A female doctor is barred from a medical conference. An abused wife is forced to return to her violent home. A prisoner is kept behind bars beyond the expiry of her sentence. Who is controlling these women? Their sons, fathers and husbands.

In Saudi Arabia, women are legal minors who require permission to engage in a wide range of activities, making them subject to the whims of their male guardians. But Saudi women are not keeping quiet about it. An animated video campaign produced to accompany a new report by Human Rights Watch went viral last week – with over 2 million views and #EndMaleGuardianship in English and Arabic tweeted thousands of times.

According to Human Rights Watch, the system of male guardianship constitutes the single largest impediment to women’s human rights in Saudi Arabia. These videos, which were inspired by the stories of 61 women interviewed by HRW, show in a very compelling way how this system stymies women’s rights and advancement.

The videos are compelling. Short and striking animations, they show the immense control that male guardians exert over women’s lives.

One shows a doctor receiving an invitation to a cardiac surgery conference in London – she texts her son asking for permission. He could not be bothered.

Another shows a woman hit by her husband, her face left bruised. She takes refuge in a shelter, only to be advised that she return home to her husband, who signs a form promising not to abuse her.

And a third shows how a woman is forced to extend her prison sentence because her father would not sign her out of the detention center.

 

UN Dispatch spoke to HRW researcher Kristine Beckerle about the global buzz the campaign created.

According to Beckerle, the videos were designed to appeal to Saudi Arabia’s thriving social media sphere. 2.4m people use Twitter in Saudi Arabia – 40% of the Middle Eastern market. By producing engaging and hard-hitting videos, Beckerle says that she wanted to contribute to on-going debates in Saudi Arabia about guardianship, and highlight the ways in which it is nonsensical or dangerous.

The strategy appears to have worked. Debate using hashtag #EndMaleGuardianship in English and Arabic is still raging. Saudi women tweeted their experiences in support of the campaign.

Another highlighted how the laws make women legal minors and suggest they are incompetent.

But not everyone supported the campaign. One Facebook user, Ebhrahim, accused HRW of western cultural imperialism –‘It is a matter of religion and culture and is not your business to talk about these issues’. Another agreed – ‘Can’t you leave [other] nations alone? Or you want to ‘free them out’?’ referring to pro-democracy campaigns.

When asked about these criticisms, Kristine Beckerle highlighted the role of Saudi women in campaigning to end male guardianship. “These critiques ignore and obscure the important work Saudi women’s rights activists themselves have done for years,” she said. “After the report was released, Saudi women again took up the call – even presented petitions to demand an end to guardianship’.

Beckerle also commented that women’s experiences of guardianship in Saudi Arabia vary greatly. “I spoke with women whose guardians were kind to them, supportive and who had not restricted their progress,” she said. But she pointed out that other women are abused by their guardians and that many express the desire to be regarded as equals under the law.

The videos show the power of engaging content to communicate human rights issues – whilst demonstrating the power of digital communication to create spaces for education, advocacy and for women in oppressive conditions to make their opinions heard.

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