As It Happens

B.C. prof worries former student's 'spirit has been broken' in Saudi prison

Sima Godfrey remembers Loujain al-Hathloul as "strong and gutsy and energetic and determined."

Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested and imprisoned in Saudi Arabia last May on unspecified charges

Loujain al-Hathloul attended the University of British Columbia between 2009 and 2013, graduating with a degree in French. (Loujain Alhathloul/Facebook)


A University of British Columbia professor is worried about her former student imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. 

Loujain al-Hathloul is one of 11 women imprisoned in the country for unspecified charges related to human rights work. A year ago, Saudi officials detained her for driving. She was released, but then she was arrested again in May. 

Three of the activists she was arrested with were temporarily released on Thursday, but Al-Hathloul was not among them.
Sima Godfrey, a UBC professor who taught Al-Hathloul, is one of several people advocating for her release. She spoke with As it Happens host Megan Williams about her former student. Here is part of their conversation.

It's been almost a year now that your former student Loujain has been behind bars. How concerned are you for her? 

I've become increasingly concerned with time. I was concerned, of course, when I heard about her in May and how vague the charges were.

I had suspected, as I think some others did, that once the ban on women driving was formally lifted, she might be released along with the others. 

Al-Hathloul and her husband Fahad Albutairi. (@loujainhathloul/Instagram)

Saudi Arabia still hasn't even made clear what the charges against Loujain are and the other women. Do we have any sense of what they're about?

I have no inside information. And we know that no journalists or diplomats have been able to be in court.

So it's speculation at this point. But it's the suggestion is that she's being charged with being in touch with human rights groups and with Saudi dissidents abroad and with diplomats of Western countries and foreign journalists. 

You mentioned she fought for the right for women to drive. Can you remind us what other causes she fought for?

The main thing was the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia, where women are publicly disempowered. If a woman wants to get a passport, if she wants to travel — I think if she wants to open a bank account, for that matter — she has to have the permission of a male in her family.

That's not just a father or a spouse, or an older brother. It can be a five-year-old cousin or a younger brother who could be 10 years old who would have more authority over her than she would herself.

When I knew her here in Vancouver, that was the issue that she was most preoccupied with. And that's when she told me she was going to go back to Saudi Arabia to fight for.

She's having a terribly difficult time in prison right now. We've learned from her family members that they say she's been tortured. Can you tell us more about that?

Initially, she was not given any visits at all. And I don't even know if she's seen a lawyer yet.

But her parents were allowed to see her at one point, and they reported that she was very, very shaky, and very, very tearful. She looked quite frightened. She had bruises on her legs. She had trouble walking.

And what we've heard was that yes, there have been electrical shocks. But also, she's been threatened with murder, with rape, and who knows what else.

She was forced to eat during Ramadan, which of course would have been very distressing.

Al-Hathloul was not among the women released from Saudi prison Thursday. (Marieke Wijntjes/Reuters)

That must be difficult for you to hear all of that. 

I mean, it sounds like to some extent her spirit has been broken — although I'm sure she's still as determined as ever to fight for these causes.

But she was a young woman who was very, very strong and gutsy and energetic and determined and quite magnetic. She was unforgettable.

And when I talked to my other colleagues who taught her, and some of the students who were in class with her, they all had that same impression.

Why do you think Saudi Arabia sees women like Loujain as such a threat?

I think right now the issue, particularly for [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman], has to do with the idea of anybody challenging his authority or the status quo in his state.

And this is one of the reasons I feel conflicted about the various groups who want to nominate Loujain for a Nobel Prize.

I worry that given the character of the crown prince, he might just dig his heels in more, thinking that this is yet again Western pressure on him, and that it's important for his own pride and sense of authority that he not be seen to yield to that.

Chrystia Freeland, I thought, made a strong statement, and, yes, in some ways that did backfire. 

What concerns me is as long as you have these Western countries that have trade deals and arms deals with Saudi Arabia that they're not willing to jeopardize, I don't know how effective those statements are going to be.

Interview produced by Jeanne Armstong and Sarah Joyce-Battersby. Q&A edited for length and clarity.