#ShesGotVERVE - Why We Love Loujain al Hathloul

Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (MBS) the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is a spoiled, entitled, newly empowered violent psychopath.

Just for a moment let’s put aside Saudi atrocities in Yemen, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the  thoroughly unjust “judicial” system, the enslavement and egregious abuses of migrant workers  and think about the nine women who began the Women to Drive Movement in Saudi Arabia and who remain imprisoned by Saudi authorities.  

Remember June 5th, 2018, the day  MBS ended the ban on women driving? The day Saudi women were granted the right to get permission from a male family member to apply for a driver’s licensce? The day we in the west applauded?

In Saudi Arabia 2018 began with a surge of baseless arrests, farcical trials, and wrongful convictions of peaceful voices for reform. Then in May 2018, 4 months before women were given the right to obtain permission from a father, husband, brother, or son to apply for a drivers license - and 8 months after MBS announced his intention to lift the ban on women drivers, authorities came down hard on all the women brave enough to embrace, practice and advocate for these rights.

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Of the hundreds of women detained during these crackdowns at least nine remain held with no formal charges or convictions against them. Their names are Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassema al-Sadah, and Amal al-Harbi.

Multiple accounts from relatives, friends and the Human Rights Watch have reported the sexual, physical and psychological violence these women are suffering right now.  In November 2018 Human rights organizations reported that at least four of the women were tortured by multiple interrogators with electric shocks, whippings and lashings on their backs and inner thighs, forced groping and kissing, threats of rape and execution.

All of these women are feminist heros but Loujain al-Hathloul has been the face of these women because hers is an especially compelling story. She’s been detained/arrested/kidnapped multiple times for her outspoken opinions on women’s rights. She’s brilliant, beautiful, talented, wealthy, connected  and social media savvy which makes her extremely dangerous for MBS.

We don’t know the exact charges these women are facing because the Saudis haven’t said. Some say officials are trying to extort “confessions”, demoralize supporters and frighten other activists from using social media to address inequality in Saudi Arabia.

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Al-Hathloul’s public activism began December 1st, 2014 when she tried to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia. She was arrested and held for seventy-three days by Saudi police even though she had a valid UAE license which normally allows anyone, including women, to drive in Saudi.

In 2015 Al-Hathloul ran for a seat on a municipal council, one of the first women to do so. She lost.

In September 2016 al-Hathloul and 14,000 others signed and sent a petition to  King Salman appealing for the  laws concerning male guardianship to be abolished.

On June 4th 2017 she was arrested and detained at King Fahad International Airport when she and her husband were trying to return to the Kingdom. Her husband has since divorced her and many claim that he was forced to do so against his will by the government. From the airport al-Hathloul was taken to Riyadh to be “questioned” by the Saudi Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution. It is now February 6, 2019 and she hasn’t been allowed access to a lawyer or contact with her family.

Loujain al-Hathloul's sister Alia alleges that between May and August 2018 extreme torture tactics were inflicted on her sister including waterboarding, whippings, brutal beatings, electric shock and solitary confinement. During one of the few visits al-Hathloul's parents were granted they observed that their daughter’s "thighs were blackened by bruises…..she was shaking uncontrollably, unable to hold her grip, to walk or sit normally".

Alia al-Hathloul says that Saud al-Qahtani, the recently fired advisor to MBS who is accused of being behind the murder of Kashoggi, was present during some of the torture and laughed while they beat al-Hathloul. Alia claims that al-Qahtani repeatedly threatened to rape and kill al-Hathloul then throw her body into the sewage system.

When al-Hathloul was arrested a pro-government newspaper declared her a traitor deserving of execution. This is no empty threat. In the past several years the Kingdom has publicly executed at least 150 people. Recently and for the first time ever Saudi prosecutors have demanded the death penalty for Israa al-Ghomgham, a nonviolent human rights defender.

On March 24, 2016 months before her current imprisonment, al-Hathlouls  wrote:

“Personally, I've faced much criticism and received many attacks since I appeared on social media years ago. During that time, I was a student at the prestigious University of British Columbia and an avid follower of public affairs in my home country of Saudi Arabia. Some might view my beginnings as negative based solely on one viral video, which many shared and portrayed as being against Islam. Those who portrayed it as such failed to realize that I was simply ridiculing the reactions of those who utilized the most heinous and vile language in their comments simply because I wasn't wearing a hijab. What I said in the aforementioned viral video clip proves my point.

In 2013, a few Saudi women started a campaign asking for their inherent right to drive, which I had supported on social media, especially since I'm one of those who are facing hardships because of the driving ban imposed on women; we think the decision is unfair to many. In 2014, in an effort to reignite interest in the campaign, I attempted to drive my car against the border between the beloved United Arab Emirates and my beloved home country of Saudi Arabia. As a result, I ended up being detained for 2 months and a half, during which I had received an initial sentence referring me to the Specialized Criminal Court, which handles terrorism and national security cases. Thankfully, the case was dismissed and I was eventually released on February 12, 2015, and the travel ban against me was lifted a few months later. Around the same time, my car was returned to me by officials as well.

Naturally, many accused me of using the opportunity for my own publicity without any interest nor regard for the advancement or well-being of fellow Saudi women, but this opinion is not important. Others laid blame on me and claimed that what I did was going to delay the official decision to lift the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, especially since my attempt was seen as a direct challenge against the government; they ignored the fact that their silence for 22 years did not have any positive outcome either. The experience passed and my situation was completely resolved, and many still accuse me of infringing on the laws and distorting the public image of my country. They are also going as far as accusing me of treason and saying that I deserve the most extreme punishments based on speculations with no solid evidence, which is a crime punishable by law.

Lately, I appeared in some foreign media channels, which resulted in more attacks against me, and the number of threats of murder or physical harm against me have increased due to the creation of ugly hashtags by instigators, for the purpose of inciting and mobilizing followers against me; this does not represent a tolerant society at all. In these interviews, I spoke about my experience and what I went through personally, and I always ended what I said with my optimism towards the future of the Kingdom and its youth, but - unfortunately - this part was usually omitted during the editing stages of said interviews.

What the majority does not know is that, for the past 4 years, I have refused to appear in interviews with foreign media channels, because I knew of the threat that they pose to individuals and for fear of being used as a media tool wrongfully, as well as the tendency of some reporters to paint an ugly picture of Saudi Arabia by exploiting and cutting out parts of what is being said by its citizens - especially those who were part of the Kingdom's scholarship program - without any attempt to show the full picture in a fair and professional manner.

I only agreed to appear in foreign media channels as early as last November. Those who follow journalistic affairs in Saudi Arabia know that since the month of October, 2015, the Kingdom has - unprecedentedly - allowed large numbers of foreign journalists, who have shown an interest in covering Saudi Arabia's local affairs, into the Kingdom. Only then did I agree to participate in these interviews, because I trusted that these journalists have met all the official requirements and that I can deal with them without any worries; respective authorities would not allow in those whom they know will slander the Kingdom and directly insult its citizens. My interviews revolved around my personal experience in the past few years, including everything that has happened to me during the municipal council elections in the city of Riyadh and a little about current public affairs. During the aforementioned interviews, I wondered about the reasons that drove the local ‏committee for municipal elections to exclude my name from the list of female candidates without any lawful justification. This incident had caught the interest of many foreign journalists and media figures, while local media ignored it completely.

A few days ago, a documentary was released, which portrays Saudi Arabia from a very radical perspective, and shows clips of extreme incidents as being part of everyday life in Saudi Arabia, not to mention the exaggeratedly dramatic tone of the documentary and the many obvious lies and discrepancies in some of its parts. I was one of those who participated in the documentary for one reason only; those journalists were trusted by the authorities and were respectfully welcomed into the country. During the few minutes in which I appear in the documentary, I only spoke about my personal experience. However, the subject of my interview was used as part of a sensationalist and unbalanced documentary.

The attacks I am currently being met with are largely unfair, especially since those journalists were here in Saudi Arabia, and I trusted that the official authorities would not admit anyone who is only interested in damaging the public image of the Kingdom, especially using an unbalanced documentary film such as "Saudi Arabia Uncovered." What I did not know was that their production team took advantage of the opportunity to produce a documentary film showing only one side of the situation in Saudi Arabia. Sure, some violations occur in the Kingdom every now and then, but that does not give anyone the right to portray them as normal daily practices that always happen or that they are the only scenes that accurately depict the current situation in Saudi Arabia. In addition, ignoring reform attempts by Saudi citizens belittles their meaningful initiatives and deeply pains me, even though I remain very optimistic about a bright future for my country and its citizens. In the end, I am only responsible for what I had said.

We have to all realise that criticising some phenomena in our home country does not equate to hating it, wishing evil upon it nor is it an attempt to shake its balance, it's the total opposite. Any Saudi citizen might be upset by some incidents that occur in the Kingdom, but that is only a direct sign of one's interest in the betterment of one's own country and one's hope to see Saudi Arabia as a global leader.

All of those who think that I am using my publicity for purposes of immigration or anything similar are completely wrong. First of all, right after graduating, I refused to stay away from the GCC region, because I wanted to make sure to stay close to my home country, even though I was already offered a job opportunity in Vancouver, Canada. Second of all, I am unable to find any of the jobs I'm interested in due to fear of my name circulating in most companies and corporations in the Kingdom and the rest of the GCC. The effect of this was not only restricted to me, but has even reached the closest person to me, my husband Fahad Albutairi, who has missed many opportunities because of his association with me. Regardless of all of the aforementioned, this does not mean that we will give up nor drastically change our ways, which we believe will bring about development in our country without infringing on others nor hurting them in any way.

Throughout the past few years, every time I committed an action or was subjected to a series of attacks, I had never felt the need to justify myself, this all changed today; today I felt the importance of clarifying many things due to the harsh and unfair criticism I am facing this time; criticism that has reached the point of questioning my loyalty to my country, which is completely unacceptable. Our home country is big enough not to impose one nature on all spectrums of its society.

In conclusion, I sincerely pray for my country and for all of its citizens, even those who have made much effort to harass my family and I.”

While MBS is ultimately responsible for what has been done and what may be done to al-Hathloul, America is complicit in her detention and the abuse of her human rights and should be held accountable. To date the U.S. government has been silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations. Without pressure from his “allies” MBS will continue to violently squash all voices of descent with total impunity. But if you’re waiting for Donald Trump to do the right thing, I wouldn’t your breath….



Article by VERVE Founder & CFO (Chief Feminist Operative) Anna Quick-Palmer

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