On December 28, 2020, 31-year-old Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was sentenced to nearly six years in prison through the kingdom's Specialized Criminal Court. (She has 30 days to appeal.) Here, al-Hathloul's sisters, Lina and Alia al-Hathloul, share Loujain's story, in their own words, and why they will never stop fighting for their sister's freedom.
On Monday, December 28, 2020, our sister, Loujain al-Hathloul, was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison. Loujain’s sentence came after spending nearly three years in pre-trial detention, during which she was brutally tortured, placed in solitary confinement, went on two hunger strikes, and was denied contact with our parents (her legal representatives) numerous times.
Many people have asked us how Loujain is after all this time, and how we feel about her sentencing. In order for us to fully answer this question we want to tell you about our sister and why her activism defines who she is.
Loujain is one of the middle sisters in our family of six siblings. From an early age, people knew what Loujain was thinking because she would always tell you. She would ask questions all the time—this should have been a sign of what was to come for her as a leader and advocate for women’s rights.
Many people know Loujain from her participation in the Women2Drive campaign, but Loujain’s activism began before the fight for driving equality in Saudi Arabia. Loujain started posting short videos on a now-defunct social media site called Keek (many of her videos can be found still on YouTube) on issues like equality, male guardianship, activism, and more. She posted these videos in the spirit of discourse and opening spaces of conversation with people so that she could share her views on issues. Loujain experienced her share of bullying and harassment for her videos on Keek, but she responded as she always had—with even more determination.
When people accused Loujain of being a Saudi activist from afar (at the time, she was a student at the University of British Columbia studying French Literature), Loujain made the decision to return to Saudi Arabia after her studies. She agreed that if a change was to be made in women’s rights, it must be done by women in the country, so she planned to start the first women’s shelter for those escaping domestic violence. This was never realized because of Loujain’s imprisonment.
Loujain’s first attempt to drive in Saudi Arabia was in 2014. After her attempt to cross the Saudi border by car, Loujain spent 73 days incarcerated in Saudi Arabia in what is called a "care home" or "Dar al Reaya." These detention facilities—prisons in all but name—are for women who are formally disowned by their male guardians, often for minor infractions. During her prison stay, Loujain realized that she was imprisoned with women who were sent to this "care home" for simply "disobeying" their male guardians. The Saudi government sees these women as delinquents. Our sister realized that freedom for these women wouldn’t come from just being able to drive, but to be free from male guardianship.
It was because of these 73 days in prison that Loujain increased her activism. In July 2016, alongside other Saudi activists, Loujain organized a campaign calling for an end to the country's male guardianship system by sending telegrams and a petition to King Salman. The petition collected more than 14,000 signatures. Human Rights Watch described the 2016 wave of activism as "incredible and unprecedented."
In March 2018, Loujain disappeared. She was in the UAE studying at the Sorbonne University when Emirati police surrounded the car she was driving (she had an UAE driving license), kidnapped her, and transported her to Saudi Arabia against her will. Our sister was placed in detention in Saudi Arabia for a few days and then released and placed on a travel ban. On May 15, 2018, our sister was arrested along with other Saudi activists who had advocated for women’s rights and the lift of the driving ban, which went into effect just weeks after her arrest.
We later found out that during the first 50 days of Loujain’s imprisonment, she was tortured by Saudi authorities. They threatened to rape our sister, to chop her body into pieces, and to throw her in the sewage system. They flogged her, waterboarded her, electrocuted her, and sexually assaulted her. Loujain has been in solitary confinement for a majority of her nearly three-year detention. She’s gone months without being granted any access to phone calls. She started hallucinating after her second hunger strike due to psychological torture by Saudi authorities. And then, after all of this, our sister was sentenced two weeks ago to five years and eight months in prison and labeled as a terrorist. The brutal torture that she was put through was denied by Saudi authorities. Even though she will hopefully be released early this year [based on time already served and a partially suspended sentence], she will still face five years of a travel ban and three years of probation, in which she could be sent back to prison at any time if Saudi authorities claim presence of criminal activity.
So, how is our sister Loujain? She is as determined as ever to fight for justice. She is devastated at being labeled a terrorist when she was only fighting for collective women’s rights and equality. She is physically weak after enduring what no person should ever have to be put through. Since her imprisonment, we have formed and built advocacy connections with member states at the United Nations, with MPs and representatives within international governments, and advocated for Loujain at the highest levels. We have worked with numerous international organizations who are incredible supporters of Loujain. We have spoken at the United Nations Human Rights Council. We have accepted awards on behalf of our sister. We have done numerous media interviews to make sure that we keep the public informed of developments.
We are exhausted, but will not give up on our beloved Loujain. As her sisters, we remain committed to her, and we will not stop fighting until she is unconditionally free. She fought for all of us—all Saudi women. We will never give up on her.
To learn more about Loujain al-Hathloul and how to take action, click here.