Farah, 31, has an American passport. She was born in Ohio, but her family returned to Saudi Arabia when she was six. “I have lived the most miserable days of my life here in Saudi Arabia,” she said, telling me that first her father forbade her from becoming a doctor – he didn’t think it was a suitable career for a woman – and then he wouldn’t let her study law because she needed to travel to a school in another city. In 2006, Farah met a foreign man and fell in love. She wanted to marry him, but her family disapproved. Her parents beat her, snapped her mobile phone in two, and imprisoned her in the house for six months. The Saudi state does not allow women or girls to travel abroad without permission from their male guardian — in this case, Farah’s father. “I'm tired of my life and I think a lot of suicide,” she said. “I have suffered all kinds of torture from my family.” Farah is one of hundreds of Saudi women now using Twitter to challenge the misogynistic law that says they must defer to a man in many major life decisions. For nearly fifty days, Saudi women have been using the #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen hashtag in English and in Arabic, to show support for a campaign to abolish male guardianship laws in the Middle Eastern country.
All women in Saudi Arabia — even company directors, councillors, and heart surgeons — are required to have a male guardian (known as a Wali). This is usually a woman’s father or husband, but it can be her brother, her son, her uncle, or even the local mosque cleric if she has no family. Women need their guardian’s permission to travel, to study, to work, and to seek medical treatment, even in the case of life-saving surgery. The system is built into the bureaucracy of Saudi Arabia's institutions, as well as remaining firmly rooted in the culture. Human Rights Watch (HRW), who released a report on the subject in July, said male guardianship “is the most significant impediment to realising women’s rights in the country, effectively rendering adult women legal minors who cannot make key decisions for themselves.” A woman’s life in Saudi “is controlled by a man from birth until death,” the report continued, adding that “the impact these restrictive policies have on a woman’s ability to pursue a career or make life decisions varies, but is largely dependent on the good will of her male guardian.”
Ala, a 26-year-old from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, has been using the hashtag for about a month. “For me, I just hate the humiliation of it all,” she said. “I can be exchanged like a package or a piece of land.” If anything ever happened to her father, Ala said, her little brother, 24, would become the guardian of his three older sisters and 50-something-year-old mother. “It just doesn't make sense. If I ever wanted to travel or open a bank account for example, I'd have to get his permission.” Ala considers herself lucky: her situation is better than many Saudi women’s because her father is fairly liberal. “[But] it’s the feeling that you're never enough,” she said. “It significantly affects your state of mind when reminded of it each day. You're a minor. No matter how old you get or how educated.” Ala is afraid to get married because then her whole life will be dependent on the will of her husband. People consider her a little old to not be married already, she said, but at least while she remains under her father’s guardianship, she knows what to expect. A high school friend, a doctor, Ala said, married for love, but problems arose immediately on the woman’s honeymoon, when she travelled abroad but her controlling husband still ordered her to wear a hijab. “Now, she really wants to work,” Ala said, “however he forbids her from working in a hospital because she would have to work closely with men.”
The Twitter campaign was inspired by a tag launched to promote the HRW report in July, but Saudi women quickly took over, making new tags and keeping them trending on their own. Ala saw the hashtag on its fifth or six day, but she was afraid to participate using her personal Twitter account. “You need to be careful discussing these kind of things,” she explained. “It's been one of many taboo subjects all our lives. Not everyone will approve; you'll likely be judged and spoken of.” She made an anonymous account and started participating at the end of the second week. “The goal is for both the hashtags to trend for the day,” she said, adding that the campaign is happening in English and Arabic. The English tag is #stopenslavingsaudiwomen but the Arabic one changes slightly each day, counting up from what reads in English as "#stopenslavingsaudiwomen1" from day one. There's an account which tells women what number they should be on. "Today we're on 45," says Ala when we speak.
“I believe that everything will change, the next generation are stronger”
Shahad, 17, Saudi Arabia
Shahad, 17, lives near Mekkah. She wanted to be a television presenter. Her elder sister wanted to be a hostess. But her father refused them both. “It was my dream,” she told me. “And he said no!” As a young person, Shahad is both indignant about the country she is growing up in, and hopeful for the future. “I believe that everything will change, the next generation are stronger,” she said. “People now know more know about women's rights. Young people agree [with the campaign] more than older people.” While Ala is very cautious about discussing the campaign with people offline, and has only broached the subject with a few close female family members and friends, Shahad said she discussed it openly with girls at her high school. Shahad said she would campaign offline too if she could, but she doesn’t know how to because no one is listening in real life. In that sense, Twitter has given Saudi women a unique outlet, and potentially a way to organise. Ala said the campaign had given her hope, too. “The persistence of the girls has been amazing,” she said. “I think this is the biggest campaign ever run by Saudi women.” “This tag has increased awareness among both men and women. Many who believed this was a religious law discovered it was anything but. A lot of girls who were against us initially have come back now to say they're with us. Many men are participating as well, especially recently. The story got covered twice on MBC, the most popular channel here." However, she added, angrily, the campaign has still not been acknowledged by people in power.