It was a photo of a group of us from the Pakistan Students' Association. Front and center in it was my friend, Loujain al-Hathloul. We were pictured together at an event in 2011 at our alma mater, the University of British Columbia (UBC), in Vancouver, Canada.
I don't remember exactly, but Loujain probably had, as she often did, driven us to the Pakistani restaurant 40 minutes away from our school to pick up the catered food for the event. We had probably thanked her endlessly, as we often did, for taking us to the event from our dorms, our heels and outfits made of silk, chiffon and lace standing no chance in the Vancouver rain if we walked in them across our enormous campus.
The same smiling young woman in the photo we unearthed now faced incarceration and worse for having dared to do the same in the country she grew up in: to drive. Loujain was arrested in May 2018 in the United Arab Emirates, where she had been living, and then removed to Saudi Arabia and detained.
While the death penalty rumors thankfully turned out to be false, Loujain's ongoing ordeal is still grim: she faces a number of dubious charges
and according to her family has been tortured and sexually harassed
while imprisoned. What has been her supposed crime? Peacefully fighting for women's rights in Saudi Arabia.
Loujain is currently facing a closed-door trial, a trial in which a number of her fellow women rights activists have testified
that they too were subjected to torture and sexual harassment while detained. The prosecutor overseeing the hearing, I learned from Loujain's brother, Walid al-Hathloul
, is denying all allegations of torture. Her fourth hearing, which would have taken place April 17 -- the day she was named as TIME magazine's 100 most influential people of 2019
-- was abruptly adjourned.
While Saudi media brand her as a traitor
to the kingdom, and international media reduce her to a mere victim, her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize
for her groundbreaking work on human rights has been largely ignored. Concurrently, media continue to give far more airtime to the nomination of someone else who is far from deserving of the prize: US President Donald Trump.
In an embarrassing gaffe that still pales in comparison to his multitude of indiscretions, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported Trump himself had asked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to nominate him for the award, a claim Abe refused to deny
. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the Asahi report.
Meanwhile the momentum for Loujain's nomination has come from multiple fronts: a recommendation
in a New York Times op-ed by journalist Nicholas Kristof; from academics, such as the nomination
by Bessma Momani in Canada; to written support
from more than a dozen French scholars; to yet more nominations by politicians from Canadian MP Hélène Laverdière
to a group of MPs in Norway
It is absurd that Trump's self-aggrandizing nomination is being given incessant attention, while someone whose peaceful and tireless work spanning many years for the advancement of all Saudi women remains locked behind bars.
Loujain receiving the Nobel Peace Prize would send a strong message to the Crown Prince and his rogue gallery of miscreants: that despite their attempts to squander and squash the voice and spirit of a woman who dared to imagine a brighter future for Saudi women — they will fail. Being named a TIME honoree has already shown that the international community has not only taken notice of her efforts, but are rightly lauding her accomplishments. Loujain would join the likes of previous winners such as Malala Yousafzai and Nadia Murad, women from imperialized nations who have overcome incredible adversity — to only have their commitment to the liberation of women globally, strengthen.
Loujain has suffered tremendously since her imprisonment almost a year ago, but she's deserving of the award for everything her efforts have accomplished: she's shown extraordinary resolve and bravery in ways that have galvanized women around the world. It wasn't too long after we had both graduated from UBC that Loujain returned to Saudi Arabia, and in her resolve to see women's rights advance there, she began to defy the driving ban and speak out against the male guardianship system. Shortly after her most recent arrest last year -- she had been arrested several times
before that since 2014 — the driving ban was overturned in June 2018. The Crown Prince reaped praise for the move, while our friend and other women actually responsible for the historic change were just beginning to undergo what has become their nightmare ordeal.
That's when Friends of Loujain
sprang into action. We are a collective of Vancouver-based women who knew Loujain from our time together at UBC. In this last year, we've taken a number of actions
to demand her release.
We have been pleased to see growing international attention surrounding Loujain's case; without a doubt, her actions have inspired people globally. Meanwhile, even by Trump's own admission
, there is hardly a popular movement behind his Nobel Peace nomination, while his approval rating as President remains low
Highlighting Loujain's conditions as a political prisoner is vital; however, the media ought to also showcase her peaceful activism over the years -- activism that ignited one of the biggest social reforms ever seen in the ultra-conservative absolute monarchy.
As a Nobel Peace Prize nominee whose only delinquency has been to peacefully demand equal rights, only one outcome will deliver justice for Loujain: a full pardon that grants her immediate release.
It is my hope that, like in the photo we took all those years ago, Loujain stands front and center again one day soon, to receive her Nobel Peace Prize.