This post was written by Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), an independent, non-profit organisation that promotes freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in the MENA region.
This article was first published in the Gulf Centre for Human Rights on July 31, 2023. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement.
On February 10, 2021, Loujain announced that the authorities had conditionally released her after having spent more than two and a half years in prison for defending women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Her efforts included demanding an end to the male guardianship system and to the ban on women's driving. Her release was influenced by political pressure from the West.
Despite her release from prison, Loujain suffers from not being allowed to freely express her opinions on social media or speak freely to the media. She is also prevented from finding suitable job opportunities. She is also prevented from traveling abroad to start a new life, one that would enable her to fully enjoy her rights and rebuild her future.
The executive director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Khalid Ibrahim, recently conducted an interview with Lina Al-Hathloul, a human rights defender and Loujain's sister. The interview focused on the children's book she wrote to tell her sister's story, and it also includes updates on Loujain's latest news.
Edited excerpts from the interview follow.
Khalid Ibrahim (KI): Can you explain the relationship between Loujain's childhood dream of flying, as depicted in the story, and her tireless work for women in Saudi Arabia to attain the right to drive, which was achieved five years ago?
Lina Al-Hathloul (LH): Loujain fought for women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia. It was a dream of hers, and she did everything she could to achieve that goal. She discussed this matter with individuals from different segments of society, pointing out the injustice that this ban represents, until she finally learned to drive herself, to demonstrate that it is possible for women in Saudi Arabia to practice this right as well.
In the story, the little girl Loujain wants to fly using her wings, but only boys had the right to fly. After much suffering and determination to succeed, her family understood her desire and agreed to teach her to fly so that her story became one of an inspiring heroine who encouraged young girls to learn to fly as well.
KI: The family supported Loujain until she fulfilled her dream of flying and landing in a field of sunflowers. Could you elaborate on the role of your family in the great achievements that Loujain achieved through her human rights work?
LH: My father filmed Loujain in 2013 when she drove for the first time in Saudi Arabia, at a time when women were still not allowed to drive. The video went viral, and, as her guardian, he took full responsibility. My family has always been supportive of us all, and wanted a better future for us daughters. My father's support was visible to everyone, of course, but I also wanted to thank my mother in the story, because in real life, she was the one who sacrificed the most and fought for us to become independent women.
KI: “I know I will fly, not immediately but definitely.” This phrase was repeated several times in the story. Could you clarify if this reflects your belief that peaceful change and building an independent and prosperous future for all citizens in Saudi Arabia may not happen immediately, but it will surely be eventually realized?
LH: This phrase was the main picture of Loujain's Facebook profile while she was in prison. We thought it was very expressive and embodies Loujain's vision of her human rights work. Things take a long time to change, and we are working to build a mature and healthy country, which will take generations, not just years. I wanted children to know that they must be patient and that injustice may last for a long time, but justice will always prevail.
KI: Could you tell us about how your story’s theme came to be?
LH: Uma, who co-authored the story with me, is a human rights activist, and she invited me to speak before the Human Rights Council while Loujain was in prison. When I was in Geneva, I met her 5-year-old daughter, who had been hearing a lot about Loujain. Like any child, she was curious to know why Loujain was in prison. Her numerous questions made us believe that it was important to have a story that tells Loujain's struggle in a beautiful and imaginative way, to help children understand that injustice must be confronted, and that we can try to change our societies for the better.
On a personal level, I wanted to ensure that Loujain’s name is remembered by future generations, so that they know that my sister was one of the pioneers who contributed to change and to the attainment of this right. No matter what the authorities do to try and tarnish her name, people will always remember her as a righteous champion as opposed to being a traitor, as the authorities attempted to label and defame her.
KI: Could you update the readers on the latest news of human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul?
LH: After her release, Loujain was transferred from a small prison to a larger prison; she is deprived of her civil and human rights, including her right to freedom of expression and the right to travel abroad.
This link contains a video about the book as well as excerpts from articles published in a number of international newspapers about it.