“Let’s see what happens!” Loujain al-Hathloul says, smiling defiantly in an 18-second dash-cam clip of her attempting to drive across the border from the UAE into Saudi Arabia. It’s 2014, she’s 25, and the journey is part of her campaign against the ban on women driving in Saudi. What happened is that al-Hathloul spent 73 days in prison for her protest, but also that she and other women’s rights activists won; in a move seen at the time as evidence that the young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is a moderniser, the ban was lifted in June 2018.
In March 2018, however, al-Hathloul’s family say she was kidnapped from Abu Dhabi, where she was a master’s student at Sorbonne University, and forcibly taken to Riyadh as part of an apparent crackdown on the women’s rights movement; in May (just one month before the ban ended) she was arrested and imprisoned. Government-aligned newspapers branded her a ‘traitor’ on their front pages, accusing her of conspiring with ‘foreign entities’, and, following her arrest (on vague terrorism-related charges), predicting a 20-year sentence, or even the death penalty. When al-Hathloul’s trial began in March 2019, journalists and diplomats were barred from attending.
Despite this, her brother Walid (who lives in Canada) says she was elated the day the ban was lifted. “Loujain was extremely happy that women were enjoying their basic rights, even though she was going through brutal torture and sexual harassment in prison,” he says. Al-Hathloul also campaigned for an end to the sexist and infantilising male ‘guardianship’ system, and she was setting up a domestic violence shelter before her arrest, he explains.
At the 10th annual Women In The World summit earlier this month, al-Hathloul’s sister Lina implored attendees to “speak up and fight for my sister, for all the Saudi activists who have been unjustly imprisoned and brutally tortured. Share their stories: tweet about them, write about them, talk about them,” she said, adding, “Our silence will not keep them safe.”