Why a Saudi women’s rights activist was deemed harmful to national security
23rd February 2021
The Saudi Arabian feminist activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been released from prison on probation after serving nearly 3 years on charges of spying and conspiracy. Al-Hathloul is one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists, known for her vocal opposition to the law which prevented Saudi women from being allowed to drive. She was instrumental in the Women to Drive Movement, which fought to tackle this ban, as well as being vocally opposed to the male guardianship of women. Al-Hathloul was arrested in May 2018 alongside eleven other women’s rights activist, just weeks before the driving ban was lifted. Many of the women who were arrested were released on bail, charged with criminal records, with many more women being arrested in further weeks after the first swoop.
In Saudi Arabia in 1957 a ban was implemented which forbade women from being able to drive and to obtain driving licenses, with many people believing there was no need for women to be able to drive as they are unable to travel anywhere without a male guardian. In Saudi Arabia, the rights of women and men remain extremely divided, with this being the last country in the world where women were not legally allowed to drive. While there was technically never a formal or official ban on women being unable to drive, the ban on obtaining a driving license effectively meant that they cannot legally drive. The driving ban was ultimately lifted on June 24th 2018 after King Salman, the ruler of Saudi Arabia issued a special decree which granted women permission to get legal driving licenses.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has seen many milestones when it comes to achieving gender equality. 2013 saw women being able to partake in sport as well as compete in the Olympics, 2018 was the year women were able to watch football in a stadium. 2015 saw women being able to run for elections in local councils, Loujain al-Hathloul ran in November when it was officially legal, but her name never appeared in any of the ballots meaning people could not vote for her. While the male guardianship laws are still in place, the past couple of years have seen a relax in these rules, but women still need permission from a man for many things, whether it be her father, husband, son.
“The courts continue to deny these accusations saying there is no proof she was ever transported to the places she says she was abused.”
Al-Hathloul was detained on May 15th 2018, and for the first ten months of her detainment, she did not face any charges or trial, and for the first three months, she was refused any access to communicate with a lawyer or her family. Al-Hathloul was subject to immense abuse during her detainment, claiming she was ‘beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed, and threatened with rape and murder’. The courts continue to deny these accusations saying there is no proof she was ever transported to the places she says she was abused. Her family say these have been dismissed by an appeals court and that she was offered freedom if she lied and said she did not endure any abuse while in prison. Al-Hathloul’s hearing occurred on the 28th December 2020, over two and a half years after she was detained and held in a maximum security prison. The Saudi Court found Loujain al-Hathloul guilty of spying with foreign parties and conspiring against the kingdom and sentenced to five years and eight months in prison. The court ultimately suspended two years and ten months from her sentence and stated her start date to be May of 2018, when she was first arrested, meaning that she only had to serve three more months at the time of her hearing. The Saudi Kingdom repeatedly denied the reason she was arrested for her part in campaigning for women’s right to drive but for her part in a campaign to undermine the royal family. Her sister believes this idea was based on her contact with foreign journalists and the accusations she applied to work at the United Nations as well as her contact with foreign diplomats and the media.
Loujain al-Hathloul was released on the 10th of February of this year and was granted by probation by a judge in Riyadh after serving a total of 1,001 days in custody. Her case was backed up by a strong global campaign which was supported by her relatives and groups, such as Amnesty International. Her sister uploaded pictures of her to Twitter announcing she has been released and is not at home. Despite her being released from prison, Loujain’s freedom is far from achieved and still a distant hope. She is unable to discuss and talk to the media, she is unable to leave Saudi Arabia due to her five year travel ban as well as the authorities having the right to re-arrest her, regardless of the situation. Her story has gained global attention considering her mistreatment of in prison and the removal of her basic human rights while she was detained, in which she organised a hunger strike in protest to the conditions which she was subject to in October of last year. The charges in which she received have been referred to as “spurious” by the UN and not fitting as she was exercising her rights to freedom of expression. Her release has been extremely welcomed and a milestone in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, but her case is still ongoing and has not ended quite yet.