100 days of tenacious campaigning driven by Saudi Arabia’s women: “We still demand the end of male guardianship”

“As a Saudi woman, your life will depend on luck. If your guardian is a good man, your life will be a good life. If not, then they will control you, your dreams, your destiny, and life is like a prison.” — Maram Alsubaii, 27, Jeddah.

The guardianship law in Saudi Arabia means every woman must be assigned “Mahram” — a male relative who holds power to grant or reject key decisions throughout her life including matters of travel, work, medical procedures and even determining whether she can exit from prison.

Alsubaii’s parents divorced when she was four. At six she was taken from her mother by her guardian father. Alsubaii was forbidden to see her mother until she was 19 despite living so close in the same city. “I used to escape from university and take a taxi to see my mother without my father knowing.”

“He was violent, regularly beating me and my sister. When I was 20 he tried to force us to marry a man in his mid 40’s.”

Alsubaii’s mother phoned the police and her father was taken to court. The judge ruled that the marriage should not go ahead, and that the beating should stop, but Alsubaii must return home under her father’s guardianship.

“The judge sent me back to the place where I am beaten. There are no laws to protect us here. It is like we are not human beings.”

She dreams to travel to the USA or Canada and pursue a PhD after having completed her masters but her father refuses to grant her permission.

For the past 100 days women like Maram have united forces and ferociously campaigned to expose the realities of life under guardianship. “I heard about the campaign through Twitter and wanted to be one of the women engaged in our pursuit for freedom.”

In July Human Rights Watch’s released “Boxed in” a 72 page report showing the abuses under guardianship laws along with a series of compelling videos.

Mobilising swiftly online in August Saudi women created the hashtag “سعوديات_نطالب_باسقاط_الولاية#” translating to “Saudi women demand the end of guardianship”. In just two weeks over 140,000 tweets were generated.

Maintaining momentum is crucial for any campaign. Activists in Saudi have excelled, not only kept it trending in the first two weeks, but managed to get it trending regularly.

Today’s hashtag is 100سعوديات_نطالب_باسقاط_الولاية#.

Calls to abolish guardianship are not new. But the most recent action shows unprecedented engagement from Saudis and others across the world. Men are supporting too by retweeting and writing online. “Anyone with the internet can get involved and that’s what we’re seeing on social media now and this is led by Saudi women” says Ms Saffaa, a Saudi artist and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

Ms Saffaa founded one of the many popular hashtags on Twitter: #IAmMyOwnGuardian and her artwork of a woman wearing a shumagh became the iconic image of the campaign.

@MsSaffaa -Saffaa Visual Artist

Ms Saffaa says that although social media helps give voice to the struggles of Saudi women, it also opens space for bullying and abuse by those who disagree in hope that they can terrify others into silence. Ms Saffaa has been targeted.

“I’ve been threatened and reported to the interior ministry for creating and disseminating illegal material that could encourage women to break the law. It was distressing but it was also the point at which I knew to give my artwork away for free to push the cause.”

Hala Aldosari a health researcher in the US authored the first ever Saudi online petition to abolish the guardianship which accumulated 14,782 signatures from Saudis thanks to the online networks that have been fostered.

It was delivered to King Salman along with a flood of telegrams by activist Aziza al Yousef who became notorious for defying the driving ban in 2013.

The petition serves not only as a message to the political leadership but frames the issue for those who are demanding. “It works two ways and provides concrete actionable points” says Aldosari.

Women are fearful of repercussions of advocating this cause and many use aliases online. Aldosari says “the ruling party are not very open to criticism” and the ambiguity of the systems means it is difficult to predict what could happen to activists who are interrogated.

“The petition is a good platform because there is safety in numbers. If you have one person talking about the issue, it is easy to target this person but if you have 14,782 people talking about it, how can you arrest 14,782 people?”

Saudi women do not want the Western world to stereotype all Saudis as abusive or abused. Jasmine Bager spoke out on her positive guardianship experience in TIME magazine as an example.

A counter hashtag in Arabic “the guardianship is for her not against her” was used by men to say it is their duty to serve and protect women and this system assists them to do so. Campaigners argue say it is not about men but about a system that can be used as a mechanism for abuse and Saudi women needing to own their rights for themselves.

Aldosari says that the campaign also explores how the guardianship system impedes on Saudi Arabia’s national transformation plan which includes increasing in the number of female public sector employees.

Digital activism also known as clicktivism is wrongfully dismissed as worthless noise. Saudi women say it is their voice. It is their way to forge powerful connections with one another to mobilise, to speak to the world and make a stand in a society where they are not given a platform to do so elsewhere.

After its review at the UN Human Rights Council in 2009 and 2013, Saudi Arabia promised to abolish guardianship. With the world watching closely as the campaign intensifies, it is time for officials to take action and respond. Alsubaii says:

“ We Saudi women will continue to fight continue until we have taken our rights which allow us to be treated as humans.”