Australia-based Saudi artist, known as Ms. Saffaa, is making waves with her art in support of Saudi Arabia’s women’s rights movement. Now, Saffaa’s emblematic work for the campaign is turning towards the country’s legislation, with a particular focus on Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws. Advocates have critiqued the country’s guardianship laws as being possessive and overly restrictive to women and girls.
In response, Saffaa has begun the #iammyownguardian. Using social media to fuel the online protest and fill the streets of Sydney with murals to raise awareness, part of Saffaa’s activism is borne out of subverting the western framing of Saudi women as victims, rather than as agents of their own liberation.
A skilled visual artist and graduate of the University of Sydney’s College of the Arts, Saffaa’s artwork has been referred to as a “riotous” combination of graffiti art, calligraphy, and portrait work. At the center of Saffaa’s art are illustrations of women’s rights activists, such as Manal Al-Sharif and Samar Badawi, who both instrumental in the protest against Saudi’s guardianship laws.
The movement was sparked by a Human Rights Watch report, which revealed the confining laws and rights Saudi’s male guardians have over their female charges. According to this report, rights such as travelling, access to healthcare, and marrying are dictated by the male guardian. Without the male guardian’s permission, female minors are prohibited from access to these rights, and even adult women have certain restrictions that are held to male jurisdiction. Such restrictive legislation confines women to the point of making self-sufficiency near impossible.
Saffa’s #iammyownguardian has been trending on Twitter, gaining worldwide support and coverage. An online petition is also on the rise. Thousands of Saudis have signed the petition to reform the guardianship laws. As the laws stand currently, a woman’s male guardian is her father, husband (if married), or in the case of widows, her son. Whether a woman is granted employment or allowed to make transactions is solely up to her male guardian. However, Saffa and other advocates, including leading activist Aziza Al-Yousef, are pressuring Saudi’s government to repeal these restrictive laws in favor of gender-equal legislation.
At the heart of the Saudi artist’s protest art are Saffa’s own experiences with the guardianship laws. Since arriving in the United States to study at SCA in 2009, the artist has dealt with ongoing issues with the Saudi government over her visa. Due to the conditions outlined in Saffa’s government scholarship, she had to have her brothers travel from Saudi to Australia in order to verify her. According to the artist, the process took a frustratingly long amount of time and Saffa was forced to plead with Saudi bureaucrats in Canberra to remain in the States.
“You have to play their game,” Saffa admitted in an interview with The Guardian. “You have to act like the weak woman and say, ‘Thank you for doing this for me, it’s a huge favour.’ You have to play that role in order to get your shit done.”
Today, Saffa’s posters serve as the emblem of the Saudi women’s rights movement. Her art has also been featured on street murals and museum exhibitions. Her artwork continues to address other human rights causes, including combatting against the sexual extortion of women in the campaign of increasing Islamophobia.
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