In April this year, Maryam al-Otaibi, a 29-year-old year old woman in Saudi Arabia, was detained in prison without charge for 104 days after being reported to police by her family. Her transgression? Leaving the home of her abusive brother to live on her own in a new city. She is one of many Saudi women who make up the vanguard of the #IAmMyOwnGuardian campaign: a movement that has emerged over the past year and a half, pushing to end the male guardianship system in the Gulf Kingdom. Now, Maryam’s face is pasted on the wall of the Sydney College of the Arts campus cafe as part of a new 20-metre mural celebrating Saudi women’s resistance.
“[Maryam] is one of the bravest people I know,” says Ms Saffaa, an SCA student from Saudi Arabia herself and the artist responsible for curating and assembling the mural over the last few months. “That’s why I made her portrait really big. Because if I were her, I wouldn’t have done that.”
The SCA mural is comprised of paste-ups and poetry, manga figures and floral motifs, and is the collaborative effort of 30 artists from SCA, Saudia Arabia and around the world; Maryam’s portrait was drawn by Molly Crabapple, a New York artist.
“I felt the movement needed some beauty, some positivity, and a different sort of expression,” Saffaa says. Included in the mural are portraits of Khadija — a Saudi woman who became paralysed from the waist down after falling off a balcony while trying to escape her abusive husband, and later passed away — and Loujain Hathloul, who was imprisoned for driving. A badge created by another woman in the movement, celebrating “365 days of persistence”, accompanies them.
“I’m trying to make it a story about resilience as opposed to a story about oppression,” Saffaa says. “The women inspired me to do this artwork. They inspired me to speak up because for a long time, although [I’ve always] criticised the government, I’ve never actually been that vocal on social media. But when I saw Maryam, [who is one of the very few Saudi women tweeting from inside Saudi with her real name], I was like, dude, if she can do that, I can do more. I should be doing more.”
On the right: Maryam’s portrait, by Molly Crabapple and Ms Saffaa.
While the mural’s home at SCA’s quaint Rozelle quarters is a world away from the political system it challenges, the transnational element fosters a sense of global solidarity. “With a subject or an issue that’s so far removed from here, solidarity really matters,” Saffaa says. “It shows that people actually care [and] it enriches my voice as well … When I put this online, the women in the movement are like ‘wow, this is amazing, we can’t believe that people actually care about us.’ But everything is connected these days.”
The male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia enables men to control women’s lives. Women can’t renew passports, travel, marry, or leave prison without the express permission of their male guardian — either a brother, father or husband. Women’s individual experiences under this system are largely dependent on social class and the goodwill of their families. While some, like Saffaa, are able to work and study overseas, others are less fortunate. If a woman reports domestic violence under this system, it is she who ends up in a protection home, which Saffaa describes as “a jail more than anything”. “She’s not allowed to leave unless her abusive guardian picks her up. Otherwise she rots in jail for the rest of her life.”.
A Human Rights Watch report titled ‘Boxed In’, published in July 2016, drew on the experiences of Saudi women to articulate what life is like under male guardianship. It concluded that: “The male guardianship system is the most significant impediment to realising women’s rights in the country, effectively rendering adult women legal minors who cannot make key decisions for themselves… Every Saudi woman, regardless of her economic or social class, is adversely affected by guardianship policies.”
Following the report’s release, Saudi women mobilised online.
“They created twitter groups and their own hashtag and started tweeting,” Saffaa says. “Their hashtag was trending for days at a time, and number one for at least two months, every day, with 70-80,000 tweets a day. And then international media picked it up. It started as a campaign and then turned into a movement, because everyone was tweeting about it and we were getting transnational allies supporting us.”
Saffaa was drawn into the fray when one of her artworks from 2012 — a piece titled ‘I Am My Own Guardian’ — was tweeted and picked up traction. She had created the artwork — a subversive portrait of a woman in a traditional male headdress — after reaching boiling point with the male guardianship system herself.
While studying in Sydney on a scholarship from the Saudi government, Saffaa was repeatedly hassled with questions about where her guardian was. After ignoring their emails, one day she received a message stating that her scholarship would be taken away if she could not prove her male guardian was living with her in Australia.
“I got that email and was like, ‘I’m fed up with this’,” she says. “’I’m in my mid-thirties. I don’t fucking need a guardian. My youngest brother is 18 years younger than me — I changed his diaper. And now you want him to come and sign me off so I can study?’
“That’s how I created the ‘I am my own guardian’ body of work. That’s how I got political. They made me.”
Saffaa describes losing her scholarship as a blessing in disguise that has enabled her to come out of her shell. While she had always sought to speak out against the government, the watchful eye of Saudi made her cautious, and she toned down her rhetoric at conferences — now that she plans on staying in Australia and no longer relies on a Saudi scholarship, her art and messages are more overtly political. The political environment Saffaa has stepped into, however, often seems doubly stacked against her.
“I find I have two fights, two voices,” she says. “The one that I speak to people back home with, and the one that I’m very careful with here, because I don’t want to feed into someone’s Islamophobia. I don’t want my friend who wears a hijab to get spat on when she’s travelling just because she’s wearing a hijab. It’s a very tricky position I’m in: how do I speak about the plight of Saudi women without making it sound like I’m [validating] the Islamophobia? How do I do that?”
Her biggest frustration is born from the lack of nuance she sees engulfing most conversations about women and Islam. “They don’t realise that it’s not just about religion,” she says. “It’s a lot of different elements that interplay with each other and they can’t be discussed in isolation. There’s religion, there’s politics, there are regional alliances, there are global alliances, there’s the hypocrisy that’s in the West … It’s so complex, this situation. It’s so rich, and it has a lot of different things that you need to discuss.”
At the same time, Saffaa’s message is not always met with warmth from the Islamic community either. She recalls an incident where a Saudi man approached her at an exhibition to accuse her of “airing Saudi’s dirty laundry” to the West. Last year, one of her murals in Brunswick, Melbourne was defaced. “I can’t tell if it’s someone from the Islamic community not liking what I’m saying about Muslim women, although it’s diverse and it’s not monolithic, and it’s not just a woman in a hijab. I just couldn’t tell which side,” she says. “I feel like I’m stuck in the middle, and it gets tiring and exhausting. It would be easier if I had one fight.”
What would make this easier, it seems, is an audience willing to suspend prejudice and listen to perspectives that challenge them.
“People come to me with a preconceived idea of what a Saudi woman should look like, should speak like, should sound like,” Saffaa says. “They always say, ‘Where are the Saudi women, why aren’t they speaking for themselves?’ We’ve been speaking, you just choose not to listen. Instead of coming with all this baggage, just leave it behind and actually listen to me.”
The mural at SCA
Ms Saffaa’s mural is in collaboration with: @TheRealD_3, 7ala Abdullah, Allie Ballesteros, Amy Gardener, Amy StarChild, Ania // Inky, Arrietty, Wachsmann, Balqis Al Rashed, Bushra, Clancy Gibson, Evil-Science , Floor Milou Smit, Gee.Monet, Hassan Abdulaziz , Hayley Pigram, Jasper Kelly, Jessica Liang, Kelly King, Lou Young, Madeline Fountain, Miniature Malekpour, Molly Crabapple, Monsieurverde, Patrizia, Precious, RJ, Rujunko Pugh, Tamara, Armstrong, Winsome Anne, and Su سُ.