She was jailed for 10 weeks for driving. But Saudi officials will let her run.
In a surprise reversal Wednesday, Saudi Arabia lifted its election block on activist-slash-candidate Loujain Hathloul, who gained fame last year by live-streaming her defiance of the kingdom’s ban driving for women.
The decision clears the way for Hathloul’s name to be on Saturday’s ballot in Riyadh as part of nationwide races for municipal council seats – the first elections in the ultraconservative kingdom to allow women to compete and vote. More than 900 women are among the nearly 7,000 candidates.
Until late Wednesday, Hathloul was blackballed along with some other prominent women activists – including two human rights campaigners. For weeks, Hathloul had pushed back, seeking some leverage to get officials to reconsider the ban.
She gave interviews to anyone who would listen. She used connections within the ruling system to lobby for a review of the ban.
“Basically, I annoyed them,” she said. “I guess it worked. It’s amazing news.”
Saudi officials have given no public explanations at the rollback -- just as they made no formal disclosures on the reasons for keeping some candidates off the election lists.
But what likely tipped the scales was a relentless social media blitz by Hathloul’s supporters. Saudi rulers have long conceded ground to online critics – giving them ample room to grouse, network and muse. Crackdowns come when it crosses over into what authorities perceive as challenges to the state or status quo – meaning the ruling family and the powerful religious establishment that has a hand in all key decisions.
This week, however, all of Saudi officialdom is looking to make a good impression with the world’s media shifting its attention to the elections. It's unclear whether the ban will remain in place for the two other women rights activists.
“After I was banned, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t ignored,” said Hathloul. “This means, of course, making some noise.”
She’s no stranger to that. In late 2014, Hathloul got in a car in the United Arab Emirates and drove toward Saudi Arabia with a video camera and her UAE driver’s license. Part of the trip was live-streamed onto the Web.
She was arrested by Saudi border officials and spent 73 days in jail, making her for a time among the best-known Saudi activists.
A year earlier, her husband-to-be, a well-known Saudi satirist named Farhad Albutairi, helped produce one of his memorable videos: “No Woman, No Drive” to the tune of the Bob Marley classic “No Woman, No Cry.”
Hathloul said her initial motivation to run for a council seat was simply to boost the number of women taking part. After the ban, she now wonders if she could pull off a win.
“The goal has changed,” she said. “I want to make a point. It’s a personal thing now. The municipal councils have nothing to do with the driving ban. The councils are just about fixing up the community. The driving ban is another fight. It's definitely not forgotten.”