by Leio Koga //
Considering that International Women’s Day was on March 8th, let’s talk about female activists who are risking their lives everyday to advocate for women’s rights. There is one activist in particular, who was recently released after spending 1001 days in prison in Saudi Arabia2. Her name is Loujain al-Hathloul. Her arrest became known on an international level and became a cry of protest against the many alleged human rights violations by the Saudi government. For the women of the world, it is a cry of help for protection for female human rights activists, who are targeted for speaking out against their governments.
It started in 2014 when Loujain al-Hathloul filmed and posted a video of herself driving a car. Shortly after, on December 1, 2014, she was arrested and detained for 73 days for defying the female driving ban in Saudi Arabia1. She was released and for the next few years, she continued to be vocal about women’s rights. Then, in 2018, she was “kidnapped from the UAE and deported to Saudi Arabia where she was detained for a few days and then put under a travel ban.”1
She was jailed for nearly three years2, charged for “promoting women’s rights; calling for the end of the male guardianship system; and she contacted international organizations, foreign media, and other activists.”3 During the time Hathloul was detained in 2018, she was “held incommunicado with no access to her family or lawyer during the first three months of detention…she was beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed, and threatened with rape and murder.”3 When her parents visited Loujain in prison, Alia al-Hathloul, her sister, recalled, “she [Loujain] showed them her thighs. And it was not only bruises; it was burns; it was so dark. And she [Loujain] said, ‘they were going to throw me in the sewage system.’ She [Loujain] thought she was going to die.”4 This was her reality for advocating for fundamental human rights. Even with clear evidence that Hathloul suffered from this torture, the Saudi appeals court rejected her torture claims.2
Although news articles are writing that Hathloul is released and safe at home, the truth is that she is not technically free. In December, “a judge sentenced her to five years and eight months in prison but suspended two years and ten months of her sentence.” The only reason she is released as of right now is because she was given credit for time served.2 According to the Human Rights Watch, Hathloul “is banned from travel…and the authorities can return her to prison at any time for any perceived criminal activity.”4
Women’s human rights defenders like Loujain not only face increasing barriers due to their gender, but they are also exposed to life-threatening dangers such as sexual violence, defamation, and intimidation5. Women are at the forefront of promoting sustainable peace; UN experts found that “women human rights defenders promote international human rights law; mobilize society in identifying human rights violations; and contribute to developing solutions with a gender perspective.”5 Yet, many are legally, economically, and politically unprotected. The celebration of International Women’s Day should recognize that there is still a long way to go in order to fully protect women from gender-based violence, especially in peace processes and politics. Each state has the primary responsibility to protect women’s human rights defenders when they are threatened or attacked, but the UN and the international community also share the responsibility to speak out against gender-based violence and protect these women.