‘We have a voice’ — artist confronts Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship laws

In 2012, an artist and activist who goes by Ms. Saffaa was finishing an honors degree at the University of Sydney when she was told by the Saudi Arabian government, which sponsored her, that she needed to live with a male guardian to supervise her. She was in her early 30s and hearing that was, in her words, “humiliating.”

This is common practice in Saudi Arabia, according to Human Rights Watch. Guardian laws there require women to have the consent of a man, such as a husband, father, brother or son, in order to access many key facets of life. That includes the ability to marry, attain health care, exit state shelters and prisons, and some companies still require it of their female employees.

For years, Saudi activists have fought against these laws and now the rest of the world is starting to pay attention. Online, the Saudi are using the work of one woman in particular: Ms. Saffaa. “I think my work has instigated a lot of conversation around what is feminine and what is power.”

Four years ago, Ms. Saffaa, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and lives now in Sydney, Australia, created the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian on Twitter along with illustrations to accompany it. Since then, Saudi women and allies have widely shared them to express dissent to the guardianship laws. In the past 10 years, legal restrictions on Saudi women have hardly relented. However, Saudi women have gained some access to political positions, increased autonomy in the labor market, and efforts by the government to better address domestic violence. And social media has been particularly critical to the growth of the movement because forms of public protest, such as marching in the street, are illegal in Saudi Arabia.

We asked Ms. Saffaa about her life as an artist, observer and activist.

How much time have you spent in Saudi Arabia?

I grew up in Saudi Arabia. I lived there until I was 18. I moved [to Sydney] to go back to university. I did my undergraduate degree here, then an honors degree, and then Masters, and now I’m doing a Ph.D. [laughs] I am a perpetual student.

The #IAmMyOwnGuardian movement has garnered a lot of interest lately. What has been your experience with guardianship laws?

Well, I have to go back to 2012, when I was doing my honors degree at [the University of Sydney]. While the Saudi government does sponsor women, women sponsored by the government have to prove that their male guardians are actually living with them. I was an A student, and the only thing that was stopping me from completing my degree was [not] having my male guardian here. The government asked me a few times to prove that my male guardian was with me. At the time I was, I think, 31 or 32, and I found it humiliating, dehumanizing in many ways. And this was a moment that kind of shaped my career, and that’s when I decided to create #IAmMyOwnGuardian.

What’s the history of this movement?

The current movement, as it stands, was created by Saudi women living inside Saudi Arabia. And that’s important because we need to acknowledge the bravery of these women, tweeting from inside Saudi Arabia — risking getting arrested and risking their livelihood and safety in order to get their voices heard. So, my artwork is not a movement. My artwork was adopted by a few people and shared widely. The hashtag was also adopted after the movement started.

Have you heard of Kristine Beckerle? The person who wrote the Human Rights Watch report [on Saudi Arabia]? … the movement was inspired by the report she wrote. And this kind of transnational solidarity is important because when Kristine went on CNN talking about the report, she shifted the international attention to the real issue, and highlighted how women in Saudi Arabia have agency and self-determination. And that was quite heart-warming to watch and hear because a lot of people all over the world turn it into a story about oppression and it’s not.

For example, I have been creative about the issue for a long time, and there have been, for decades, Saudi activists working on the ground, behind-the-scenes, to change laws and she did not fail to acknowledge the Saudi women working on the issue. I would like to publicly appreciate what she’s doing because it gives an example to other people who want to support the movement, who want to show solidarity.

I watch a lot of news reports from all over the world — I know the language they speak of Saudi women. Sometimes it’s patronizing and condescending, the way I, as a Saudi woman, have been spoken for and about. My art is my way of showing that I exist. And my voice has been out there for a long time. It’s just that the world hasn’t been paying attention.

What would you say is your favorite medium for creating art?

I’m a printmaker by trade, and it works really well for me because I am a street artist as well. I do a lot of pasting up on legal walls. I’m actually doing a wall next month in Melbourne to celebrate this women’s movement, and celebrate Saudi women and the diversity within our community.

Why do you think art is an effective form of protest?

A lot of people have contested the artwork I created because the woman in the artwork is wearing a male headdress. I think my work has instigated a lot of conversation around what is feminine and what is power. And for me, if art is not subversive, it’s not good. If you’re going to show an image of a battered woman, I personally don’t think it’s art. I think you’re just reporting. You’re not being creative and you’re not imagining an alternative reality.

Was it an intended goal for you to raise discourse with your artwork accompanying this hashtag?

I just wanted to show the world: here we are, Saudi women. White male and female feminists have been speaking on our behalf for a long time, taking our voices and projecting it through an orientalist lens. So that was my way of asserting my presence. I just wanted to show that we have a voice, that we are active agents in our society.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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