STAFF BLOG: THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF THE WOMEN'S RIGHTS MOVEMENT IN SAUDI ARABIA
BY SARAH GOSPER, RESEARCH ASSOCIATE AT THE EQUALITY INSTITUTE
The women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia has sent Twitter into a buzz in recent months with a campaign to end the male guardianship system and grant women their full and equal citizenship. Saudi women have been tweeting for their freedom with the hashtags #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen and #Togethertoendmaleguardianship. This social media campaign is being touted as the biggest social movement in Saudi history. It has called on Saudi women of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds to sign an online petition demanding the legal recognition of women as full and equal citizens and their treatment as adults of Saudi Arabia.
The petition garnered more than 14,600 signatures, with many more collected anonymously, and personally delivered to the Royal Court by leading women’s rights activist, Aziza al-Yousef. In addition, around 2,500 telegrams have been sent directly to King Salman bin Abdulaziz, from women across the country, with messages about their personal experiences of the guardianship system and imploring him to bring an end to it.
A recent Human Rights Watch report described the male guardianship system as “the greatest impediment to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.” This system legally binds every Saudi woman, regardless of her age, to the authority of a male relative, who is effectively her legal guardian. This man is typically her father, husband, or in the case of many widows, her son. A male guardian has the authority to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf: he is legally required to grant permission for travel, to be released from prison or a shelter, and to get married. His permission is also needed for such tasks as co-signing a lease or filing a police complaint. Women who have received government funded scholarships to study abroad can only do so with the permission of her guardian and a male relative to accompany her. Although not legally required, some employers and hospitals demand guardian permission for a woman to work or access healthcare.
These restrictive policies and practices leave women entirely dependent on the goodwill of their male guardian, with little control over their career, lifestyle or other personal choices.
The Stop Enslaving Saudi Women campaign is just one of many women-led grassroots initiatives in Saudi Arabia. Women’s rights activists have been advocating tirelessly for their basic rights and real changes to the guardianship system for decades. Saudi activist, Noha Y. Barradah, a proud feminist and supporter of the movement, believes that the male guardianship system has in fact produced a generation of empowered women, who have been forced to navigate the daily realities of repressively patriarchal policies and practices, but who are no longer ashamed to demand their basic rights as women, and as human beings. For Noha, this campaign is a reflection of the determination, strength and resilience of Saudi women, who are “refusing to be treated as second-class citizens any longer.”
This is not the first time women’s rights activists have used social media as a platform for change. In 2013, hundreds of women protested against the ban on driving by posting images or videos of themselves behind the wheel on YouTube and Twitter. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Although women are not legally restricted from driving, the religious establishment prohibits them from obtaining licenses. The protest was followed by an online petition calling for change, which attained almost 17,000 signatures. Women’s rights activists carefully framed their argument by highlighting religious edicts that ban women from being in the company of an unrelated male driver, and the inconvenience and cost of hiring chauffers, advocating instead for female police officers and driving instructors. In June this year, the campaign re-emerged, this time with the hashtag #IWillDriveMyCarJune15. The hashtag received around one million mentions and was trending among both female and male Twitter users, many of whom supported lifting the ban. Previous challenges to the ban resulted in public denouncement, women losing their jobs, travel bans, and arrest. The most recent protests have been met with little resistance from the authorities and religious police; a sign perhaps of some progress.
Progress in the women’s rights arena in Saudi Arabia is slow, but certainly not stagnant. In 2015, despite harsh opposition from the Grand Mufti, women were given the right to vote, and to run for a seat in municipal council elections. Despite problematic legal barriers, such as restrictions on women’s attendance at campaign events where men would also be present, or bans on contacting men via social media, 17 women won seats across various districts. For many prominent activists, this was seen as a significant turning point. It demonstrates a steady change in social views around gender equality, and is a step towards the acknowledgement of women as full and equal citizens.
Backlash against #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen has been harsh. Unsurprisingly, there has also been a tirade of online abuse. The Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh responded that the campaign is a “crime against the religion of Islam” and “posed an existential threat to Saudi society.” Hashtags in opposition to the movement have also appeared on Twitter, #TheGuardianshipIsForHerNotAgainstHer, and #SaudiWomenProudofGuardianship, defending male guardianship as a necessary system for the protection of women. Female activists opposed to the campaign have called instead for the system to be reformed, not abolished, and for cases of abuse of guardianship to be dealt with through legal solutions, as opposed to relinquishing Sharia law on these matters entirely.
The government has yet to offer an official response to the campaign, however women are hopeful that their voices are being heard and their demands taken seriously.
The #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen movement is a declaration to the people of Saudi Arabia, to the monarchy, and to the religious establishment, that women will no longer accept their position as second-class citizens. The campaign symbolises the relentless determination of Saudi women to challenge cultural taboos, risking possible social backlash, and even arrest or detention, in the name of gender equality.
The space for women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia is widening, and it is beginning to thrive under an army of courageous and inspiring women.
Change is possible, and the time for change is now.
#StopEnslavingSaudiWomen #Togethertoendmaleguardianship #genderequality
 Stancati, M. “Saudi women ask king to bring an end to male guardianship.” The Wall Street Journal. September 26 2016.; Sidahmed, M. “Thousands of Saudis sign petition to end male guardianship of women.” Tuesday 27 September 2016.
 Human Rights Watch (2016). Boxed in: Women in Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System. Human Rights Watch: United States of America.
 Black, I. “Saudi Arabia elects up to 17 female councillors in historic election.” The Guardian 12 December 2015.
 Ensor, J. “Saudis file first-ever petition to end male guardianship.” The Telegraph. 26 September 2016.