‘Dangers of Free Speech’ event to reopen conversation around detainment of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul

UBC alum and prominent women’s rights advocate Loujain al-Hathloul has been detained in a Saudi prison since May 2018 for her peaceful activism. She has reported enduring torture, sexual harassment as well as threats of sexual assault and murder for challenging Saudi human rights abuses against women.

While UBC President Santa Ono condemned her detention and treatment, the university was criticized initially for not taking a strong enough stance in advocating on her behalf.

In an attempt to inspire more action, Dalya Al Masri, a recent UBC alum and Palestinian-Canadian political analyst, has created the event “Dangers of Free Speech: The Unjust Arrest of Loujain al-Hathloul.” It will take place on January 27 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Liu Institute for Global Issues.

Al Masri says that the event will connect al-Hathloul’s individual situation to broader issues of human rights, feminist activism and freedom of speech in the Middle East, including the persecution of academics and journalists like Jamal Khashoggi.

According to her, Loujain’s sister Alia al-Hathloul reached out to her to “re-spark public outcry” in Vancouver and hopefully mobilize UBC and the Canadian government to push harder for her release.

“I saw there wasn’t much happening here in Vancouver to advance [Loujain’s] cause, so I think this event will reignite the spark through the media,” Al Masri said. “When you restart a conversation it forces different governments to get involved.”

The event coordinators are expecting a high turnout for Monday’s panel, including many speakers and attendees who have personal connections to al-Hathloul and her cause.

Al Masri is also a member of the Friends of Loujain, a group of Vancouver-based women dedicated to sharing information about al-Hathloul’s situation and calling for her immediate release.

This isn’t al-Hathloul’s first time being arrested by the Saudi government.

In 2014, she was imprisoned for 73 days for defying the female driving ban. This ban was finally lifted in 2018, largely thanks to the efforts of al-Hathloul and other Saudi women’s rights activists.

On May 15, 2018, she was arrested along with other women’s rights activists and has since been imprisoned without clear charges or access to a lawyer.

According to al-Hathloul’s family, she has endured torture and sexual harassment in prison. Her sister also wrote in an opinion letter to The New York Times that Saud al-Qahtani, who oversaw the killing of Jamal Khoshoggi, tortured her “all night during Ramadan” and threatened to sexually assault and kill her.

Al Masri, who said she has also experienced censorship for the work she does related to the Middle East from here in Vancouver, hopes the event would urge audience members to not remain silent on issues that are often deemed taboo.

“You don’t have to be afraid, you don’t have to be silent,” she said. “We’re all passionate about a cause and the only way for things to change is to speak out and actively organize and get involved.

“As Canadians, we have a lot of privilege with our democracy, we have these basic rights that are often taken for granted.”