After almost a year in Saudi Arabian prison for her activism, UBC alumna is nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

Loujain Al-Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights activist and UBC alumna, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize after her almost year-long incarceration in Saudi Arabia.

After graduating in 2014 with a degree in French, Al-Hathloul has been vocal in pushing for gender equality in Saudi Arabia — particularly against male wardenship laws and for women’s right to drive.

According to Amnesty International, Al-Hathloul is now imprisoned in Dhaban Central Prison after she was arrested last May on unclear charges. Her family said she has reported experiencing torture and sexual harassment while in detention.

“I knew she was gutsy, but I truly underestimated her determination,” Dr. Sima Godfrey, an associate professor of French studies who previously taught Al-Hathloul, wrote in a statement to The Ubyssey.

Al-Hathloul’s plight has attracted attention and support from the nation’s top politicians. NDP Critic for Foreign Affairs Dr. Hélène Laverdière has formally nominated Al-Hathloul for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Her situation is terrible,” she said.

“She stood up for human rights and she still stands up for human rights. We need to stand up with her, and through her, recognize the courage of so many women that are fighting for their rights and their dignity in Saudi Arabia.”

Wake-up call

This is not the first time Al-Hathloul has been detained for her activism. In 2014, she garnered attention worldwide following a viral livestream of her driving from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia in 2014 at a time when it was illegal for women to drive in the country.

Al-Hathloul was then detained for over 10 weeks and was continuously intimidated by Saudi Arabian security officers for years after, according to her sister Alia Al-Hathloul.

The ban on female driving was reversed in June 2018 — a month after Al-Hathloul and several other prominent women’s rights activists were arrested.

They were branded by pro-Saudi government media as “traitors or foreign agents.” But according to Jackie Hansen, a women’s rights advocate for Amnesty International, no formal charges have been laid.

Urooba Jamal, a friend of Al-Hathloul, criticizing the Saudi government for their hypocrisy in lifting the driving ban while simultaneously incarcerating the women who fought for its removal, calling it a “facade.”

Laverdière agrees.

“If the Crown Prince thinks that by doing this very small gesture, we'll forget all the abuses that are happening in Saudi Arabia … then he is mistaken,” she said. “It's like burning down a house and giving [the victim] a toothbrush.”

In January 2019, her sister wrote in the New York Times that she has been tortured and sexually harassed during her detention.

“[Al-Hathloul was] held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder … Her thighs were blackened by bruises,” she wrote.

Alia also wrote that Al-Hathloul was forced to eat after sunrise during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.

According to Hansen, Amnesty International has received a number of credible allegations of physical abuse, sexual assault and threats over the past months.

Laverdière and Al-Hathloul’s friends hope the nomination would serve as a wake-up call for Saudi authorities.

“A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize being imprisoned and tortured for the very reason that she has received the Nobel Peace Prize would be very poignant,” Atiya Jaffar, another friend of Al-Hathloul. “There could be a lot of potential to actually improve the situation and to advance this campaign to bring justice to Loujain.”

Close to home

Despite her detention in Saudi Arabia, the fight for Al-Hathloul’s release is close to home.

“As her alma mater, I think UBC faculty and leadership and students have an incredible role that they can play in advocating for the rights of one of their own,” Hansen said.

Shortly after her arrest and the university’s initial decline to comment, a large number of faculty members signed an open letter calling on UBC President Santa Ono to demand for her release. The AMS also issued a statement in support of her.

Ono subsequently announced that he has written to Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland urging action to free for Al-Hathloul.

Friends of Al-Hathloul have organized numerous rallies for her and other women’s rights activists still detained in Saudi Arabia.

But the fight has been slowed by further diplomatic fallout.

In early August 2018, Saudi Arabia recalled thousands of its students from Canadian universities — amongst other retaliations — after Canada called for the release of activists. The withdrawal was later slightly relaxed to allow undergraduate students in the final year of their degrees, graduate students and medical trainees to finish their studies in Canada.

In a February statement to The Ubyssey, UBC Associate VP Government Relations and Community Engagement Adriaan de Jager reiterated that UBC staff and leadership — alongside Ono — have also expressed concerns to federal officials regarding Al-Hathloul’s detention.

“We believe UBC must be particularly mindful around how its external relations action could impact the safety of Ms. Al-Hathloul,” de Jager wrote.

Now, Jaffar is calling for UBC to award Al-Hathloul an honorary doctorate.

“She's done more to advance human rights and women's rights than a lot of other recipients of the honorary doctorate at UBC,” she said. “… I would love for UBC to raise its voice as an advocate for the right side of history.”

De Jager encouraged those interested in nominating Al-Hathloul for this honour to follow the established process, overseen by the UBC Senate Awards Committee.

“We intend to continue to honour the work of our alumna and advocate on her behalf to federal officials,” wrote de Jager.

Global Affairs Canada and the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Ottawa have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Hansen urged Canadians to keep the issue in the media and to call the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa.

“It may not always seem like [Saudi officials are] hearing the pressure,” she said. “But they're hearing the pressure.”

One year ago, Al-Hathloul posted her last update to Facebook. A new cover photo, the image being seven words against a background of flowers.

“I will win. Not immediately, but definitely.”