Silencing Dissent: The Case of Loujain Al Hathloul and Digital Violence in Saudi Arabia

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In the realm of human rights advocacy, few cases resonate as loudly as that of Loujain Al Hathloul, a leading women’s rights advocate from Saudi Arabia. Her story serves as a major instance of the widespread phenomenon of digital violence against women in the kingdom. Despite her brave efforts to challenge societal norms, Al Hathloul became a target of online abuse, highlighting the alarming use of digital platforms to suppress dissent and silence women’s voices, with the outcome of exacerbating the gender digital divide. In 2014, she defied the ban on women driving by attempting to cross the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia with her car, a courageous act that led to her arrest and imprisonment for 73 days. However, Al Hathloul’s activism did not end with her release. Instead, she continued to speak out against the injustices faced by women in Saudi Arabia, leveraging social media as a powerful tool for advocacy.

One of the most insidious tactics employed against Al Hathloul was the use of digital violence. In her case, it manifested in the form of hacking her social media accounts, spreading false information about her online, and even impersonating her family members to undermine her credibility. The challenges faced by Loujain Al Hathloul resonate with those encountered by other women activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi and Nassima Al-Sada. Samar Badawi, human rights defender, has long provoked Saudi authorities with her advocacy for women’s rights and political prisoners. Her 2018 arrest sparked global outrage and subjected her to digital harassment and defamation campaigns, aimed at discrediting her and diminishing her activism. Similarly, Nassima Al-Sada has faced relentless persecution for her advocacy efforts for women’s rights. Arrested in 2018 for her peaceful work, including campaigning against the male guardianship system, Al-Sada, like Al Hathloul and Badawi, has been subjected to digital violence, including hacking attempts and online harassment, in an effort to silence her and dissuade others from joining her cause.

The intent behind digital violence against women’s right defenders is clear: to intimidate, discredit, and ultimately silence individuals who dare to speak out against the status quo. Attacks can manifest in various forms, including defamation campaigns, identity theft, and the creation of fraudulent accounts using women’s personal information. For instance, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights expressed alarm in an October 2019 statement regarding the use of “deepfake” technology targeting women human rights advocates through the manipulation of images, audio, video, and text, posing a serious threat to their safety. In the Arab States, nearly half of the women who suffered online violence in 2021 said to have experienced it at least once in their life, while the other half has been a victim of online harassment more than once. It is not a coincidence that Arab States have one of the widest gender divides as reported by the International Telecommunication Union in 2021, with 56% of women having online access compared to 68% of men. Digital violence exacerbates this gap by further marginalizing women in online spaces. When women are subjected to harassment, intimidation, and defamation online, it not only silences their voices but also creates a hostile environment that discourages their participation. Fear of online abuse can lead women to self-censor or withdraw from digital platforms altogether, limiting their access to information, resources and opportunities for skill development.

By targeting Al Hathloul’s online exposure, the Saudi authorities sought to not only undermine her activism but also to send a warning message to others who might consider following in her footsteps. Authoritarian regimes primarily use restrictions on information dissemination to mitigate possible harm when faced with novel and unexpected challenges to the system and its core values. The most efficient tool at the disposal of authoritarian governments to prevent the spread of undesirable information is control over the media through a large market share of state-owned outlets that restricts access for independent media and suppresses social minorities’ voices. In this case, the reach of these attacks extended even beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia, reaching a global audience and implicating not just the Saudi government but also the tech companies that inadvertently facilitated these abuses.

Al Hathloul’s case, much like Badawi’s and Al-Sada’s and many other women’s rights activists, serves to highlight the urgent need for greater protections against digital violence. Tech companies must be held accountable for safeguarding the online spaces they provide, ensuring that they are not complicit in the suppression of human rights. Moreover, governments and international organizations must take decisive action to hold perpetrators of digital violence accountable and ensure that those who dare to speak truth to power are protected from harm. Al Hathloul’s commitment to justice and equality is a powerful reminder of the importance of standing firm against digital violence and advancing human rights for all, both online and offline.