Story at a glance

  • Loujain al-Hathloul is a prominent women's rights activist known for her support of lifting a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia.
  • The country lifted the ban in June 2018, but al-Hathloul was sentenced to prison for her activism.
  • Supporters are protesting the Dakar Rally, which is being held in Saudi Arabia this year.

The irony of Loujain al-Hathloul's imprisonment ahead of the Dakar Rally isn’t lost on her advocates. 

“Women’s rights activists have endured years in prison, psychological and physical torture, and sexual abuse for campaigning for the right to drive. Many remain in prison to this day,” said Lucy Rae, spokeswoman for human rights advocacy group Grant Liberty, told The Guardian. “It is utterly grotesque that at the same time Saudi authorities will host a motor sport event – including women drivers – while the heroes that won their right to drive languish in jail.”  


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The decades-old competition that originated in Africa moved from South America to Saudi Arabia last year, despite outcry regarding the kingdom's humanitarian record. The 15-day "rally-raid" began Jan. 3 with competitors from Europe, Australia and the Americas — including nine women, two of whom are representing the United States. 

“Discover Saudi Arabia,” the Dakar Rally website advertises, listing famous heritage sites and tourist attractions. What it doesn’t mention, however, is that until 2018 women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. And while the ban has since been lifted, some of the activists who advocated for the change remain imprisoned. 


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Days before the rally began, Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the country's leading women's rights activists, was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison for "terrorism offenses," including her advocacy for women drivers. Her supporters argue that the Dakar Rally is "sportswashing" the country, bolstering its image while activists like al-Hathloul remain imprisoned. 

“No-one should be fooled by the Saudi regime’s attempts at sportswashing ... Racers might not know it, but their participation there is to hide and whitewash the host’s crimes,” Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain’s sister, told The Guardian. “The PR machine claims that hosting global sporting events is a sign the country is opening up, but the reality is that just a few hundred metres from the course my sister languishes in prison because she campaigned for women’s right to drive. Saudi Arabia needs real reform, real human rights, not this charade.”  


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Published on Jan 05, 2021