Loujain al-Hathloul, women's rights activist, turns 31 in Saudi prison. Force MbS to free her

Loujain al-Hathloul, women's rights activist, turns 31 in Saudi prison. Force MbS to free her

Comment: Loujain al-Hathloul's imprisonment and torture is an international problem, and it requires an international solution, writes Alainna Liloia.
6 min read
31 Jul, 2020
Saudi officials have held Loujain al-Hathloul in detention since May 15, 2018 [Getty]
Today is Loujain al-Hathloul's birthday. Instead of spending it with her family and friends, she is sitting in a Saudi prison.  

A prominent leader of the women's rights movement in Saudi Arabia, al-Hathloul is known for campaigning against the ban on women driving and the male guardianship system. While some of the reforms she fought for have now been implemented, she and many of her colleagues remain in prison. 

Al-Hathloul was arrested more than two years ago without charge. She was held without a trial for the first 10 months and suffered torture, sexual harassment, and threats of execution and rape, according to family members.

During her first trial in 2019, she was "
charged" with promoting women's rights and calling for the end of the male guardianship system as well as contacting international organisations, other activists and foreign media, Amnesty International said in a report. 

Al-Hathloul's continued imprisonment is a reflection of a brutal patriarchal regime under which women are not given the freedom to live their lives without restriction or resist without threat of repression.

Yet, the imprisonment and torture of al-Hathloul and other activists does not only reflect poorly on Saudi Arabia. Her horrific situation is also a reflection of what happens when western nations refuse to halt business as usual with a regime that continues to perpetrate egregious human rights abuses

The repression, imprisonment and torture of Loujain al-Hathloul and other activists is an international problem, and it requires an international solution. 

Her horrific situation is also a reflection of what happens when western nations refuse to halt business as usual

Imprisonment and repression for Saudi activists 

When al-Hathloul was arrested and imprisoned in 2018, it was the fourth time she had been detained or jailed. Even worse, since March her trial has been indefinitely postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, which is a serious threat to her own health in prison. 

In August of last year, she was presented with a chance of release if she appeared in a recording saying she was not tortured. She refused. 

The choice put before al-Hathloul was unacceptable. Yet, being faced with a set of unacceptable choices was not a new experience to her, nor is it an uncommon experience for Saudi women. 

Many Saudi women live "normal" daily lives, because they choose not to engage in activism or defy the patriarchal restrictions imposed on them by a brutal regime. For those who choose to resist, the threat of imprisonment and torture becomes the reality of their daily lives. 

Despite recent reforms aimed at transforming Saudi Arabia into a more "progressive" nation, the Saudi regime continues to harshly repress dissent through crackdowns and arrests of activists engaged in resistance. 

Read more: As King Salman's health deteriorates, a calculating, paranoid MbS waits in the wings

Continued arrests and executions of activists under King Salman and his son the crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) have marred any progress in human rights reform. In 2018, many of the women activists who fought for the end to the driving ban were arrested in the weeks leading up to it being lifted after celebrating their victory on social media. Just this week, a Yemeni blogger was arrested for his support of for LGBTQ+ rights, according to Human Rights Watch. 

Yet, MbS continues to present an image of a progressive nation to the international community, publicising his reforms in an effort to silence criticism at home and abroad. 

Notable gender reforms have included lifting the ban on women drivers and reforming the guardianship system so that women can obtain passports and travel abroad without a male relative's permission. Yet, women continue to face restrictions under the guardianship system that allows male relatives to control aspects of their daily lives.  

Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses do not end with the detainment and torture of activists like Loujain al-Hathloul. Add to the list of human rights violations hundreds of executions, the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the bombing of civilians in Yemen. 

The problem is that MbS' plan seems to be working. The ruler makes a case to the international community that he is a progressive reformer, pointing eagerly to his record of reform and brushing aside his record of repression. And western leaders, perhaps blinded by lucrative opportunities, apparently believe him.

The United Kingdom, United States and other western governments continue to conduct business as usual with the regime in spite of its egregious human rights abuses. Though often issuing condemnations of Saudi Arabia's human rights violations, western leaders refuse to issue substantial sanctions or substantively alter their trade or military relationships with the country. 

International attention is not enough 

Loujain al-Hathloul and other women's right activists have recognised that their women's rights agenda requires international attention to succeed. Communicating and collaborating with international human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the Saudi feminist movement has strategically positioned itself to receive support from the international community. 

The pressure placed on the Saudi government by human rights organisations and the negative attention in international media has certainly aided the efforts of Saudi women activists to lobby their government for change. 

At the same time, international pressure alone has not been enough to curb Saudi Arabia's repressive measures and human rights violations. It has not even been enough to secure the release of one high-profile women's rights activist from prison during a global pandemic.

Women continue to face restrictions under the guardianship system that allows male relatives to control aspects of their daily lives

Loujain al-Hathloul's family, particularly her sister, Lina al-Hathloul, have spoken out to multiple media outlets. Her situation is highly publicised, which is not the case for other imprisoned activists. Despite this, she has remained in jail for over two years. 

Meanwhile, governments that claim to value "progressive" values and human rights, like the US and UK continue to engage in trade with Saudi Arabia, sign weapons contracts, and pretend that superficial condemnations are enough to curb Saudi's horrific human rights abuses.

Even the 
sanctions imposed by the US and UK in response to the murder of Jamal Khasoggi were designed not to include the Saudi government or crown prince directly, instead only targeting individuals involved in the murder. 

International pressure on Saudi Arabia to release Loujain al-Hathloul from prison and to stop the arrests and executions of innocent men and women has not been enough. It must be backed by action, substantial sanctions, and real economic and political consequences. 

On Loujain al-Hathloul's birthday, Saudi Arabia should reflect on the negative image of the nation it is presenting to the world through its continued violations of human rights. Its western partners should reflect on the ways they are enabling an oppressive regime, and the responsibility they have to activists like Loujain.

Alainna Liloia is a PhD student in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Her research is focused on gender, politics and nation building in the Arab Gulf states.

Follow her on Twitter: @missalainneous

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.