British Columbia

Saudi activist has begun another hunger strike to demand more contact with family, sister says

Loujain Alhathloul, 31, was arrested on May 15, 2018 in a crackdown on women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia. She's jailed in a maximum security prison and has only been able to see her parents in person sporadically.

UBC graduate Loujain Alhathloul has only been allowed occasional visits from her parents in recent months

Loujain Alhathloul has been held in a maximum security prison in Saudi Arabia since 2018. The UBC graduate was one of a group of activists arrested and initially accused of trying to destabilize the country. (Lina Alhathloul)

The family of a jailed Saudi women's rights activist say she's been forced to go on a second hunger strike to fight for more contact with her family.

Loujain Alhathloul, 31, was arrested on May 15, 2018 in a crackdown on women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia. She's jailed in a maximum security prison and has only been able to see her parents in person sporadically.

The University of British Columbia graduate's family have been fighting to have her released after more than two years in prison without a trial.

They say the COVID-19 pandemic was used as an excuse to deny her contact with her family between March and August. 

After she went on a hunger strike lasting six days in August, the parents were allowed a few visits to see her at the Al-Ha'ir prison, about 40 kilometres from their home in Riyadh.

They went to the prison on Aug. 31, Sept. 9 and Oct. 26.

In an interview Wednesday from her home in Berlin, Loujain Alhathloul's sister Lina described how her parents had to wait hours at the facility on Monday to get a short glimpse of their gaunt, sobbing child.

She also said her parents learned on Monday that her sister is refusing to eat again because she's being denied contact with her family.

"She looked exhausted and a bit hopeless. My parents told me it's scary. We are not used to seeing Loujain looking weak and broken," Lina Alhathloul said.

"She cried the whole time and said that she's exhausted. She really can't take it anymore."

Sisters Lina and Loujain Alhathloul. (Lina Alhathloul)

Alhathloul says her sister has been deprived of regular calls and visits since March 2020.

She says she last heard her sister's voice in March 2019 because only people within Saudi Arabia are allowed to speak to Loujain on the phone.


Her parents' first visit in August was jarring, according to Alhathloul.

"She looked really skinny. She looked really tired," she said.

It was on that visit Loujain Alhathloul told her family that other prisoners were allowed regular visits and calls, despite the pandemic.

"Being cut from the world and not hearing her parents voices is exhausting," said Alhathloul.

History of activism

Loujain Alhathloul was detained in May 2018 along with nine other women's rights activists. They were accused of trying to destabilize Saudi Arabia using foreign funding. Later the charges were changed to communicating with foreign journalists and attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations.

But she'd caught the attention of Saudi officials long before. 

After graduating from the University of British Columbia in 2014, she was arrested after live-streaming herself driving across the border into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates. After that she served 70 days of detention.

Following her release, she ran in Saudi Arabia's first election open to women.

Allegations of torture

Then, two years ago, she was scooped up in a sweep of activist arrests.

Earlier in her detention there were allegations of torture.

Loujain Alhathloul told family she'd been held in solitary confinement and suffered electrocution, flogging and sexual assault.

While her family said her treatment did initially improve, things shifted again in March with stricter rules.

Her sister says her family want to keep the spotlight on Loujain's plight as much as possible.

"We are Loujain's voice. We are the only ones who can help get out of this daily hell," Lina Alhathloul said. "It's tiring but we have to go on. Because that's what they want. They want us to give up on her, but we won't."

CBC has reached out to Saudi officials for comment.


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award. Got a tip?