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Loujain al-Hathloul: 'Fierce' Saudi women's rights campaigner

A professor at a university al-Hathloul attended describes her as a "very tough person" [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 December, 2020

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Activists see Loujain al-Hathloul as an "incredible fierce and resolute" champion of women's rights who represented the kingdom's modern feminists.

Loujain al-Hathloul, who was sentenced on Monday to five years and eight months' prison, has become emblematic of the fight for women's rights in Saudi Arabia.

The 31-year-old long campaigned for women to be able to drive and for an end to the kingdom's notorious guardianship system, which requires women to get permission from male relatives for many decisions.

A graduate of the Canadian University of British Columbia, Hathloul was detained in May 2018 - just weeks before the historic lifting of the decades-old driving ban - along with several prominent women campaigners on the charge of "attempting to destabilise the kingdom".

The pro-government media branded Hathloul and other jailed activists as "traitors" and her family alleges she faced sexual harassment and torture, including electric shocks and water boarding, in detention.

Hathloul also accused former royal court media advisor Saud al-Qahtani of threatening to rape and kill her, according to her family.

Saudi authorities vigorously deny the charges.

A Saudi activist, who declined to be named over fears for her family's safety, told AFP that Hathloul represented the kingdom's modern feminists.

"Loujain is the young rebel woman from Al-Qassim who embodies global values... and calls out the (lies) of the state," she said.

Another Saudi activist described her as an "incredibly fierce and resolute" champion of women's rights.

Hathloul, a social media personality from the conservative central region of Al-Qassim, had also been jailed in 2014.

Saudi authorities put her in juvenile detention when she tried to drive into the kingdom from the neighbouring United Arab Emirates.

She was freed 73 days later following an international campaign.

'Not a shrinking violet'

Sima Godfrey, an associate professor of French at UBC, described Hathloul - who attended the university between 2009 and 2014 and graduated with a degree in French - as a "very tough person".

"She knew what she was risking there and was not afraid. If anything, she was sort of looking forward to the challenge. She's not a shrinking violet by any means," Godfrey told CBC television in 2018.

Godfrey said Hathloul comes from a progressive family that encouraged her to get involved in politics, something most Saudi families shun in the kingdom, an absolute monarchy that does not tolerate political dissent.

"She spoke a lot about her mother, who wanted her daughters to be out there and have their voices be heard," Godfrey said.

Hathloul was married for years to Saudi stand-up comedian Fahad al-Butairi, a YouTube sensation popularly known as the "Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia".

Butairi was arrested in Jordan in 2018 and deported to the kingdom, multiple campaigners and friends of the couple told AFP.

They said he was pressured by Saudi authorities to divorce Hathloul after her arrest. Butairi, who has been released from detention and resides in the kingdom, was not reachable for comment.

Western nations, including the European Union, the United States and Britain, have sought to pressure the kingdom to release the jailed activists.

Some of them have since been provisionally released and are still facing trial.

In 2019, Saudi authorities offered to release Hathloul in exchange for her video testimony denying that she had been tortured and sexually harassed in prison, her family claimed.

She refused to accept the "deal", they said.

Hathloul began a hunger strike in prison on October 26 to demand regular contact with her family, but felt compelled to end it two weeks later, her siblings said.

"She was being woken up by the guards every two hours, day and night, as a brutal tactic to break her," Amnesty International said last month, citing the activist's family.

"Yet, she is far from broken."

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