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Saudi Women and Dissent: Use of Social Media for Online Activism

February 15, 2017


Allison Anderson

A female pop band in Saudi Arabia recently released a new music video mocking men’s guardianship over women in the Arab nation. The video, named Hwages, or concerns, has garnered over seven million views on YouTube. In the video, three women are filmed riding in car with a child chauffeur to mock the Saudi custom that women cannot drive. The women then proceed to ride skateboards and scooters through the streets, play basketball, drive bumper carts, and dance in public – all forbidden public activities for women in Saudi Arabia. The incredibly catchy tune and lyrics repeat “may men disappear as they cause us to have mental illness.” The women also mock Donald Trump, including showing a fake White House press room scene with the White House emblem changed to “House of Men.” In the video, the pop band tackle these important social and political issues while concealing their identity by dressing in the Islamic niqab.

The video comes on the heels of Human Rights Watch report asserting that the male guardianship system is the single largest impediment to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The guardianship system is a set of formal and informal restrictions on women that demand that women receive permission from a male guardian, generally a father or husband, to apply for a passport, travel overseas, get married, be released from prison, and sometimes even to work and be granted healthcare.

In September, a social media campaign highlighting the hashtags #TogetherToEndMaleGuardianship and #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen followed the report. The social media campaign has now gone on for over 200 days and shows little signs of stopping. In this campaign, women tweet posters with statements protesting guardianship, many while concealing their faces, either by taking a picture holding the sign from the neck down or holding signs in front of their faces. Many of the women also guard their identity on social networking sites (SNSs) by using nicknames or only first names for their Twitter handles and providing a cartoon or other inanimate object for their profile pictures.

The social media campaign and this most recent music video touch on legal issues related to privacy and freedom of expression. A recent article in the Journal of International Women’s Studies described how “the Internet creates a space where women have an equal access and they are able to contribute to the public sphere in ways that are not possible outside of the virtual world where they are always regarded as women, beings subordinate to men.” However, in Saudi Arabia there are still many risks to online expression. According to Freedom House, social media users who “express support for extremism, liberal ideals, minority rights, or political reforms, in addition to those who expose human rights violations, are closely monitored and often targeted by the government.” This policy could provide justification for punishing the women in the music video or those involved in the ongoing social media campaign against guardianship.

In the last couple of years, a number of prominent online activists were punished under Saudi’s 2007 Anti-Cyber Crime Law Article 6. The law currently allows a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding three million riyals (about US $800,000) for any person found guilty of a range of offences, including the “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers”. In addition, online activists have also been punished under the 2014 Antiterrorism Law that defines terrorism as broadly as “insulting the reputation of the state” and “disturbing public order of the state.”

Notable examples include Abdelrahman al-Hamid and Abdulkareerm al-Khadar, co-founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). In October 2015, they were sentenced to nine years in prison and nine-year travel abroad ban and ten years in prison and a ten-year travel abroad ban, respectively, for inciting public opinion through Twitter and uploading statements and video lectures in support of women’s rights to their website. In 2014, cyber-activist Raef Badawi’s seven year prison sentence and 600 lashes punishment was increased to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes. Badawi was the founder of a website for political and social debate and was “accused of creating and moderating a website that insults religion and religious officials.” Raef’s sister, Samar Badawi, a prominent human rights activist, was arrested in January 2016 for managing her detained ex-husband’s Twitter account. (Her ex-husband is a human rights lawyer detained in part for defending Raef.)

In addition to punishment under anti cybercrime and antiterrorism laws, Saudi women engaging in online activism may face online and offline harassment. In October 2013, a social media campaign “Women2Drive” encouraged women to post videos of themselves driving on YouTube. In addition to online bullying, government officials called each woman to tell her not to drive and issued a statement  reminding women that “the concerned authorities will enforce the law against the violators with firmness and force (italics added).”

Freedom House perfectly sums up the current status of online engagement in Saudi in their report Freedom on the Net 2016: “While the Internet has fundamentally changed the way that young Saudis interact with each other, the authoritarian tendencies of the country’s political and religious establishments remain fully present in the minds of internet users, whose democratic aspirations remain blocked.” With much bravery, and aware of their risks, women in Saudi Arabia continue to post videos and tweets against male guardianship. We should not take their statements lightly, as they risk much to have their voices be heard.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.