If you could change one idea about Saudi Arabia, what would it be?

That we are barbaric! We’re not. We’re actually very nice people! The outside world tends to view us all as brutal terrorists or masochists.

But there is a really beautiful side to the Arab world; you see it in our social life. We are a warm people, we are welcoming, we help each other. I lived for a time in Vancouver and I had the most wonderful experience, but I couldn’t stay any longer because, to me, the people are too closed. I feel I belong more to the East than the West.

 

Loujain on her wedding day to comedian Fahad Albutairi, also believed to be imprisoned. 

The Prisoner

Loujain, 29, Riyadh

Arguably the most prominent activist of her generation, Loujain Al Hathloul gained international attention in 2014 when she attempted to cross the UAE–Saudi border – behind the wheel of her own car.

 

She was incarcerated for seventy-four days on terrorism charges. She was arrested again in May 2018, along with a number of other human rights activists.

 

The trials commenced in the capital last week. The specific charges against her have never been disclosed.

 (samples from interview granted in 2017)

On the role of women

I’ve always wanted to be a man – always, since I was a child. My male guardians have been angels to me, and as a child I was educated in France, so I know I’ve had it much easier than most Saudi women. But still, I could not help but immediately notice the difference between me and my siblings. The way my relatives whispered about my trousers when we returned to Saudi, how my hair and my voice caused a scandal in public places, or the fact that when my parents started sending my brothers abroad for summer schools – to London, to the US – I was left behind.

You can say it’s great to be looked after financially, that it’s cool to be driven around, but those benefits come at the cost of your independence. It’s only cool if your family is extremely kind, balanced and supportive. I have been extremely lucky.

 

On activism

My father was in the navy, and he had this fear of his children being surrounded by water but not knowing how to swim. The only public swimming pool was for men, so when I was three years old, he put me in a pair of my brother’s swimming trunks and took me along. The men were scandalised: ‘How dare you bring a half-naked girl in here!

But my dad just looked at them and said, ‘If you’re aroused by a little kid, then you really need to get yourselves checked. That’s a pretty serious problem,’ and threw me in.

After a few weeks, other fathers started bringing their own little girls. That was my first experience of a feminist movement. I guess I learnt pretty early on that I couldn’t just sit there and wait to be given my rights!

Of course I’ve received a lot of abuse; most of it is cyber-bullying. I would get threats; a lot of pictures of guns, all sorts of sexual content – videos of guys masturbating over my picture. They want to break you from the inside; it made me think of the way soldiers use rape during conflict.

At one point I was afraid; I was in Canada and I was scared about how people would react to me when I got back to Saudi.

But as soon as I landed, I realised that people only dared talk from behind anonymous accounts; they weren’t courageous enough to confront me in real life. So I thought, Okay, I’m stronger. Obviously I’m stronger. I’m the only one among all these men who is prepared to speak publicly.

 

On driving

I didn’t tell anyone what I was going to do until I reached the border. (It was only a week after I got married by the way; my poor husband.) But I didn’t want anyone to be charged with being an accomplice. I made sure I had my own car for the same reason.

It took them twenty-six hours to arrest me. I was expecting to be arrested. I was expecting to receive the same punishment as previous women, which was basically to be under arrest for a couple of hours, a maximum of twenty-four. I wasn’t expecting terrorism charges.

But I have no regrets.

 

On jail

I really enjoyed my time in jail! I got to spend time with women from a different social circle, a different region, a different sect (most of the inmates were Shia and I was Sunni). I decided to take as much as possible from it, to face it with a positive attitude. Since I had nothing else to do, I thought I might as well look on the bright side!

Honestly, the conditions are great; all the women are treated fine. We spent our days mostly playing games, watching TV. But the problem isn’t the place, it’s the legal system.

The majority of the women inside were there for ‘prostitution’, which I found quite shocking, especially considering a lot of them were under the age of twenty; not even real adults at this point.

I asked one of the employees one evening, as she was locking us in for the night, how old the youngest inmate to have stayed there was. She said ten years old. Of course I was surprised. I asked her what she had done, and she just gave me that look, the look of shame that says, ‘I can’t say, but you understand.’ I don’t think a ten year old belongs in jail. She’s a victim, not a criminal.

It doesn’t matter if you live in paradise in jail, not as long as the legal system is broken.

 

Forgotten Women

 

When Loujain was first arrested in 2014, she

was not alone. Her friend and supporter,

journalist Maysaa Alamoudi was also caught in

the fray.

 

The two served identical sentences albeit in different surroundings. Maysaa, aged 33, was sent into the

general prison population, while Loujain, 25 at the time,

was confined to juvenile detention. Men are tried as adults from the age of 18, women from the age of 30.

 

Following her 2018 arrest however, Loujain is reportedly being held at an adult prison in Riyadh. Allegations of mistreatment and torture suggest she is now facing a considerably harsher environment.

 

Perhaps the most infamous aspect of Saudi Arabia’s gendered legal system occurs once a woman has already served her time. “When they do in fact lock you up, you're not allowed to leave prison without your father or a legal guardian to pick you up.” says model, Noor, “if they don’t want to take responsibility for

you, you can be in there for years.”

 

Given the choice between remaining in prison or being released into the custody of a an abusive husband, some women choose to remain behind bars. So they just keep them in jail,” says Loujain, “obviously they will be treated as criminals, because

they wouldn't leave the prison, because they're in there.”

 

As the Kingdom continues its public drive to modernise,

such restrictions are increasingly difficult to defend.

“It causes a lot of other problems,” says one

activist, “it just doesn’t make sense anymore.

That’s why the Shura council is discussing it

right now.”

 

As for Loujain’s own fate -

the world is watching.

This interview is an extract from the book Queens of the Kingdom, Simon & Schuster (2019)