The Woman Who Said No: The Story of Loujain al-Hathloul

Edited By: Tanmaya Ramprasad

For a moment back in June 2018, it seemed as if the patriarchy in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was retreating, when authorities lifted a decades-old ban on women driving vehicles. It was a victory for the women who had been fighting for their rights since times immemorial. But where were these women then? You’d be shocked to learn that they were being electrocuted in jail cells miles away from the celebrations. The now 31-year-old women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was one of these brave women rotting in the “palace of torture” as she called it.

Loujain was always troubled by the hypocrisy that existed in the kingdom’s laws for women, especially with regard to driving. If men could drive, then why couldn’t the women? Why did women have to ask permission from a male authority before leaving their homes, before travelling, or even while choosing their partners? In 2014, she opposed the ban on women driving in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, by attaining a legitimate driver’s license and driving near the Saudi border, posting videos on social media of the same. It was not easy to escape the kingdom’s tyranny, even on foreign soil. Unsurprisingly, the Saudi authorities arrested her and put her in detention for 73 days.

However, Loujain’s voice did not tremble.

Despite failed attempts to stand in the 2015 local Saudi elections, she continued to petition the government, oppose the oppressive laws on social media, and campaign for her rights. Yet again, she was arrested but this time, the torment did not stop. On 15th May 2018, along with other prominent activists in the Saudi Arabian Women’s Rights movement, Loujain was arrested and detained, without any charges or trials for ten months, post which she was charged with threatening the social peace of the kingdom. As of February 2019, she has been jailed incommunicado at a maximum-security prison located 25 miles away from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, where she continues to be tortured physically and psychologically through methods that we are still unaware of. They took her body apart, piece by piece, but her spirit did not waver.

Loujain went on a hunger strike at the end of October 2020, ahead of the G20 summit that was held in Saudi Arabia in November. This summit was a key opportunity for the international community to call out the kingdom’s façade of glory, and Loujain’s family continued to urge foreign dignitaries to pressurize the Saudi authorities. The effort was in vain as on 25 November, after the summit concluded, Loujain’s case was transferred to courts trying terror-related crimes. Anything against the crown prince’s agenda for change coming from the top authority is apparently a national security threat for the kingdom. Feminism was now terrorism. However, we need to remember that the kingdom has not been successful in suppressing Loujain’s voice, and it is up to us to not let it fade into the shadows of the kingdom. Let us not cheer on the kingdom’s “progress”. Let us not simply remain bystanders to this turmoil. Let us not press the mute button on this woman who dared to say no.