al-Hathloul supplies, but did not intend to enter Saudi Arabia.

The activists said both were detained by Saudi officials on the Saudi side of the al-Batha border crossing and transferred to the Bureau of Interrogation and Prosecution in the Eastern Province city of Hufuf for questioning. Activists reported that the authorities are holding al-Hathloul at a juvenile center for girls and al-`Amoudi in the al-Ahsa Central Prison.

Both women have vocally supported an end to the driving ban. Since 2013, al-Hathloul has posted numerous videos of herself calling for women’s rights reforms and encouraging women to drive in defiance of the ban.

Since 2011, women have defied the ban and published online videos of themselves driving the country’s roads, including footage showing Saudi men driving by and giving the thumbs-up sign to show their support.

The informal prohibition on female driving in Saudi Arabia became official state policy in 1990. During the 1990-91 Gulf War, female American soldiers were permitted to drive on military bases in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi women organized a protest demanding the right to drive in Saudi Arabia as well. Dozens of Saudi women drove the streets of Riyadh in a convoy to protest the ban, which then was just based on custom. In response, officials arrested them, suspended them from their jobs, and the Grand Mufti, the country’s most senior religious authority, immediately declared a fatwa, or religious edict, against women driving, stating that driving would expose women to “temptation” and lead to “social chaos.” Then-Minister of Interior Prince Nayef legally banned women’s driving by decree on the basis of the fatwa.

Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son. Authorities also fail to prevent some employers from requiring male guardians to approve the hiring of adult female relatives or some hospitals from requiring male guardian approval for certain medical procedures for women. Women cannot protest or establish independent organizations to address women’s rights, as the kingdom bans protest and does not permit nongovernmental human rights organizations to operate freely.

“It’s time for Saudi Arabia to end its status as the only country in the world that locks women up for driving,” Whitson said.