Lina al-Hathloul Speaks Out for Her Sister’s Freedom

Over the past week, Women’s March Global has been working with the other members of the Free Saudi Women Coalition to continue fighting for the immediate and unconditional release of Saudi activists. As part of our advocacy efforts, the Coalition invited Lina al-Hathloul—the younger sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, who is currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia—to attend the 42nd Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. 

I spent nearly three days with Lina, each day more intense and rigorous than the last. What I witnessed was nothing short of extraordinary. Lina is only 24 years old, and yet her determination and commitment to fight for her sister’s freedom is relentless. During her stay, I had the opportunity to sit down with Lina for a conversation about the convening and her new life as an activist.

Left to right: Salma El Hosseiny (ISHR), Kate Gilmore (Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights), Lina al-Hathloul, Uma Mishra-Newbery (Women’s March Global).

Lina, it’s been a busy two and a half days in Geneva at the UN, and you’ve done a tremendous amount. How do you feel?

I feel good, but the thing is I never know if what I’m doing is the right thing. So it’s a mixture of good feelings and bad feelings and stress. We will see what happens and I hope it’s the right thing I’ve done. I don’t know if what I am doing will make a difference—all I have is hope that it will.

You said yesterday that you have no choice but to do what you’re doing right now, whereas the rest of us, who are activists in the movement space, we have a choice in how, when, where we show up. 

Yeah. It’s a very personal issue for me. Because of this I think my heart is always more involved in what I’m doing—compared to other activists—because it’s directly linked to my family. There is a lot of pressure because my family is still in Saudi Arabia while I’m trying to save my sister, but maybe [what I am doing] would harm the rest of my family.

When our family didn’t do anything and we remained silent [when Loujain was first imprisoned], nothing changed and things got worse. So now I have no choice but to speak up. We have seen that when we have spoken up, the torture stopped. So being public is needed, and I need to continue. 

You are 24 years old and the resilience that you have, it’s humbling for me to witness. At what age did Loujain start speaking out?

I think Loujian was my age actually, or maybe a year younger. When she started she was in Canada during her studies and she started with the videos. Then she went back to Saudi Arabia and continued, and then started working in the UAE [United Arab Emirates] and never stopped. Even her first imprisonment, she was 24 years old. It was in 2014. I’m speaking out when I’m 24 years old, but she was imprisoned when she was 24 years old. My journey is nothing compared to what she has been through.

I know that doing everything that you’re doing takes a toll mentally and physically. But for you, do you see forward movement? Do you see progress in this?

Yes, I think I do see progress in the sense that her treatment is much better. They allow more visits for my parents. I do see progress because every time… I mean, when we speak up, I see that they don’t mistreat her as much as before and that they truly stick with their engagement [setting up] the visits and calls. When there are no voices anymore for her, the treatment goes down. I clearly see that when we speak up, things go better.

Lina al-Hathloul with Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. 

What do you want the other 24 year olds of the world to know? You’re fighting for your sister, but this is not just about Loujain. This is also about the other women, human rights defenders, that are in prison right now. What would you say to some 24 year old that says, “I’m not affected by this issue?”

I think I understand them, because before Loujain, I thought that all the problems were really far from me—but now that my sister is in prison, I understand that injustice is everywhere.

I think people don’t really realize the power we have with our voices. Speaking up once makes maybe three or four of your friends speak up afterwards and it’s a domino [effect] that really goes fast. If they just make the effort to be in solidarity with this woman once or twice, I really think things could change really fast. I think they have to take the time to read about it and be brave and just speak up.

I can promise things will change for the better if they act.


TAKE ACTION: Demand Global Accountability in the Fight to Free Saudi Activists!

Lina and the Free Saudi Activists Coalition, of which Women’s March Global is a member, took action at the 42nd Human Rights Council, continuing advocacy efforts to free imprisoned Saudi Activists. On September 23, Australia led 23 members states in a joint statement at the 42nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council calling for an end to impunity for Saudi Arabia in its continuous crackdown on human rights violations. The statement comes on the heels of a statement led by Iceland during the 41st Session, which 36 member states signed onto.

Despite initial momentum at the UNHRC calling for greater accountability for human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, this week several countries who previously signed the statement did not renew their commitment. On the backdrop of increasing restrictions in Saudi Arabia, including the continued detainment and harassment of activists, along with mass executions, the crisis continues. 

Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Switzerland have chosen to not sign onto the statement calling for an end to the continued human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. 

 Take action now and hold these countries accountable. 

About

Uma Mishra-Newbery is the Executive Director of Women's March Global.