Essay: For Loujain, Who Terrified a Monarchy

Loujain al-Hathloul is the hero of her own story. 

On Wednesday, Loujain was released from prison but she is not free. She is banned from travel and has a suspended sentence which could send her back to prison according to the regime’s whims, whims that sent her there in the first place. So clamorous was her courage, so loud was her refusal to break that it created more of a ruckus and made her more of a liability for the Saudi regime inside prison than outside, so they sent her home, where her enforced silence would be a reprieve for them. 

She is not a “goodwill gesture” or a “concession” to President Joe Biden by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. Women are not bargaining chips to curry favour with your biggest ally so that it continues to arm you to the teeth and look the other way as you commit war crimes with said weapons. 

In the kingdom of gender apartheid that is Saudi Arabia--where an absolute monarchy has ruled since 1932 over a country named after its patriarch--Loujain was tried and sentenced in a terrorism court because the Saudi regime so fears feminism that it considers it a form of terrorism.

In the kingdom of gender apartheid that is Saudi Arabia, the crown prince Mohamed Bin Salman (who is often referred to as MBS), who is the heir apparent to that absolute monarchy, is a self-declared “reformer” and an “emancipator of women” who in May 2018, just weeks before lifting the world’s only ban on women’s driving, ordered the arrests of Loujain and other women’s rights activists who together spanned three generations of feminists. 

To allow feminists to celebrate that moment as the victory of their years of activism that it was, would nurture the idea that activism works in the gender apartheid kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Why arrest the very women’s rights activists who for years had fought to end the ban on women’s driving? 

To make it clear that it was not the courageous advocacy of those feminists that led to that moment when the kingdom finally lifted its ban on women driving, but rather the grace of a crown prince engaged in ferocious revisionism. To allow feminists to celebrate that moment as the victory of their years of activism that it was, would nurture the idea that activism works in the gender apartheid kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Authoritarians want us to believe that freedom is given (by them) not taken (by us). And they most certainly do not want us to think for a moment that activism works.

Twelve of those women’s rights activists remain on trial facing prosecution for their human rights activism. Of the 12, four remain in detention: Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani.

While the eight other activists have been temporarily released, they all continue to face trial and many remain at risk of being sentenced to prison under anti-cybercrime legislation for their human rights work.

In prison, many suffered mental and physical anguish – including torture, sexual abuse and solitary confinement.

Feminism threatens authoritarians so much that they get their allies to render a 28-year-old feminist back home from the city where she’s studying to ensure her silence while the “emancipator” crown prince goes on a tour of the U.S.

Loujain’s astonishing courage and tenacity have long wrong-footed the Saudi regime. In 2014, when she was 25, she was arrested for the first time while attempting to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates - where she had a valid driver’s licence - to Saudi Arabia. She spent 73 days in a women’s detention facility and was to stand trial in terrorism court but was given a royal pardon soon after the accession to the throne of the new king, Salman father of MBS.

In March 2018, by which time MBS had become crown prince and de facto ruler, the Saudi royals considered Loujain such a threat that they had her rendered from the UAE, where she was studying for a Master’s Degree. Loujain was stopped by security officers as she drove on a highway near her university in Abu Dhabi, was taken from her vehicle and forcibly returned to her home country on a plane. 

Hathloul spent several days in prison before being released, and she was banned from using social media or leaving the country” as MBS embarked on a three-week U.S. tour during which he brokered arms deals with President Trump and met with celebrities from Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson to Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates.

Feminism threatens authoritarians so much that they get their allies to render a 28-year-old feminist back home from the city where she’s studying to ensure her silence while the “emancipator” crown prince goes on a tour of the U.S. Rendition is usually associated with “terrorism” suspects. The U.S. has been particularly fond of using extraordinary rendition to send prisoners to allied countries willing to do its dirty work of torture. 

Another form of torture that the U.S. has used against terrorism suspects is waterboarding. 

Loujain was waterboarded. 

Her torture and interrogation were supervised by Saud al-Qahtani, an advisor to MBS. “He would threaten her, saying that if he wanted to he could rape her before killing her, and that he could make her body disappear in the sewage system,” her sister Lina told Time magazine.

In 2019, soon after Saudi teenager Rahaf al-Qunun was granted refugee status in Canada after she escaped her family while they were on a visit to Kuwait, and while Loujain was still in prison, the Saudi regime’s “Authority to Counter-Extremism” made a one-minute ad in which it conflated women who escape Saudi male guardianship with men who join ISIS and other violent extremist groups. The abusive guardianship system was long used to control almost every aspect of the lives of women and girls in Saudi Arabia. Recently, some aspects of it have been dismantled. 

A columnist with a well-known newspaper called for the execution of feminists as “corruptors on earth.”

And a university labeled feminism a “threat to national security...the danger of which is no less than al-Qaeda or ISIS/Daesh.”

Get my book: Headscarves and Hymens

Waterboarding. Electrocution. Sexual assault. Threats of rape and murder. For daring to advocate for women’s rights. For daring to demand an end to the guardianship system - the foundation of patriarchy 

Feminism is an existential threat to authoritarians, whose power is undergirded by patriarchy. That has always been the biggest threat the detained feminists pose to MBS and the Saudi regime. Their brave work has always been about more than abolishing the driving ban. It has long been about abolishing the guardianship system altogether; that embodiment of patriarchy that rendered women perpetual minors who need permission from a father, brother or even a son to travel, study, marry or gain access to some government services. And again, their activism worked because in August 2019, even as those activists were in prison—and being tortured—and some on trial, the Saudi regime began to dismantle the guardianship system.

7 Necessary Sins for Women and Girls

Some of those restrictions have been lifted, but Saudi women still must obtain a male guardian’s approval to get married or leave prison or a shelter. Saudi Arabia still does not have a codified law to go with the Islamic law it applies, which for decades resulted in discrepancy in court rulings, hurting mostly women. MBS announced plans this week that would eventually lead to an entirely codified law.

MBS has yet to be held accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018--a full five months after the vicious crackdown against women’s rights activists. It should not be lost on us that it took the murder of a man for some to finally pay attention to women in Saudi Arabia, be it via editorials that urged for the release of the women’s rights activists or by condemning the whitewashing of the Saudi regime through conferences, concerts and sports events bought by the royal family’s wealth. 

I am an Egyptian who moved to Saudi Arabia as a teenager, before Loujain was born. I often say I was traumatized into feminism in that kingdom of gender apartheid. And as an Egyptian, I celebrate today--February 11--the 10th anniversary of our long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak’s ouster by our January 25 Revolution.

Those revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and other countries in the region inspired protestors in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, home to most of the country’s Shia Muslim protesters. The tight control the regime maintains has ensured that the “hidden uprising” was kept out of the news. The protestors behind that political revolution might have been silenced by the royal family the revolution that feminists like Loujain have triggered has broken through. Its vanguard is not a crown prince who claims--and was shamefully heralded as such by several western media outlets--to be an emancipator of women. The true leaders are the feminists he has detained and banned from travel and silenced for daring to demand their freedom.

Long may they terrify him. 

Long live the feminists who do not fear the patriarch.

Long live the feminists who terrify authoritarians. 

Loujain we remembered you and we will continue to lift up your name and the names of your sisters and comrades until you are all free.


Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2105) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.  

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