‘I Am My Own Guardian’ – State repression of Saudi activists

Amal Jaber is a writer and activist based in the US.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Mazen al-Darrab (cc)

On the 15th May, the Saudi government led by the young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman rounded up seven prominent feminist and women’s rights activists and threw them in gaol. These activists were at the forefront of the ongoing Campaign to End Male Guardianship, launched by Saudi activists in July 2016 and, according to Nora Doaiji, “was timed to coincide with that of the Human Rights Watch ‘Boxed In’ report on Saudi women’s lived experiences of the guardianship system.”

This is a campaign against the male guardianship system which effectively relegates women to the status of lifelong minors. The system puts women’s lives at the mercy of their male guardians: a woman cannot get a job, go to college, leave the country, or even have major medical procedures without his approval. Under this system, women who have completed their term in prison cannot be released without authorisation from a male guardian.

In general, women’s involvement in public life, under this system, is always subject to the legal discretion of a male relative, whether it’s a father, husband, brother, or even a son.  

The movement constitutes the most recent, and by far the most popular, episode of a long struggle against discriminatory laws and sexist social norms in the kingdom. Its resilience in the face of a series of challenges, including state repression and unveiled threats against its most vocal activists, has defied all expectations.

This resilience has to do with just how profoundly it touches a fundamental issue that connects with every aspect of women’s daily lives in the country; laws and norms put the fates and life opportunities of women at the mercy of the good will and arbitrary impulses of their male relatives.

It is in this sense that it should not be viewed only as an extension and a broadening of previous public challenges to sexist laws – e.g. the nearly three-decade-long campaign to lift the driving ban on women or demands for allowing women to vote and partake in municipal elections. It is also essentially based on the accumulation and consolidation of everyday individual and local struggles led by women who challenge social norms and restrictions. It constitutes a mass-scale recognition that these laws and norms are not just expressions of personal obstacles that need to be addressed on an individual level, but societal restrictions that should be collectively abolished.

It, moreover, differs from previous campaigns in that it is not strictly limited to a small, privileged group of women who already enjoy a certain degree of independence; the 1990 driving campaign, for example, was made up of 47 academics and doctors who took the place of their chauffeurs and drove around in Riyadh in a group of 13 cars.

The composition of this new movement has grown to encompass women with varying socioeconomic statuses. This has led to the formation of networks of solidarity among women within lower classes, who therefore had to create new avenues of expressing opposition. Because of how atomising the guardianship system is, their means of resistance both reflected and attempted to overcome that atomisation.

Because of this, the movement has been primarily expressed in media-centric and/or consciousness-raising activities online. Activists wrote about and advocated for a varying number of issues, from calling for an end to the Kafala system that puts migrant workers in a state of virtual slavery, to exposing sexual harassment, and calling for ending the war on Yemen. They translated feminist texts from writers such as Audre Lorde, Judith Butler, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among many others.

The war in Yemen is a cornerstone of the new Saudi nationalism, and has become central to justifying the repression of activists (CC BY-NC-ND ICRC Ralph Elhage)

But their actions were not limited to online advocacy. In the #ResistingbyWalking campaign, for example, individual women took videos of themselves going out to run errands, in order to demonstrate how difficult it is to go about daily tasks without a car in Saudi Arabia.

The movement has also empowered people to publicly speak out about domestic abuse as a last resort in what might have been a lifetime of struggle. While victims of domestic abuse are aware of the risk of going public entails, taking this risk has encouraged more people to speak out, get help, or help others who are at risk.

With time, the efforts of this movement seemed to be coming to fruition. In April 2017, the government announced its intention to loosen the guardianship system to a degree, “ending the requirement for a male guardian’s approval for women to access government services,” allowing, as Doaiji puts it, “women to study, access healthcare, and work in the public sector without a male guardian’s consent.” And on September of that same year, a royal decree was issued finally lifting the ban on women driving.

This change in legal status should not, however, be conflated with a change in the material conditions for most women. A woman can theoretically go to college or get a job without a male guardian’s approval. But in reality, because a woman cannot leave the family home (whether that of her parents or her husband) without this guardian’s consent, that means his word is still effectively law.

Even though these new laws provide women the opportunity to work towards independence, they can only do so on an individual basis. Women are not allowed to collectively challenge these patriarchal relations or organise together to improve their conditions, since establishing such civil society institutions is still virtually outlawed. The lack of collective political rights, therefore, leaves every woman to fend for herself against the convictions, attitudes, arbitrary impulses of her male guardian.

This recent wave of arrests is proof that the Crown Prince is intent on preventing such collective challenge to occur in any shape or form. Though the exact accusations against the incarcerated activists are still unclear, state-controlled media launched a smear campaign against them labelling them as “agents of embassies” and “traitors” who are collaborating with foreign enemies plotting against the nation.

Leaving aside this internationally-and-historically-overused “outside agitator” cliché, the reasons behind the arrest of these activists are actually quite ominous. They point to the degree of repression that bin Salman is willing to employ to prevent a collective feminist challenge to entrenched sexist social norms, even those the new laws he introduced supposedly are intended to annul.

The trigger behind these arrests was the fact that these activists made a formal application to establish a shelter for female survivors of domestic abuse. This small act was met with a disproportionately severe response: the six activists who made the application were thrown in gaol along with the businessman who co-signed to provide financial support the shelter. Others were summoned and detained for a few days as a means to scare them off, and many more were put under travel ban along with their families. This targeting of families constitutes an unprecedented escalation in repressive measures against activists.

These activists, moreover, were heavily involved in both campaigns. Some, such as Aisha al-Manea, who was detained for a few days and was later released, partook in the 1990 attempt to challenge the driving ban. Others, like Loujain al-Hathloul, were previously arrested and tried – also for challenging the ban – before Specialised Criminal Court, that deals specifically with cases of terrorism and national security.

This application was most likely optimistically made in the spirit of the Crown Prince’s highly publicised interviews in Western media where he declared that he “absolutely” believes in equality between women and men. Because the application not only came at the helm of an ongoing movement for gender equality and by people who have been at the forefront of or strong allies to this movement, it is perceived as an attempt to use the space given by the state in order to institutionalise social networks of solidarity in the country. In this sense, this is not a break, but rather a continuation of the government’s policy of thwarting any attempt to establish mass networks of solidarity beyond the accepted regional, tribal, or sectarian networks.

Azizah al-Yousef is one of the arrested activists now trapped in Saudi gaols (cc)

The message to feminist activists is loud and clear: the state gets to decide what and when reforms are made, no social grassroots initiative is tolerated, regardless of how dire the need is for such change. The other goal seems to be to take all the credit for this remarkable achievement and deny any relation it has to women’s ongoing struggle for equality.

Still, the move is quite perplexing in light of the intensive media campaign he pushed for to portray himself as the shining hope in a region sinking into chaos.  Mainstream media outlets were more than happy to indulge this portrayal. The Economist gave an interview with bin Salman in which he celebrated his “Thatcherite revolution” – and the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman even went as far as to call bin Salman’s neoliberal program “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring”. The Washington Post called it “a revolution disguised as reform.” This, in fact, is nothing more than a continuation of mainstream media outlets whitewashing the brutal repressive practices of Western proxies (a Saudi observer created a Twitter thread showing dozens of historical examples from the New York Times.)  

Meanwhile, even those outlets that have been more critical still seem committed to washing the hands of Western government of any complicity. In the Atlantic for example, Kim Ghattas, who otherwise provides a solid analysis, states that bin Salman has nothing to fear from the West because “[t]he Trump administration is largely unconcerned with human rights,” as if the Obama administration that offered a $115 billion (86 billion pounds) arms sale to the Saudi government and provided critical logistical support to its genocidal war on Yemen, did in fact care about such things. While states like Saudi Arabia are often contrasted with an otherwise internationally humane West, they are in fact the direct product of Western foreign policy and imperialist patronage.  

While attempting to posit himself internationally as a liberalising reformer challenging age-old traditions, domestically bin Salman returns to the role of the arbiter between liberals and conservatives, and does so in the worst way possible. Instead of giving each their space as previous Saudi monarchs have done, he launches severe repressive campaigns against both. This, evidently, is not winning him any popular support.

After leading the counterrevolutionary efforts in the region, the Saudi leadership seems intent on destabilising its own rule. It is losing the support of people from all over the political spectrum, something which its Thatcherite revolution is only exacerbating.  

While the repercussions of this looming political crisis are worrying, as there does not seem to exist yet any significant positive political alternative, we have to extend our solidarity with feminists, leftists, and activists trying to build that alternative in a repressive political climate. We have a duty to respond not with the condescension of the self-satisfied West, but in a spirit of clear and resolute solidarity.

You can read the statement written by Saudi activists here.

You can also attend the demonstration planned for Sunday outside the Saudi embassy

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