Interview with the Saudi Cultural Activist @MsSaffaa, Creator of “I Am My Own Guardian” series.
Published as part of “The Gendered Economy: Between the Constant and the Changing” which was held on August 25, 2016 at Coffee Republic in Riffa.
What does it mean for a person to “be their own guardian” in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi women face unique social and political challenges that are different than those faced by women in other Middle East countries. No other government in the world, including Arab and Islamic governments, so severely imposes male guardianship laws on their female population. For me it’s very simple; being my own guardian means having control over my life. It means that my life belongs to me and not a man. It means that I am a human before I am someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, or someone’s sister. It means that I was born a free human, I will remain a free human, and I will die free human. It simply means that I am my own guardian.
What role does your art play in this fight to end male guardianship laws? And how was it received in Saudi?
My art is not meant to convince people or change minds. Art is meant to instigate constructive dialogue about important issues. Most of my work, while deeply personal, is politically and socially motivated. As the title suggests, “I Am My Own Guardian”, reflects a personal position informed by a personal history, which creates an intimate connection to the topic that reinforces the integrity of the work.
Having created this artwork in 2012 to specifically challenge the status quo, I anticipated that it would receive criticism but I never anticipated the bullying, name calling, and threats. From recent dealings with some Twitter users I witnessed an incredibly diverse range of reactions. My work has most certainly made many people uncomfortable but the backlash is not surprising. I lived in Saudi Arabia until I was 19 years old; I studied the Saudi curriculum; and went to King Abdul Aziz University so I understand the supposedly religious and social arguments people have been self-righteously attacking me with, and I do have a deep understanding of how complex and polarized our society can be.
When a Saudi Twitter troll reported me to Saudi authorities for the “crime” of declaring that I am a responsible, free thinking, independent human being who can make my own decisions and do not need my younger brother to act as my “guardian”, he unwittingly exposed my work to his large follower base and it became heavily circulated. As a direct reaction to him trying to silence me I offered one of my works as a royalty-free image to be shared and printed as many times as people wanted. Since then I have received a lot of praise as well as disapproval about that piece in particular. When an artist gets abused and/or bullied for their work it means that the work has succeeded in provoking thought, and sometimes this kind of response validates the work more genuinely than outright praise.
What are your reasons for choosing to dress the women in your art in the (Shumagh), a garment traditionally worn by men?
The (Shumagh) is the most contested and criticized aspect of this artwork. The use of the male head scarf is meant to be an examination of gender roles through the use of fashion in cultural iconography. The (Shumagh) is historically a garment worn as a protection from harsh weather conditions (including sun and sandstorms) in the Arabian Peninsula and other parts of the Arab world. It also gained international recognition when it became a symbol for the Palestinian intifada in the late 1980’s. My fascination with the male headdress dates back to my teenage years when I used to style it and wear it as a hijab inside the house. But many of my viewers have failed to constructively engage with the subversive nature of my work and only focused on the (Shumagh) as a male garment. My use of the (Shumagh) is about challenging culture, tradition, and society. I intended for the female in my work to become an iconic dominant figure and to be in control of her own body, mind and destiny; and empowered, daring the viewer to question her authority. I wanted her to challenge the absurd notion that authority is not compatible with women’s assumed feminine nature and therefore women cannot be in charge of their own lives and require male guardians. It is about moving forward and letting go of trivial and petty practices that favour men over women. While it is symbolic, the use of the (Shumagh) is also open to multiple interpretations, enticing the viewer to question and engage with my ideas. There is no right or wrong way to read a work of art.
Why did you choose stickers and paste-ups as a technique to disseminate your work?
It is mostly about time management. I employ paste ups and stickers to avoid having to stand on the streets of hours to make an artwork. It’s time efficient and allows me to create the work in the comfort of my studio without rushing. I personally enjoy making art in a controlled environment where I have access to all my tools and art supplies. I am also a print maker and I cannot draw freehand, so most of my works are screen prints based on photographs I have taken myself. My paste ups range from small stickers to large 9 meter long murals, and there are a couple of large scale works in the horizon that I am pretty excited about.
What are the challenges facing Saudi society in demanding an end to male guardianship?
One of the most important challenges is combating ignorance. Many are ignorant about the rights of women in Islam and as human beings. Many if not all Islamic texts have been interpreted by men, and some of these so-called religious figures are quite detached from reality and have no understanding or sympathy for the plight of Saudi women. What many religious men do not understand is that the Qur’an recognizes women’s full human agency and absolute dignity. In addition, some Islamic feminists argue that, in some cases, certain verses from the Qur’an are used in isolation and out of their proper context to justify systematic injustices carried out against women, and argue for the importance of taking into account the overall message of the Qur’an when individual verses are examined. Otherwise the literal interpretation can and has been incorrectly manipulated to reinforce female inferiority. Most Islamic feminists have argued that patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an are to be held responsible for such justifications and not the Qur’anic text itself. Islam did not institute patriarchy. Rather, patriarchy was already deeply entrenched in seventh century tribal Arabs’ society when the Qur’an was revealed.
For example, prominent Islamic feminist Amina Wadud, an African-American Muslim, who advocates for justice on the basis of her Muslim faith argues that, despite patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an, Islam is in favour of Muslim women’s full autonomy. In her book Inside the Gender Jihad, she emphasizes the Qur’an’s recurring expression that “Allah does not oppress.” She also deems any interpretation that sees the Qur’an as an oppressive or patriarchal text a misinterpretation. So as a Muslim woman who has experienced first-hand gender-based prejudices wrongly attributed to Islam and the Qur’an, I find myself more inclined to subscribe to Wadud’s Islamic feminist perspective, likening the similarities between her views to my father’s progressive and egalitarian interpretation of Islam.
What do you think are the necessary steps to create the transformation needed for all Saudi citizens to enjoy full and equal rights?
Historically, Saudi society has been resistant to change; any change, whether good or bad. But when change is finally enforced, those who resisted it were the first to reap its benefits, such as the introduction of female education in the 1960’s and later allowing women to study abroad. Many steps are currently being taken in the right direction. The hashtag that emerged over a month ago (#سعوديات_نطالب_بإسقاط_الولاية) was created by a group of passionate, empowered, and fearless Saudi women. These women managed to keep the hashtag trending for over 38 consecutive days. They strategized and mobilized and their voices are now being heard. These women are the instigators of change. In my opinion, the campaign has so far succeeded in escalating the importance of the male guardianship issue to unprecedented levels. Anyone with an internet connection and a Twitter account has had something to say about it. Change is coming whether the public is ready for it or not and whether they agree to it or not, but giving women their rights should not be up to public opinion. It should be enforced by the government.
Ms. Saffaa is a Sydney-based Saudi artist, researcher, and a self-proclaimed cultural activist. She is currently a PHD candidate at the University of Sydney. She employs her own experiences, personal reflections, and artistic expressions as a form of cultural activism in order to enrich the understanding of the plight of Saudi women in Australia and beyond.