October 19, 2017

Saudi Women’s Online Activism: One Year of the “I Am My Own Guardian” Campaign

Saudi Women Voting
Saudi women vote at a polling center during the country's municipal elections in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Aya Batrawy)
by Nora Doaiji

This paper is an overview of the women’s campaign against the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia and a window into the new landscape of media activism. The dynamics and developments of the “I Am My Own Guardian” campaign are a testimony to the new energy in women’s activism in the kingdom, which led up to the recently issued royal decree to allow women to drive. It also provides a fascinating snapshot of state-society relations at this time of generational transition.

Over the course of 2016-17, the I Am My Own Guardian campaign was unprecedented in its ability to influence and mobilize varied and ever-growing groups of constituents, including a new generation of young women who were not previously politically active. Social media was crucial to this success, as it helped to expand activists’ networks as well as strengthen their organization and disseminate their messages. As a result of this expansion, new faces gained visibility and were able to develop into the campaign’s prominent and leading activists.

The emergence of new narratives and perspectives led to tensions over the leadership and central identity or “face” of the campaign. A second factor animating debates within the campaign was the rise of an assertive nationalism in the kingdom. This “Saudi First” type of populism informed contentious debates over the role of Saudi women living abroad, and that of foreign media, contributing to a cycle of nationalist backlash and defiant assertions of belonging. The economic context of impending austerity in Saudi Arabia also affected the campaign, as disparities in economic class divided participants and questions of privilege led to intense disagreements. The broader context of Saudi Vision 2030, with its emphasis on economic citizenship and participation, further encouraged and informed debates on gendered economic privilege.

The campaign to end the male guardianship system has demanded legal representation from the state, specifically in the form of full citizenship and governmental responsiveness to their demands as citizens, but it has also contained appeals for social recognition and economic redistribution. In this way, the campaign has both reflected and exploited the current political environment, defined by the Yemen war, with its emphasis on shared sacrifice and an assertive Saudi national identity, and the Vision 2030 plan, with its emphasis on economic participation and individual responsibility. At the same time, the state’s new “hazm” or “decisive” nationalism and its Vision 2030 plan have also set limits for the campaign’s success. Defectors from the campaign have often branded it as unpatriotic and harmful to Saudi unity during a difficult reform process.

The most significant change achieved by the campaign has been a government order issued on April 17 ending the requirement for a male guardian’s approval for women to access government services. This should in most circumstances allow women to study, access health care, and work in the public sector without a male guardian’s consent.

Still, it is the informal consequences of the campaign that may prove far more significant. The I Am My Own Guardian campaign has brought before the Saudi public questions and concerns of social recognition, resource redistribution, and political participation. Strong feminist activist networks have formed and lively mobilization efforts and internal debates continue. This is an unprecedented step forward for Saudi feminism and will surely leave its imprint on the political landscape of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.