Concern Grows For Loujain Al-Hathloul, Jailed Saudi Women's Driving Activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who opposed the kingdom's past ban on women driving, is among several Saudi female activists who have been imprisoned since last year. Relatives say the women have been tortured.
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Concern Grows For Loujain Al-Hathloul, Jailed Saudi Women's Driving Activist

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Concern Grows For Loujain Al-Hathloul, Jailed Saudi Women's Driving Activist

Concern Grows For Loujain Al-Hathloul, Jailed Saudi Women's Driving Activist

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Now to growing worry about women activists in jail in Saudi Arabia. One of the most prominent, the woman who led the fight to lift the female driving ban in the kingdom, is one of them. The ban is gone, but she's still in prison, and relatives say she's been tortured. NPR's Jackie Northam has the story.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In 2014, Loujain al-Hathloul got behind the wheel and drove from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia. A video showed her wearing sunglasses, a headscarf and a huge smile on her face. It was considered a brazen act in the ultraconservative kingdom, and it landed Hathloul in jail for a couple of months. But she continued to battle for the right to drive. Then last May, just weeks before the ban against female drivers was going to be lifted, Hathloul was arrested again, along with other women activists.

UROOBA JAMAL: I think that Saudi Arabia has felt threatened by the activists and their positions, and I think they're trying to teach them a lesson.

NORTHAM: Urooba Jamal has been a friend of Loujain Hathloul's since they were both at the University of British Columbia. Jamal is part of a Vancouver-based activist group called Friends of Loujain.

JAMAL: I felt compelled to join Friends of Loujain simply as someone who has watched her over the years grow in her activism and someone who took a huge risk to advance women's rights in her country and now is facing the most heinous injustices.

NORTHAM: Jamal believes Hathloul was arrested because Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not want anyone else getting credit for lifting the driving ban. She was outraged when Vogue magazine hyped the changes in the kingdom with the cover of a Saudi princess behind the wheel of a convertible. The Friends of Loujain group parodied that image with a photo of a woman driver wearing a Free Loujain T-shirt. And that photo was then published in Teen Vogue. Hathloul's situation got even more attention after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

JAMAL: There was suddenly a lot of worldwide attention, not just to Khashoggi's case but also Saudi Arabia's human rights records. So a lot of people were suddenly talking about the detained activists.

NORTHAM: In November, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued reports about mistreatment of the female activists in prison. Adam Coogle with Human Rights Watch says the allegations were firmed up by Hathloul's sister, Alia, who wrote an op-ed in The New York Times.

ADAM COOGLE: She revealed that Loujain had told her parents that she, you know, had suffered brutal torture, including beatings, waterboarding, whippings, as well as electric shocks. Her parents noticed that she was trembling, and she couldn't sit or stand properly.

NORTHAM: On a recent visit to Washington, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir says authorities are looking into allegations of mistreatment. But he defends the woman's incarceration, saying they're a threat to national security.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: There were attempts to recruit individuals in sensitive positions and to take sensitive information and pass it on to hostile entities outside Saudi Arabia. So there's more to it than meets the eye.

NORTHAM: Jubeir said evidence would come up at a trial, but 10 months after their arrest, the women haven't even been charged. And there's growing pressure on Saudi Arabia to release them, including editorials in major publications. Last month, an impassioned Twitter thread about Hathloul and her husband, a comic, went viral. Its author was Kirk Rudell, a writer and producer in Los Angeles where he met the couple a few years ago.

KIRK RUDELL: Without trying to own a room, they owned the room in the most lovely, gracious, likeable way.

NORTHAM: Rudell says the couple were excited about creative projects they were going to work on, but that's over now that Hathloul is in prison, and her husband is keeping quiet.

RUDELL: They were not advocating for overthrow. They loved their country. They just wanted to be able to live in it a little more equally.

NORTHAM: Rudell says he was stunned and gratified his tweet captured worldwide attention, including celebrities and politicians. But he says more needs to be done to ensure Hathloul and the others are released from Saudi prison. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DNE'S "DRIVING A CAR WHILE LISTENING TO BILL BURR'S PODCAST")

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