By Urooba Jamal
“Hello, I’m Loujain Alhathloul,” begins the woman in the viral video, wrapped in a black headscarf and dark shades, at the wheel of a car. “I’m going to try to cross the Saudi borders.”
“Let’s see what happens,” she continues, smiling defiantly, explaining she is crossing the border from the UAE in a car she owns and with a UAE driving licence.
The woman is Loujain Alhathloul, arguably Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activist, and what follows is her first arrest, in 2014: 73 days of imprisonment for defying Saudia Arabia’s driving ban on women. The lift on the ban in the kingdom was incomprehensible then. When it finally happened 4 years later, the Saudi government had already rounded up and detained its most vocal proponents, including Loujain. She remains imprisoned to this day, more than 2 years later, facing dubious charges ranging from promoting women’s rights, to applying for a job at the United Nations, to contacting foreign media.
Jailed for fighting for a right that Saudi women can now enjoy, Loujain’s release any time soon seems improbable: her trial has been pushed back indefinitely due to COVID-19. Despite this, the global movement advocating for her release and her call for increased Saudi women’s rights has far from dissipated.
I first met Loujain 3 years before she posted that viral video, when we were both undergraduate students at the University of British Columbia (UBC), in Vancouver, Canada. Loujain would often drive us to events from our dorms and volunteer to run errands for these events in her car. It’s not lost on me that her multiple arrests are linked to this same act: of driving.