After nearly three years of being imprisoned for her women’s rights activism in Saudi Arabia, Loujain Al-Hathloul was released on February 10th, 2021. Her case has received widespread international pressure and condemnation, emphasizing the human rights abuses she and other female political prisoners suffer under the Saudi Arabian judicial system. This update on Loujain’s case looks into her activism and imprisonment, emphasizing the fact her release does not equate to her freedom. Spheres of Influence had the honor of interviewing Sima Godfrey, a French professor at the University of British Columbia who taught Loujain in 2011, and Dalya Al-Masri, a member of the Vancouver-based activist group Friends of Loujain.
Who is Loujain Al-Hathloul?
Loujain Al-Hathloul is a Saudi-Arabian women’s rights activist, University of British Columbia graduate, and 2019-2020 Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
In 2014, she graduated from UBC with a Bachelor of Arts in French and already seemed set on what she was meant to do. During one of professor Godfrey’s office hours, she asked what Loujain’s plans were after graduation, and “she just said: ‘I’m going back to Saudi Arabia to fight for the rights of women.’ No one could have imagined the extent she would go to accomplish this, the professor exclaims: “she really took it all the way!” In the classroom, she describes Loujain as someone who “radiates that kind of strength and determination” but that “the cost she’s had to pay for [it] is enormous and overwhelming.”
Loujain Al-Hathloul has long been a powerful women’s rights activist, even when doing so put her in danger of retribution by the Saudi government. Today, she is famously known as an advocate for women’s right to drive and for the termination of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. She also advocated for the creation of a shelter to protect abused women and attended the 2018 Geneva meeting to brief members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on the human rights situation of women in Saudi Arabia. However, Loujain’s bold efforts have precipitated a deepened distrust between herself and the Saudi government, thrusting herself and freedom into serious danger.
At the time of her preliminary mobilizations, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that banned women from driving, despite decades of women led protests for this right. In 2013, as an act of protest, Loujain drove from the Riyadh airport to her home. In 2014, she defied the ban again by attempting to cross the border from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia, even posting a video on social media. This time, she is arrested for 73 days. In 2018, three weeks after Loujain was kidnapped and imprisoned for her activism, Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving, marking a momentous day in history.
During her 73-day arrest, Loujain spent time in a facility called a “care home,” a place where women who have been disowned by their male guardians are sent to and held. This is when Loujain broadened her activism to include the patriarchal male guardianship system. This system identifies women as legal minors who need the approval of a male guardian to carry out certain activities. For instance, women cannot marry, travel, exit prison, rent an apartment, or file legal claims without permission from their male guardian. Loujain became the leader of online campaigns that raised awareness of the system and the social conditions of women in Saudi Arabia. In 2016, she participated in a campaign that called for an end to the male guardianship system by sending telegrams and a petition to King Salman.
In May 2018, Loujain was arrested at her home by State Security forces, who failed to present a warrant and provide a reason for her arrest. She was transferred multiple times between Jeddah and Dhahban prisons, suffering torture in solitary confinement. Her two and a half years of imprisonment were marked by long periods of silence, without having the right to any visits or phone calls, and torture.
Upon hearing the news Loujain had been imprisoned in 2018, UBC professor Sima Godfrey hoped and assumed it “was yet another symbolic imprisonment and that she would be out in 2 or 3 months.” That was not the case. After her arrest, Loujain was held without access to any communication devices for three weeks and was only allowed to receive a visit from her parents after three months. Dalya Al-Masri, a UBC International Relations graduate and member of the activist group Friends of Loujain, explains that throughout her time in prison, “[the government] continuously changed Loujain’s trial from terrorism court to criminal court back and forth”. This seems to be a tactic Saudi Arabia uses in their judicial system to “get the media to forget about the case and to get [people] sick and tired of following it.” Such a tactic proves effective in cases such as Loujain’s where international criticism and attention were at an all-time high.
During her first trial in March 2019, 10 months after her imprisonment, the government stated her arrest and trial were due to her involvement with foreign activist groups, diplomats, and media. In December 2020, she was sentenced to a prison term of five years and eight months under the Specialized Criminal Court. However, the judge then suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence and took out her time already served. Many, including Loujain’s sister Lina, attribute this cut down on her sentence to heightened international pressure on her case and the presidency of new United States president Joe Biden. The United Nations Human Rights Council and many other international human rights groups have condemned her imprisonment and asked for her immediate and unconditional release. During President Biden’s campaign, he stated that his administration would reassess their relationship with Saudi Arabia, keeping in mind America’s commitment to human rights and to defending “the right of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence.” A statement that can directly speak to the cases of Loujain and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Before her last trials in December 2020, Loujain was offered freedom if she denied her torture allegations. She refused.
Upon her parent’s first visit, they noticed signs of torture; they relate Loujain was being electrocuted, sexually harassed and abused, as well as being deprived of sleep. The visits were few and very limited, leading Loujain to go on two hunger strikes, protesting her right to receive her parent’s visit. Her silence lasted up to 6.5 weeks without being seen or heard. Al-Qahtani, a senior adviser to the Crown Prince, is alleged to have overseen and been present while she was tortured and received threats of rape, and murder. One report even detailed a threat that involved throwing her dead body into the sewage system. Al-Qahtani is also implicated in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi but has been cleared of all wrongdoings by the Saudi Arabian state.
Loujain and her parents have asked for investigations on her torture more than five times. The Specialized Criminal Court opened an investigation two and a half years after their first request and shortly after declared there was no evidence of torture.
Loujain’s Conditional Release
Loujain is still considered a terrorist under the Saudi-Arabian judicial system and has her release contingent on her silence. Loujain’s family asks not to use the word “free” when referring to her release from prison, “as she is still under a travel ban and conditional freedom”.
Although she was released on February 10th, 2021, her release contains many conditions that severely limit her freedom. Dalya Al-Masri informs that Loujain “is under a 5-year travel ban and 3 years probation”, meaning she will be unable to leave Saudi Arabia in the foreseeable future. Her 3-year probation refers to the fact that if she commits any minor infractions, she will immediately be arrested. She is also under a “social media blackout”, and is forbidden to “speak to the media about her detention, [or] about any of the torture . . . that happened while she was in prison.” This renders her unable to continue advocating for women’s rights, and for the unconditional freedom of other unjustly imprisoned women; some of which were arrested along with her.
Spheres of Influence statement:
Many of the staff at Spheres of Influence are UBC students and graduates and feel proud to have walked the same halls as Loujain Al-Hathloul. We are profoundly moved and inspired by her activism, courage, and resilience and believe the UBC student body would greatly benefit from having her as a role model and inspiration. Professor Sima Godfrey highlights how “the university prides itself on producing global citizens . . . who will fight for human rights in a peaceful way, . . . [Loujain] is somebody who is an example of that so the university should be taking a stand.” We call on UBC President Santa Ono to release a statement commending Miss Al-Hathloul for her values and courage as well as demanding her unconditional freedom.
The Spheres of Influence staff also call for the immediate and unconditional release of all other imprisoned women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia including Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nassima al-Sadah, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz, and many others.