Tuesday 12 March 201910:23 am
International Women’s Day is the one day set aside in the calendar for the celebration of the women’s movement. My own celebration will be muted this year, however, as I cannot help but notice the absence of a vibrant part of our movement - the detained Saudi women’s rights activists. In spite of incredible adversity, the Saudi feminist movement has been an example of the strength of women activists in the Arab region. I am deeply proud of the legacy of women’s activism in the region, and especially my own country, Tunisia. Women were in the forefront of the protesters during the 2011 revolution. I draw strength from that success and the solidarity of the global women’s movement. But even when I consider the power that women’s activism has shown against great odds, I can only feel hopeless and devastated for the situation of the Saudi women's rights defenders, among them my friend Loujain al-Hathloul. I first became aware of Loujain in 2014. She had been detained after daring to cross the border into Saudi Arabia driving her own car, and I joined a campaign demanding her release. It was through our activism and shared values for an equal world that I would soon meet her in person. At first I was a little starstruck - the world knows the public Loujain al-Hathloul – courageous and defiant. But soon I got to know the private Lulu – so funny, and so smart. Amid a sea of big egos, someone like Loujain would have every right to act above it all. Instead, she was humble and dedicated. After finishing her studies abroad, she decided to go back to her home country to campaign with her fellow activists for an end to male guardianship and gender-based violence. Loujain’s great strength is her ability to make her case with clarity and conviction. Is that a crime? For women in Saudi, unfortunately, it is apparently reason enough for detention. Talking with Loujain about the women’s movement in our countries made me more grateful for the achievements of Tunisian feminists, more aware of my luck to be born in a more equal society, grateful I could demand my rights as a citizen without fear of detention. I was astonished to know about the sacrifices that Saudi women made throughout the years, in what Loujain called “the beautiful movement.” The last time we met, the brave Lulu was so full of life and hope. She kept saying that we will meet soon, either when I visit her in Saudi or when she came to visit me in Tunis. We had been planning a short trip last March, but she couldn't make it. Loujain had been deported from her home in the UAE, arrested, then put under a travel ban. She asked me not to spread the news; she never wanted to paint herself as a victim or talk ill of her beloved home country. Later, she informed me that she was banned from publishing on social media. Despite it all, she remained positive. I promised her my unconditional support, telling her I will never stop until she is free again. Then, in May 2018, Loujain and other prominent activists including Aziza al-Yousef, Eman Nafjan and Nassima al-Sada, were rounded up and detained. Loujain’s family report that she has been held in solitary confinement, subjected to torture, electric shocks, and sexual assaults. Throughout she has been refused access to a lawyer, and will go to court imminently. Knowing about the treatment of the detained activists, how can we trust their secret interrogations? They were harassed and forced to sign papers, the contents of which only God knows. Loujain’s words still ring in my head, her dream of equality for Saudi women and her work to help women victims of violence. I know she may never be the same, and the trauma of what she’s been exposed to over the last nine months will follow her. But Loujain deserves her freedom. They all deserve freedom, and the equality for which they have been fighting. We all bear responsibility for their fate. We need solidarity with the Saudi women's movement more than ever. Ours is a global movement, and their future is decisive to our cause. If activists can be silenced, targeted for their activism with impunity, it threatens us all. How then can we say to each other ‘Happy Women’s Day,’ in their absence?