Two Years Ago, Saudi Arabia’s Driving Ban Was Lifted. Yet Women Remain in Prison.

Two years ago, the driving ban in Saudi Arabia was lifted for women. Yet Loujain alHathloul and other Saudi Activists still remain in prison.

For the past two years, the Free Saudi Activists Coalition has been working to advocate for the immediate and unconditional release of Saudi women human rights defenders and activists. 

As part of our advocacy efforts, the Coalition has worked with Lina alHathloul—the younger sister of Loujain alHathloul, currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia—to attend and speak at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and more recently the United Nations’ Commission for Status of Women (CSW) in New York City.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CSW was drastically scaled down, leaving civil society organizations and activists with incredibly reduced opportunities for high-level advocacy. Nevertheless, Lina and coalition members spent two intense days in New York continuing advocacy with member states and other NGOs in pursuit of Loujain’s freedom.

Ms. writer Uma Mishra-Newbery sat down with Lina last week to discuss the past two years of advocacy and her thoughts on the events that have transpired.

Two Years Ago, Saudi Arabia's Driving Ban Was Lifted. Yet Women Remain in Prison.
Uma Mishra-Newbery and Lina alHathloul.

What she shared provides a raw and open look at the toll this fight has taken and why—even today—public voices and pressure are as crucial as ever. 

Uma Mishra-Newbery: June 24 marks the two year anniversary of the lift of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia. However, two years have also passed since Loujain was detained and imprisoned. After all of this time I want to ask what your thoughts are: Are you optimistic? Are you disillusioned by the process of doing the advocacy work you are doing? 

Lina alHathloul: I think I wouldn’t be doing everything I’m doing if I didn’t have any hope. I believe that when we fight for something, we succeed. The only way I could see my sister free is if I ask for her release.

I have been seeing that her detention conditions have been, at least for now, improving. Loujain is not tortured anymore. She’s not totally in solitary confinement, so that makes me hopeful that I’m not doing all of this for nothing, and that however long it takes, I will continue until Loujain is free.

Two Years Ago, Saudi Arabia's Driving Ban Was Lifted. Yet Women Remain in Prison.

UMN: Two years ago, when the lift of the driving ban was announced, it was done with great fanfare from the Saudi Kingdom and was applauded across the globe. Vogue Arabia put a Saudi princess on the cover to announce the lift of the driving ban. Yet, many people don’t know that just before that driving ban was lifted, was when Loujain and other Saudi activists, who had campaigned for the ban to be lifted, were arrested. Can you talk about the arrest that happened in May 2018?

LAH: When Loujain got arrested, we really thought that it would just be temporary. We thought that it was linked to allowing women to drive, and that maybe we were being a bit naive. We assumed this because they [the Saudi government] needed to manage at least the media side of allowing women to drive—and so maybe they had to do it like this and arrest Loujain.

We did not think that it was going to be as bad as it is now. Especially because when the Saudi government decided to allow women to drive, they called Loujain before arresting her, and told her not to talk about the decision or use social media. Loujain accepted that, and she didn’t talk about it at all—but they still arrested her. When Loujain spoke out and drove, she was arrested, when she followed their request to not talk about the decision to lift the driving ban she was arrested—so it’s hard to know what they really want. 

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UMN: The lift of the driving ban was seen as this great reform by Saudi Arabia, but in reality, one of the main reasons and drivers for this was the push for Vision 2030. As we’ve done advocacy, we’ve talked to other governments and member states that are aware of the massive PR machine of the Saudi Kingdom. How do you feel about the reforms and the PR campaigns? 

LAH: I think there are good reforms, but the good reforms are the ones that have been fought for by the people of Saudi Arabia. I personally think that the Saudi government wouldn’t need so much PR for their reforms if they would just let the people talk about it. Having people like Loujain embrace reforms and talk about them internationally, shows that the Kingdom is opening up and would be so much easier than having to pay millions and millions for their PR. Reforms are not genuine when they imprison the people who campaigned and fought for them. 

UMN: Saudi Arabia has said that they are reforming, but they’ve also denied that Loujain and others have been tortured. Mohammed bin Salman, often known as MBS, has said that the torture allegations are not true, and yet the reports of torture civil society organizations have detailed are very gruesome. Can you talk about what Loujain has been put through in the past two years?

LAH: Loujain has been tortured. She was being tortured in an unofficial prison during the first months of her imprisonment. When she got out of the unofficial prison, she told my parents that she was being tortured. The first thing we wanted was proof, at least for the future, that she was being tortured, but the authorities refused to accept our request for a doctor or independent parties to visit Loujain and assess the torture and her health.

What [the Saudi government] do is say to foreign media, and also on official reports in Saudi Arabia, that Loujain wasn’t tortured, but no one came and checked on her. When there was so much pressure about her torture, the Saudi Human Rights Commission came and visited Loujain, and she told them about everything. At the end of their conversation, Loujain asked them, “Can you assure me that you can protect me after everything I told you?”

And the Humans Rights Commission just said, “No, we can’t.”

So Loujain told them to give her back the tape which had her recorded statement, and that she will not talk about it. So there is no transparency when it comes to the conditions of her imprisonment. We have been asking for investigations on her torture. MBS promised in 2019, actually in an interview that he would at least push for the investigation himself. We haven’t seen anything since and it leads us to ask and wonder what they are hiding. 

Two Years Ago, Saudi Arabia's Driving Ban Was Lifted. Yet Women Remain in Prison.

UMN: There were reports as well that Saudi Arabia offered her release, if she signed papers saying that she hadn’t been tortured and Loujain refused to do so. You mentioned that the lack of transparency throughout this whole process has been incredibly frustrating to deal with, because there have been periods where you have not been able to speak to Loujain for weeks.

Just recently, there was a stretch of four weeks that you hadn’t heard from Loujain. Especially with fears around COVID, can you talk about all of this and how it feels for you as Loujain’s sister?

LAH: Of course. My main question is, what do they have to hide when they refuse any contact with Loujain? My parents haven’t seen Loujain for more than three months. She didn’t call two weeks ago for a month, now it’s been another two weeks that she hasn’t called. So there’s something wrong, and what we see with the other families of the detainees, is that when there is silence, something is going on. Whether it’s because they’re trying to force them to admit something or they are torturing them—the Saudi government is hiding something.

If they didn’t have anything to hide, if they really wanted to show the world and Saudi people that they respect prisoners’ rights, I don’t see why they would not allow Loujain to call or to see my parents. It is just too obvious that they’re violating all her basic human rights. 

She has been in prison for two years without a trial now, eight months of solitary confinement, three months of torture. Now, three months without any visits. I don’t even have the words for it. 

When my parents go and visit her as her lawyers, they take the legal papers so that she can prepare her defense. I can’t be clearer than this, they are violating all her rights, and they don’t want her to have a fair trial. They want her to just be in prison and be forgotten. They want people to get bored of her case so that it becomes a symbolic case, and no one then dares to speak up in Saudi Arabia.

UMN: This is why international pressure is so key. You’ve said this before in interviews with myself and others, that it is critical for people to speak out, and to continue speaking out, not just once, but all of the time, because when people have stayed silent, when the international community has stayed silent, that is when Loujain has been tortured.

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen more support and recognition from the international community around Loujain’s case. Loujain was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year and just recently she was awarded the French Freedom Prize. Additionally, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found the government of Saudi Arabia in violation of international human rights law. Can you talk about how meaningful to you and your family these acknowledgments are?

LAH: What’s interesting in regards to the French Freedom Prize is that it is voted on by young people ages 15 to 25, so I’m really happy that all this PR that Saudi Arabia has been doing, and the work they have put in to try to label Loujain a traitor has not worked. Young people are aware and they’re engaged, because they are also the ones who not only voted for her, they nominated Loujain for the prize. So I think that’s really interesting, and I’m really happy that people are still keeping her fight alive, remembering her, and acknowledging her work and activism.

Young people are thanking Loujain for her fight, and they don’t want her to be forgotten, and I think that’s very important. 

As for the UN decision, I think it’s excellent, because one of Loujain’s charges is that she had been participating in conferences where she talked about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.

Lina’s French Freedom Prize announcement.

She was arrested right after she came back from Geneva when she was at the CEDAW conference, and it’s clear that in the charges they refer to her participation at the UN. So it’s good that the UN responded to this petition after Saudi Arabia’s reply. Saudi Arabia’s reply was basically denying everything without giving any proof, or trying to explain what the response is.

UMN: In the fall, we will see the G20 take place in Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, and many members of International Civil Society have already spoken out against the G20, and specifically the C20 that takes place alongside it given the continuous human rights violations.

What would you say to governments and also to the citizens of those governments that are participating in this process, along with the businesses that are also supporting this G20 process, and supporting Saudi Arabia from an economic interest standpoint, in regards to Loujain’s case, and specifically the larger cases of prisoners of conscience within Saudi Arabia?

LAH: It is in the international governments’ interest, to support human rights, to speak out in support of Loujain. If they want this cooperation to be long standing, it is in their interest to support people like Loujain and to ask for her release. 

Loujain stands for any citizen who speaks out with love for their country and wants the best for their country. For governments to support Loujain’s case it shows that they value citizens’ voices and in turn, they value Loujain’s voice. 

Lina and the Free Saudi Activists Coalition, continue advocacy efforts to fight for Loujain’s freedom and the freedom of all imprisoned Saudi Activists. In May 2020 the coalition released an advocacy report that outlines the past two years of actions, advocacy efforts, and areas of progress. Additionally, the report includes advocacy opportunities for governments and businesses to utilise in the lead up to the G20 later this year. As more than 220 civil society organisations have expressed their concerns about the G20 civil society engagement process as hosted by Saudi Arabia – we welcome governments to continue taking action to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for their continued human rights violations.

 The report can be accessed here in English and Arabic


Uma Mishra-Newbery is a global social justice and women’s rights leader, transformative speaker and the former Executive Director of Women’s March Global.