British Columbia

With spotlight back on Saudi women's rights, Loujain al-Hathloul's fate remains unknown

As Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the 18-year-old who burst into the public eye by fleeing Saudi Arabia, settles into what she hopes will be a normal life in Canada, another young Saudi woman who once walked the streets of Vancouver remains in obscurity, her life imperilled.

UBC graduate has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since May 2018

Loujain al-Hathloul, left, has been jailed in Saudi Arabia since May 2018. Rahaf al-Qunun, right, was granted asylum in Canada after fleeing from her allegedly abusive family. (Loujain al-Hathloul/Facebook, Chris Young/Canadian Press)

As Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the 18-year-old who burst into the public eye by fleeing Saudi Arabia, settles into what she hopes will be a normal life in Canada, another young Saudi woman who once walked the streets of Vancouver remains in obscurity, her life imperilled.

Loujain al-Hathloul, who graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2014, has been detained in Saudi Arabia along with a number of Saudi women's rights activists since May 2018. 

Al-Hathloul hasn't been heard from publicly since, but reports from a number of human rights groups allege she's faced torture and sexual harassment behind bars.

In contrast, Al-Qunun's voice was heard internationally, as she barricaded herself in a Thai hotel room, broadcasting pleas for help over social media. 

On Saturday, she landed in Toronto and was greeted by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. She has since told CBC News she's dropped her family name.

A prominent activist herself, al-Hathloul's case has been widely covered, most recently in a New York Times op-ed by her sister. Shortly after her arrest last spring, Saudi Arabia's state-run press agency issued a statement saying state security had arrested a number of people for forming a cell and trying to destabilize the country using foreign funding.

Advocates and friends of al-Hathloul said they've become frustrated and concerned at the lack of action in her case, which has grown increasingly dire.

A prominent activist herself, al-Hathloul's case has been widely covered, most recently in a New York Times op-ed by her sister. (Loujain al-Hathloul/Facebook)

"Over the last week, all eyes have been on Saudi [Arabia], following Rahaf's case, and certainly the situation of women's rights in Saudi," said Jacqueline Hansen with Amnesty International.

"We've really been encouraging Canada to have a consistent principled stance to our very serious and pressing human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia."

'Feels more and more dire'

Saudi Arabia ranks among the worst countries for women's rights and equality. The World Economic Forum ranked it 141 out of 149 in its 2018 report on gender equality.

Though Freeland tweeted about al-Hathloul's detention shortly after she was arrested, Global Affairs has since said little about her case.

"As we have said before, we believe that the imprisonment of these activists runs counter to the Saudi government's stated goal of reform," a statement from Global Affairs read in part.

Commenting on Mohammed's case, the Wednesday statement said "the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) requested that Canada grant her asylum. We accepted."

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, pauses as she addresses the media during a press conference in Toronto on January 15, 2019. (Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images)

Sima Godfrey, a professor at UBC who taught al-Hathloul during her time in Vancouver, said while she was "delighted" to see Canada had intervened in Mohammed's case, it was also a stark reminder that her former student remains behind bars.

"I was reminded that Loujain's situation hasn't changed since May and the longer she is being held, the worse conditions are getting. With the latest information about torture and threats of rape and murder, it just feels more and more dire," she said.

"One can only hope that things will improve, but there are no signs right now."

Godfrey said she hopes Canada is working on the case through quiet diplomacy and back channels, in order to avoid the diplomatic firestorm triggered when Freeland tweeted about jailed human right's activist Raif Badawi.

Freeland's comments drew an angry response from Saudi Arabia, which expelled Canada's ambassador, sold Canadian assets and stopped flights to Canada on its national airline.

"In some ways it's not a surprise that these women became the flashpoint," said Godfrey.

"And they become all the more admirable for that reason, because they are so courageous in that context."

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.