By Fakhriya M. Suleiman, MA Global Media and Postnational Communication
After spending 1001 days in prison, the prominent Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul was released on 10 February 2021.
In May 2018 Al-Hathloul was arrested along with other prominent Saudi activists, such as Iman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef and Aisha Almane.
According to the Saudi Press Agency, they were arrested on suspicion of ‘contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country.’
Further, a state security spokesman charged the activists with ‘destabilis[ing] the kingdom and breach[ing] its social structure.’
Al-Hathloul’s detention came just a month before the Kingdom lifted its ban on women holding driver’s licenses and driving on 24 June 2018. Al-Hathloul, however, held a license from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and would film herself defying the former ban while returning to the Kingdom from the UAE. This defiance saw her arrested and imprisoned for 73 days in 2015.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) denied that her 2018 detention stemmed from her campaigns against the driving ban, but instead for her drive to ‘undermine the royal family.’
In a Dazed article, her sister Lina recounted the day she was detained in 2018. She described their parents being ‘scared’ when state security had besieged their Riyadh home, and added that Loujain ‘wasn’t even dressed’ properly when officers took her.
Her detention was met with both national and international criticism. For Alaa Al-Siddiq, head of Al-Qst, a Saudi advocacy and human rights watch organisation, Loujain’s ordeal represented a ‘travesty’ for the kingdom.
And for Amnesty International, ‘Loujain [was] not a criminal – she is a human rights defender who is being punished simply for daring to advocate for change.’ Amnesty campaigned for Al-Hathloul’s release from prison, as well as for charges against her to be dropped.
“Although she has now been released, campaigns for justice for Loujain are still very much ongoing.”
Although she has now been released, campaigns for justice for Loujain are still very much ongoing. As part of her release, she and members of her family have been issued a travel ban barring them from leaving the KSA for five years.
According to Yahoo News, Al-Hathloul’s parents have been barred from travel since 2018, without recourse to ‘legally challenge this restriction.’ Alia, Loujain’s sister, told AFP ‘we don’t know how to remove this ban.’ Campaigners have dubbed this as a form of ‘state coercion,’ leaving many Saudi families vulnerable.
Abdullah Alaoudh, a research director at Democracy for the Arab World Now, has had 19 members of his family banned from travel since 2017. Alaoudh told Yahoo News that ‘these bans – issued without any due process or legal proceeding […] are a tool for intimidation and pressure.’
According to Al Jazeera, Lina Al-Hathloul said that ‘what we want now is real justice.’
In a 2016 interview with The Economist, Loujain hoped that her nation would soon see meaningful change, especially with youthful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) at the heart of Saudi leadership. However, she went on to say that while MBS is ‘energetic and wants change,’ his government is not necessarily an accurate representation of the nation as a whole. Thus for Al-Hathloul, MBS’ focus should be ‘on what we [as Saudis] want.’
Photo caption: Al-Hathloul took to Twitter to announce her return home after three years imprisonment. (Credit: @LoujainHathloul via Twitter)