Social media apps Twitter and Facebook [Illustrative].
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Reem, a 37-year-old Saudi nurse, who asked that her last name be withheld, recalled when her family arranged her marriage. After graduating from nursing school, she worked for 10 years until her cousin approached her father asking for her hand in marriage.
“All of a sudden my father said to me, this is my nephew and you will marry him,” Reem said. “We were complete opposites in character and I didn’t like him, he wasn’t handsome. So, I refused, I cried, I did everything a Saudi girl can do, but sadly, they forced me.”
“It broke my soul,” she added. After a year of being engaged, Reem broke it off. Her parents then forced her to marry a man, who, according to Reem, was a drug addict; so she divorced him.
“Now, I am divorced with one son. I am a nurse, but I stay with my family. I have a good salary, but they refuse to let me live independently. I am 37 years old and I still live with my parents,” Reem said.
Stories like these are not uncommon in Saudi Arabia, a conservative, Muslim country, where male guardianship laws still reign. These laws require Saudi women, regardless of age, to have a male guardian, usually a husband or a father, who makes all legal decisions for them.
The hashtag, #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen, has taken the Twitter social networking world by storm, calling for an end to these oppressive laws.
“Basically, from when they are born to when they die, Saudi women require male guardians, who are given legal control over their lives,” Kristine Beckerle, a Human Rights Watch researcher recently reported. According to Beckerle, the New York-based human rights organization "has concluded that male guardianship is the most significant impediment to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia today.”
Saudi women are not allowed to travel, marry, study, or even have surgery without permission from their guardians. “If you go out against your guardian’s will, he can go to the police and file a complaint that you are a fugitive and the police will come after you and take you home,” Reem added.
There is a Twitter hashtag in Arabic (#سعوديات_نطالب_باسقاط_الولاية51), which updates the number of days the hashtag has been circulating. It has reached 51.
“It's a unified effort by Saudi Women in attempt to voice their struggle in the only legal way that they can in Saudi Arabia,” Isaac Cohen, Director of the S.A.F.E. Movement, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Saudi women fight male guardianship, told The Media Line.
Women have chosen the social media platform to raise awareness because protest rallies are illegal and can even carry prison sentences in Saudi Arabia. In the past, Saudi women have feared publicizing their beliefs; however, women have now become more willing to take a stand in the anti-guardianship campaign, according to Beckerle.
These women have gone so far as to record videos of themselves to post on social media, articulating the horrors of the repressive laws. Aside from the hashtags, there have been many other instances of solidarity amongst Saudi women.
Some of which include the distribution of “I am my own guardian” bracelets and stickers; a petition to the king, which gathered over 3,000 signatures in 24 hours; and a wall in Riyadh with the hashtag written in graffiti.
“I am flabbergasted. The media is not free and Saudi women themselves face many levels of difficulty. To see women take up the call and demand their rights has been incredible,” Beckerle said.
There have been movements in the past to change laws in Saudi Arabia. In October 2013, there was a campaign to allow women the right to drive; however, that was unsuccessful.
However, activists hope that this campaign may be different. Because the guardianship laws affect a number of different aspects of women’s lives, Beckerle believes that this gives the government room to initiate changes. Reem said that while she believes the government is gradually making necessary changes, she does not believe that there will ever be complete elimination of male guardianship laws.