As a 14-year-old girl living in Saudi Arabia, Lina Al-Hathloul’s dream of learning to box was considered preposterous by her mother. But her sister, Loujain Al-Hathloul, saw it differently. As the family therapist-slash-lawyer, Loujain wore their mother down with arguments for why Lina should be able to participate in boxing just like the boys.
A few weeks later, Lina was strapping on padded gloves and ducking between the ropes.
Lina related this story to a rapt audience at the Women in the World New York summit on Wednesday to explain the type of person her sister Loujain is — and why, years later as a adult, at great personal risk, Loujain would choose to defy the draconian laws used by the Saudi government to keep women subservient to men.
With a backdrop of family photos featuring a smiling Loujain on the beach, another of her embracing her sister, Lina implored the assembled not to forget Loujain and her fellow human rights activists currently jailed in Saudi Arabia.
“Our silence will not keep them safe.”
In May 2018, Loujain was arrested by Saudi authorities along with several other women who for years had been protesting the country’s ban on women driving. It wasn’t her sister’s first arrest, Lina said — four years prior, her sister had spent 70 days in jail for the crime of “driving while female.” This time, however, she was detained in an undisclosed location for months with no charges filed.
Weeks later, while she was still behind bars, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women driving. Saudi women rejoiced by rushing out to apply for driver’s licenses. On the cover of Vogue Arabia, Princess Hayfa Bint Abdullah Al Saud donned driving gloves and posed in a cherry-red convertible above the headline, “Driving Force.”
But the real driving force behind the change was Loujain and her fellow activists, who, instead of magazine spreads, have faced torture and sexual assault in prison. Loujain has been beaten, whipped and waterboarded, electrocuted and threatened with rape. When her parents visited her in August, Lina said, she could barely grip a pen.
Now, explained Lina, it is her turn to fight — to save her sister’s life.
“I am not an activist,” she said. But, she added, “Tonight I ask you to join me, speak up, and fight for my sister, for all the Saudi activists who have been unjustly imprisoned and brutally tortured.”
In March, Loujain stood trial for her alleged crimes, and while in the courtroom, said Lina, Loujain handed their parents a letter. It was addressed to Lina and her siblings.
“What would I be without you?” the letter read.
But the true question, Lina said the audience must ask themselves, is what would the world be like without what Loujain Al-Hathloul had done?
Additional reporting by Laura Macomber.