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Aggressive social media campaign to end male guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia

The English and Arabic hashtags, #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen and #سعوديات_نطالب_باسقاط_الولايه52, have taken the twitter world by storm, calling for an end to male guardianship laws which require all Saudi women to have a legal male guardian. The Arabic hashtag updates daily, signifying the number of days the hashtag has been circulating. Today that number is 52, and it has been retweeted hundreds of times.

“It’s a unified effort by Saudi women in (an) attempt to voice their struggle the only legal way that they can in Saudi Arabia,” Isaac Cohen, Director of the S.A.F.E. Movement – the only nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Saudi women fight male guardianship – told The Media Line.

These women have chosen the social media platform to raise awareness around these laws because protesting and other large public gatherings are illegal and can even carry prison sentences in Saudi Arabia.

This social media campaign is unique and has garnered an impressive amount of support.

In the past, Saudi women have feared publicizing their beliefs; however, the women have been more willing to take a personal stake in this campaign, according to Kristine Beckerle, a researcher in the Middle East / North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

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 (these Saudi women) take up the call and demand their right with such veracity has been incredible,” Beckerle told The Media Line.

Saudi women are not allowed to travel, marry, study, or even have surgery without permission from their guardian.

“Basically, from when they are born to when they die, they do require a male guardian, who is given legal control over her life,” Beckerle, of Human Rights Watch said. “Human Rights Watch has concluded that male guardianship is the most significant impediment to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia today.”

“Reem” (who asked not to be identified by her proper name for fear of her personal safety), a 37 year old divorced nurse in Saudi Arabia told The Media Line in a phone conversation from Saudi Arabia, that despite being an independent adult, she and her son must live with her parents.

“I stay with my family. I have a good salary but they refuse to let me live in an independent home. I am 37 years old and I still live with my parents,” Reem said.

There have been, however, 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 say that this campaign may be different.

Because these guardianship laws affect a number of different aspects of women’s lives, Beckerle believes that this gives the government more 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 a complete elimination of male guardianship laws.

Katie Beiter is a student journalist with The Media Line