The state doesn’t gift free speech. Saudi Arabia’s prominent women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, who was arrested in 2018, has been granted freedom if she agreed to say that she was not tortured during detention
By Nazarul Islam
Saudi Arabia’s decidedly prominent women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, who was arrested in 2018 for her spirited campaign to allow women to drive in the theocratic kingdom, has been released. This in itself is a victory for Saudi women. And for all those, whose voices have been stifled in the authoritarian system of governance in Middle East.
And yet the cruel irony of her predicament must be that she was put behind bars just weeks before the ban was lifted by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, reckoned as a liberal by the standards of the palace in Riyadh.
With liberal winds blowing across the desert sands, human rights ought to have prompted the release of 31-year-old Loujain much earlier. If indeed a few weeks separated her arrest and royalty’s affirmation of a woman’s right to be seen at the steering wheel, the doughty Loujain deserved to be freed long ago, and arguably not arrested at all.
It bears recall that she was jailed not the least because the palace was impervious to the global outcry. In December a court found her guilty of seeking to change the political system and damage public order. Allowing a woman to drive is intrinsically a societal issue, one that has little or nothing to do with the political system, let alone cause damage to public order.
And yet she was sentenced to nearly six years in a maximum security prison; two years and 10 months were suspended, however. And in the immediate aftermath of her freedom, it has transpired that Loujain was offered freedom “if she denies torture”.
The tag of “conditions apply” mirrors the certitudes of a theocratic land. It is hard not to wonder whether her freedom also addresses the problems of human rights. Such misgivings can be contextualized with her family’s warning that she is “not free” and will face numerous restrictions while on probation, including a five-year travel ban.
“Loujain is at home!” Hathloul’s sister Lina tweeted on Wednesday, breaking the news that she had been released after 1,001 days in prison. The imprisonment was incredibly out of proportion to her “offence”. Hathloul became a symbol of the suppression of dissent in Saudi Arabia following her detention in May 2018 along with about a dozen other women activists who had also campaigned for women to be allowed to drive.
Loujain has over the past few years become the face of dissent in the kingdom, verily a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on any form of protest. Her family has alleged that she was initially held incommunicado for three months, and that she was subjected to electric shocks, whippings, and sexual harassment.
They also alleged that that she was offered freedom if she agreed to say that she was not tortured. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, welcomed her release from prison, describing it as “a good thing”. UN experts have binned the charges as “spurious”, saying she had merely been exercising her fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom is not a philosophy, nor is it even an idea. It is a movement of consciousness that lead us, at certain moments, to utter one of two monosyllables: Yes or No. In their brevity, lasting but an instant, like a flash of lighting, the contradictory character of human nature stands revealed.
The state can’t give you free speech, and the state can’t take it away. We are born with it, like our eyes, like our ears. Freedom is something you assume, and then you wait for someone to try to take it away. And, the degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free…
Well may the fundamental structure of Saudi Arabia and the others endure?
About the Author