‘Driving gave her freedom’: Dozens rally for alumna detained in Saudi Arabia

Dozens of people rallied yesterday evening to call for the immediate release of alumna Loujain Al-Hathloul and other activists who were arrested in Saudi Arabia on May 15. Organized by a small group of UBC alumni and students, the rally was held outside of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Graduated with a French degree in 2014, Al-Hathloul has since emerged as a prominent activist for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia — especially against the kingdom’s ban on female drivers. In 2014, she was detained for ten weeks after live-streaming herself driving from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia.

Along with other activists, she is currently held in custody without access to a lawyer or her family. They have also been characterized as “traitors” by pro-Saudi Arabia government media, despite unclear charges.

Many of the organizers and attendees who knew Al-Hathloul from her time at UBC stressed that she has always been committed to the cause of women’s rights.

“I met Loujain before she became known on the world stage, and she was no less a dedicated advocate then than she is now,” said Farah Malik, an organizer of the rally and a UBC alumna.

Alumna and activist Loujain Al-Hathloul
Alumna and activist Loujain Al-Hathloul Facebook

Malik also dismissed the Saudi government’s claims that Al-Hathloul and the other detained activists were acting as foreign agents who wanted to destabilize the country.

“To quote from Loujain’s own words, ‘ignoring reform attempts by Saudi citizens belittles their meaningful initiatives and deeply pains me ... we have to all realize that criticizing some phenomena in our home country does not equate to hating it, wishing evil upon it, nor is it an attempt to shake its balance,” she said.

Rauza Khan, another UBC alumna who spoke at the event, also recalled befriending Al-Hathloul in a class and characterized her as a “fierce, outspoken and courageous individual.”

“She was so adventurous, and she had so much adrenaline,” Khan said describing a time when Al-Hathloul took her on a snowmobile ride during a Whistler trip. “All the way up, while I was screaming behind her, she just kept saying, ‘Habibti, don’t worry, we’ll make it back. I got you.’

“Driving gave her freedom. It’s a necessity, it’s not a luxury.”

There were also performances of a poem and two songs, which included a rendition of a South African anti-Apartheid song called “Courage.” The demonstrators slightly changed its words to honour the arrested advocates.

Maintaining the traction

Narissa Diwan, a UBC alumna and a rally organizer, met Al-Hathloul in the UBC Pakistani Students Association. Noting the attention that the arrests have garnered, Diwan wanted to make sure that the rally could be organized as soon as possible.

“When we saw the news, we really thought we needed to do something because she was always there for our community,” she said. “It already has a lot of media attention worldwide, and if we do keep on doing rallies like this, it’ll maintain that traction that we already have.”

Prior to the rally, different groups at UBC — like faculty members and the AMS — have penned letters to show support and call for just treatment of Al-Hathloul and other activists who are also detained.

UBC President Santa Ono has also sent a letter to Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland yesterday, calling for the “government [to] work with its Saudi Arabian counterparts to ensure Ms. Al-Hathloul’s release and to encourage Saudi Arabia to recognize the rights of Saudi Arabian women.”

“Minister Freeland has raised Canada’s human rights concerns with her Saudi counterpart during her recent trip to Bangladesh,” said Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Brendan Sutton in an emailed statement to The Ubyssey when asked for a comment about Ono’s letter.

“Canada will continue to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, both at home and abroad.”

Moving forward, Ayendri Riddell — the regional activism coordinator at Amnesty International for Western Canada and the Territories and a speaker at the rally — said that Amnesty International will be engaging in a lot of activism for the project. This will include a letter-writing campaign, a petition on their website and upcoming rallies in Ottawa.

“We’re really trying to show the Saudi Arabian government that this is on the international radar, that we’re putting as much pressure as possible,” she said.

“Especially in the next couple of weeks before charges are laid because it’ll be harder to secure their release afterwards.”

The article has been updated to correct and identify the name of the first two speakers.