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Saudi women strive to bring male guardians to a Twitter end

Monday 2 April 2018, by siawi3

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/mar/28/saudi-arabia-women-strive-to-bring-male-guardians-to-a-twitter-end

Saudi women strive to bring male guardians to a Twitter end

Millions of women embrace social network to push for social reforms including abolition of system of male dominion

Liz Ford

Wed 28 Mar 2018 10.30 BST
Last modified on Wed 28 Mar 2018 22.00 BST

Female shoppers wearing traditional Saudi Arabian dress check their smartphones whilst waiting for transport outside the mall.
Saudi Arabia has more than 6 million female Twitter users. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Women in Saudi Arabia are riding a “Twitter wave” of activism that they hope will lead to the abolition of a legal guardianship system that gives men authority over their lives.

There has been an “explosion of advocacy” on Twitter over the past two years, say the authors of a report – the first of its kind produced by Saudi women – documenting how women in the kingdom have been fighting for their rights since 1990.

The move to social media has been spearheaded by younger women who, emboldened by the Arab spring and the crown prince’s vision for the country, have embraced the medium as an increasingly important tool for change.

“Twitter exploded in 2016, mostly through anonymously created accounts,” said Monera al Nahedh, an independent researcher and consultant who co-authored the report, published by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University.

“Twitter is doing a great deal to create awareness about women … and we know that our leaders monitor Twitter for political activities, and hear the voices of people.”

We hope that we will come to a time when all women and men are treated equally.
Areej

According to the report, more than 40% of the 6.3 million Saudis on Twitter in 2016 were women. Many accounts are anonymous, and tweets are posted in both Arabic and English. Ten of the most widely known women activists have amassed more than 1.2 million followers between them.

Twitter is now viewed as the “most effective and influential social network for Saudi society”, said the report, published during the Commission on the Status of Women held in New York earlier this month.

Chief among the topics tweeted about is the call to abolish the system that requires a woman to have a male guardian – be it a father, husband, brother or son – who makes crucial decisions for her. Under the practice, male approval is required for travel or study outside the country, to get a passport, to get married or to leave prison.

The hashtag #AbolishGuardianship was created in July 2016; two months later, an online petition signed by 14,000 people was delivered to the royal court. The hashtag is used to highlight cases of abuse, rally support, and put pressure on the authorities to act.

“Twitter has brought international attention [to issues], which is very important,” said activist Areej (who wanted to be identified by only one name). “We hope that we will come to a time when all women and men are treated equally and have the same rights.”

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Saudi Arabia has experienced a slight thaw on women’s rights in recent years, aligned with the crown prince’s plans to develop the country and present a more open face to the international community.

Over the past two years, royal decrees have allowed girls to take part in physical education in schools and reduced the power of the religious police. In addition, at least 10 women have been appointed to high profile decision-making roles in government and the private sector, and steps have been taken to ensure that women will no longer need the permission of a guardian to take a public sector job.

Perhaps the most symbolic of the changes was the decision last September to allow women to drive, which should come into effect later this year.

Al Nahedh, who was among the 47 women arrested for driving cars around Riyadh in 1990 to protest against the ban, said ending male guardianship will be a tough nut to crack. “Guardianship is very strong in Saudi Arabia, from top to bottom, the concept of guardianship is recognised. It cuts across all social levels … It’s been ingrained into people’s consciousness that it’s part of [our] religion, so no one can touch it.”

The report said the changes made so far were “promising” for the future of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. But it added: “They, however, do not mark a very clear ‘on the ground’ change for women’s equality. Saudi Arabia has neither theoretically nor empirically closed the gap between men and women with regard to women’s presence in the public sphere and their access to resources.”