‘Dangers of Free Speech’ panel is optimistic about the future of Saudi activism

“She walked these halls, she sat in these classrooms,” said panelist and Middle East media scholar Dr. Adel Iskandar about Loujain al-Hathloul, a UBC alum and women’s rights activist who has been detained and allegedly tortured in a Saudi prison since May 2018.

“This is an individual whose life history traverses all of ours.”

These were some of the first remarks made at last night’s event “Dangers of Free Speech: The Unjust Arrest of Loujain al-Hathloul,” which featured a panel of scholars, journalists and friends of Loujain. The discussion was moderated by Dalya Al Masri, a recent UBC grad and political analyst.

The event sought to raise awareness in Vancouver about Loujain’s cause, particularly at UBC, her alma mater.

al-Hathloul graduated from UBC in 2014 and rose to fame for challenging the guardianship law in Saudi Arabia, which requires women to obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, marry and often to work or access healthcare.

She also gained internet attention for challenging Saudi Arabia's female driving ban and posting a video of her driving in 2014, recorded by her father. The ban was lifted in 2018 shortly after Loujain was imprisoned, partly thanks to her activism. However, according to panelist Atiya Jaffar, a friend of Loujain, the Saudi government took much of the credit.

Jaffar spoke about her friendship with Loujain, whom she met during their first year at UBC at a march in solidarity with Pakistani flood victims. Jaffar described her as an “amazing ally” who would show up and support various events and initiatives around campus.

“We want her story to be told in a way that centres her achievements and her impact, that doesn’t frame her as a victim,” Jaffar said.

Dr. Sima Godfrey, a UBC French professor who taught Loujain was also on the panel and spoke of her character, described her as the “embodiment of a global citizen.” According to Godfrey, Loujain once told her during office hours of her plans to return to Saudi Arabia after graduation to fight for women’s rights.

“She actually went and fought in ways I haven’t seen other students do,” Godfrey said. “I have a lot of admiration for her.”

In addition to Loujain’s case, the panelists also spoke more broadly about issues of freedom of speech and human rights in the Middle East while deconstructing stereotypes about the region.

The conversation shifted to discuss the role of UBC and the Canadian government in pressing for Loujain’s release and speaking out against human rights violations in Saudi Arabia.

“Canada is continuing to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. Canada is essentially arming them,” said Jaffar.

Godfrey chimed in and addressed the duality of foreign governments condemning the kingdom’s actions without taking concrete action.

“They can speak out as eloquently as they want about human rights, but if they’re not going to put their money where their mouth is we have to question their commitment and priorities,” she said.

Despite the human rights violations and challenges still faced by women in the kingdom today, the panelists expressed some optimism about the future of the region, thanks to young activists like al-Hathloul.

“We have an extremely energized activist youth population spreading over the Arab world,” said Iskandar, pointing to the mass political mobilization that took place during the recent Arab Spring.

Jaffar added, “The Saudi government is becoming increasingly vulnerable and more attentive to their public image in the international community.”

On the importance of the freedom of the press and the use of media in activism, Michelle Ghoussoub, a CBC reporter who has reported on Loujain’s case for years, said “As a journalist, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how much activism actually can make a difference.”

The event concluded with a question and answer period with the audience.

Al Masri said she was happy with the event turnout and hopes it encourages students to get involved with various human rights clubs on campus.

Abril Soewarso-Rivera, a first-year arts student and audience member who spent 10 years living in Saudi Arabia, said she left the event feeling “re-energized” and inspired to further engage in activism.

“Events like these hold space for important dialogue for us to challenge the single-story narrative that’s often perpetuated in the media,” she said.