Saudi Arabian Artist Fights To Make Her Country Treat Women Like Adults

The country's male guardianship laws stop women from traveling, marrying or leaving prison without a man's permission.
The Australia-based Saudi artist Ms Saffaa created this image with a woman wearing traditional male headwear, with text that reads "I am my own guardian."
The Australia-based Saudi artist Ms Saffaa created this image with a woman wearing traditional male headwear, with text that reads "I am my own guardian."
Ms Saffaa

Women in Saudi Arabia are ramping up an online campaign against their country’s guardianship laws ― a repressive system that bars women from traveling abroad, marrying or leaving prison without permission from a male guardian.

Saudi women have difficulty pursuing various tasks without their guardians’ permission, including renting apartments, studying abroad or filing legal claims. A damning Human Rights Watch report released in July described the system as “the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country.”

A woman’s father or husband is typically her guardian, but a brother or a son can also take the role.

Close to 15,000 people have now signed an online petition started in September calling for an end to the guardianship laws. Saudi women’s rights activists have also launched the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian, which people are using to discuss and condemn the laws.

Saudi Arabia had agreed to end male guardianship in 2013, following a review by the United Nations Human Rights Council. But while it has recently implemented various reforms, including giving women voting rights, allowing them to run for municipal offices and pushing them into the labor market, the Saudi government has failed to deliver on its promises to abolish the guardianship system itself.

An image that has come to symbolize this campaign features a woman wearing the shemagh ― the headdress traditionally worn by Saudi men ― with a banner reading “I Am My Own Guardian” across the bottom half of her face.

The creator of the image is Ms Saffaa, a Sydney-based Saudi artist, researcher and cultural activist. (She chooses not to use her full name to protect her identity.) Ms Saffaa’s previous projects, exhibited predominantly in Australia, have tackled gender politics and celebrated female activism in Saudi Arabia. Her works featuring women wearing the shemagh, like the one now part of the #IAmMyOwnGuardian campaign, originally debuted at the Sydney College of Arts in 2012.

Ms Saffaa spoke to The WorldPost about her artwork, the campaign and her hopes for Saudi Arabia.

The image you created for the campaign is very striking. Can you tell us a little bit about the composition and the design?

I used the shemagh, or the male headdress, as a cultural icon and as a symbol of empowerment. When I was younger, I used to wear a thawb [a robe-like garment worn by men] and a shemagh around the house just for fun. There’s a little bit of innocent play in cross-dressing ― there’s nothing subversive about it when you do it when you’re younger. But once you start growing up and the division between what’s feminine and what’s masculine becomes really clear, and society tells you what to wear and what not to wear, confronting all that becomes subversive.

Ms Saffaa

A lot of people have been responding to my images by telling me how problematic they think the shemagh is. Because they think that if the shemagh is a symbol of power ― and the shemagh belongs to a man ― then doesn’t that mean that my power belongs to a man? And I say: in this country, it does belong to a man. So I’m just taking the power back and putting it on my head.

I’m quite excited that the work has created a lot of conversation about gender issues and the fluidity of gender. People don’t understand me when I say gender is quite fluid ― it’s not what you wear ― it’s who you are.

You recently told an interviewer “my art is my way of showing that I exist.” Can you elaborate on that?

My whole life has been a political statement. Just by leaving Saudi, and getting a scholarship to study art ― a scholarship I had to fight for. And when I was living in Australia without a guardian, and I was repeatedly asked [by Saudi authorities] to prove that I had a guardian present, that was a political statement on its own. My artwork is a way of asserting that I exist within a world that just wants to silence me or wants to basically erase my identity.

I have to fight for existence, I have to fight for my voice, I have to fight for just living. I can’t exist without fighting. My whole life has been one big fight.

“Male guardianship laws make up the quintessential symbol of oppression.”

Do you feel that your work, and the artwork being produced by other female Saudi artists, is taking back ownership of the representation of Saudi women?

That’s exactly why I make the art I make. If I don’t represent myself, if I don’t assert that I am here, people are going to always take it upon themselves to represent me. If I’m not making art about who I am, people will make art about me. I call people who make art about cultures that they don’t belong to and that the don’t have ties to, cultural opportunists. And Saudi women have always been the flavor of the month, every month, since 9/11 actually.

There’s been work coming from Saudi artists, particularly women, like Sarah Abu Abdallah or Manal Al Dowayen, about topics like women and driving or travel permits. Do you feel like artists are playing a role in trying to expand the rights of Saudi women?

Honestly, I have looked at a lot of work coming out of Saudi that is, in a way, feminist, but I find that a lot of female artists, with the exception of a couple, tip-toe around the issues, they don’t tackle them head-on.

A mural by Ms Saffaa at the Sydney College of the Arts.
A mural by Ms Saffaa at the Sydney College of the Arts.
Ms Saffaa

I feel like the art is a little shy. It does tackle some feminist issues like travel permits and driving, but these are not central to the main issue. The main issue is guardianship laws. Because if [lawmakers] allow us to drive tomorrow, a lot of women are not going to drive because they have assholes for male guardians. So you have to tackle the big issue which is the male guardianship laws.

I think this is part of the reason why this movement has been so successful ― arguably more successful than the driving campaign. Because male guardianship laws make up the quintessential symbol of oppression. That’s the real issue. Of course driving and freedom of travel is essential to women’s freedom, but it comes as a second step.

You’re currently working on a mural in Melbourne connected to the campaign. Can you tell us more about it?

It’s a 9-by-4.5-meter wall. I wasn’t too sure what to do with the wall, and then the movement happened, and everyone was sharing my work and sharing my stuff, the vision started coming to me. I’m collaborating with other artists, but I’m also collaborating with some women from the movement. I asked some women to write statements in Arabic, in their own handwriting, so I can screen-print them and stick them on the wall. I am actually taking a lot of the feedback and criticism about my use of the male headdress and I’m trying to work around it. I’m going to use some Arabic poetry as well, there’s going to be a lot of imagery, a lot of portraits.

It’s interesting how you’re using different mediums to express similar ideas for this one campaign.

I feel like it’s an ethical responsibility. I don’t only want to share only my own voice or my take on it, because that would be very selfish. We artists can be self-centered ― but I really wanted to include other voice of these brave women tweeting from inside of Saudi. I honestly don’t know if I would have done all this if I were based in Saudi.

A mural by Ms Saffaa at the Sydney College of the Arts.
A mural by Ms Saffaa at the Sydney College of the Arts.
Ms Saffaa

I wanted to give back to these women who instigated the movement. I wanted to celebrate their bravery and shine some light on how dangerous what they’re doing is, and how awesome and brilliant and inspiring it is to do what they’re doing. It’s easy for me to sit here thousands and thousands of miles away from Saudi and criticize the system, but it’s the work of these women that needs to be celebrated.

What are your hopes for the campaign?

I really, really want male guardianship laws to be abolished. As law and as cultural practices. I wish Saudi men and women would realize that these are not Islamic laws: these are man-made laws. Saudi women’s rights activist Manal Al Sharif said something really interesting at Forum 2000 in Prague: “We’ve been taught that god assigned us a guardian, and it takes courage to question that.”

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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