Urooba Jamal (@uroobajamal) is a freelance journalist who writes about social movements, politics and international affairs. She is part of Friends of Loujain (@FreeLoujain), a collective of Vancouver-based women calling for the release of Loujain al-Hathloul and other detained Saudi women’s rights activists.
When Loujain al-Hathloul walked into a room, everyone took notice: At Pakistani Students’ Association events at our alma mater, the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada, the loudest trail of infectious laughter could be traced back to Loujain, often the only Arab at our events. Of the many ways to be involved on our 40,000-student-strong campus, Loujain became our club’s unofficial driver, selflessly taking us across town to pick up boxes of samosas, or carpool a gaggle of us dressed to the nines in Pakistani garb to events in the Vancouver rain.
The irony that years later she would be arrested, imprisoned, tortured and sexually abused for this very selfless act — driving — is not lost on us.
I met Loujain through one of these events on campus. I remember her for her outspoken and outgoing nature, and her calming and poised demeanor.
So when Loujain started making international headlines for her courageous activism, it came as no surprise to my peers and me. She had returned to Saudi Arabia upon graduation and soon began defying the now-reversed driving ban, speaking out against the country’s male guardianship system and calling attention to other women’s rights abuses. She had been arrested several times.
However, everything changed last May. A flurry of frantic Whatsapp messages sent across continents confirmed our horror: that Loujain had been arrested, and that this time, unlike during her previous arrests, the situation felt dire.
Over the past few months several of us have come together as Friends of Loujain, a collective of Vancouver-based women who knew Loujain from our time together at UBC. We are calling for her immediate release, as well as the release of other detained Saudi women’s rights activists. As reports roll in of the horrific torture and sexual abuse that Loujain has faced while imprisoned, we stand in awe of her bravery. Her years of tireless activism helped reverse the country’s driving ban on women; it is incomprehensible that she remains in prison under such heinous conditions. Loujain’s peaceful protests for the betterment of all Saudi women make her no less than deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The momentum to nominate Loujain for the award has picked up recently, including in a recommendation in a New York Times op-ed by journalist Nicholas Kristof, and efforts led by Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Canada, who is working with a number of academics to nominate her.
In these past few months, we have worked to call attention to our friend’s plight. We have held several rallies in Vancouver. We have reached out to Loujain’s former professors at UBC, as well as the president of UBC, Santa Ono, to pressure them to take action. We have held a mock photo shoot calling out Vogue Arabia’s hypocrisy in featuring Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah al-Saud, the daughter of the late Saudi king, as the vanquisher of the driving ban. We wrote an op-ed in Teen Vogue expressing our rage that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has been praised for being “progressive” while our friend spent her last birthday in jail, simply for fighting for women’s rights.
However, things only seem to be getting worse.
“She said she had been held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder,” Loujain’s sister, Alia al-Hathloul, who lives in Belgium, shared in a New York Times op-ed Jan. 13. Their parents, who live in Saudi Arabia, are allowed one visit a month to see Loujain. On one occasion, Alia wrote, they saw that Loujain’s legs were covered with bruises. Often, Alia wrote, she has been “shaking uncontrollably, unable to hold her grip, to walk or sit normally.”
Worldwide attention to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October had finally shed some light on the kingdom’s shoddy record of human rights abuses. However, the U.S.- and British-led war on Yemen carried out by its Saudi proxy continues, while Loujain and her fellow women’s rights activists languish in prisons in the absolute monarchy run by religious clerics. Here in Canada, while the government’s criticisms of the arrests of Saudi women’s rights activists soured diplomatic relations between the two countries last summer, a $15 billion arms deal between them remains intact — arms that continue to rain down on Yemen.
Despite acts of war, senseless murders, arbitrary arrests, accounts of torture and allegations of rape — nothing has broken these ironclad imperialist alliances.
We call on the Nobel Peace Prize committee to accept Loujain for the prize this year: Her historic efforts cannot go unnoticed. Ensuring her freedom — as well as the freedom of all detained Saudi women’s rights activists — could very well lie in the committee’s hands.