In 2011, Saudi Arabian IT consultant and activist Manal Al-Sharif defied a two-decade old, socially enforced ban on women driving, by getting behind the wheel of a car and drove through Khobar city. Soon after she was arrested, because women are not allowed to drive, much less anything else, without the explicit permission of a male guardian. The male guardianship system exists even today in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but women have had enough. Over the last two months, around 2,500 Saudi women have been sending telegrams to King Salman asking for the end of guardianship.
A petition with over 14,000 signatures that was delivered to the Royal Court in Riyadh by activist Aziza Al-Yousef on the 26th of September, and it all had its start with the Twitter hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian.
— Ms Saffaa (@MsSaffaa) August 27, 2016
As this radical street artist suggests in the tweet above, seeing women simply as an extension of their male relatives, or even as their property, has been one of the biggest ways of depriving them of their selfhood and the right to act independently. This isn’t run of the mill sexism, this is out and out misogyny, and women from the kingdom are taking a strong stand against it:
— Yasmin Alharbi (@yasminthecat) September 25, 2016
— Julanar Rida (@Julanarblue) August 11, 2016
— Hala AbduAziz (@Halaoctoberrose) September 27, 2016
The above tweet also highlights the impracticality of the male guardianship laws, something that Manal Al-Sharif had also raised five years ago. Barring women from many opportunities, and simultaneously heaping responsibilities on men absolutely destroys any possibility of equalizing the distribution of work, leave alone resources. These and other reasons have compelled Saudi women to demand immediate changes. It has also given everyone the chance to really test the religious justifications behind this system. According to some clerics like Sheikh Abdullah al-Manea, there is nothing in religious teachings to suggest that adult women could not manage their own affairs, yet many continue to insist that hierarchical gender roles are simply part of Islamic law.
As the campaign continued to swell and grow on Twitter, messages of support have come pouring in from around the world:
— kakoli sengupta (@kakolisengupta) September 28, 2016
— Josefina Abarca Ruiz (@JosefinaAbarcaR) April 22, 2016
@MsSaffaa all my support and love from Berlin sister! <3 Rise!
— Victoria Abdelnur (@Victorianur) September 26, 2016
— Gülşah Erenler Gregg (@gulsaherenler) September 28, 2016
#IAmMyOwnGuardian my absolute solidarity with the women of Saudi Arabia on this issue??
— Sharon Gray (@Whosecoat) September 26, 2016
Of course, as with all moments of dissent, there were those trying to take power away from these outspoken women:
WHAT IS MOTIVE BEHIND THIS CAMPAIGN #IAmMyOwnGuardian RID OF OUTRAGES BY MEN OR FREEDOM TO ADOPT US/UK CULTURE
— MOKARRAM KHAN (@MOKARRAMKHAN) September 28, 2016
But none of this, no matter how ridiculous or vicious it gets, should be allowed to dominate the powerful conversation that Saudi women have started. And how much longer will the Kingdom ignore thousands of its women?