Saudi feminist artist’s work inspires struggle for change

Ms Saffaa's portrait of a woman wearing a male headdress.
May 19, 2017

Ms Saffaa is a Saudi artist currently studying in Australia. As part of her practice, she creates murals championing the freedom of women in Saudi Arabia — in particular drawing attention to the prohibitive “guardian­ship” laws.

Under these laws, women must be accompanied by a male “guardian” to do many every day activities — laws the Saudi regime slightly relaxed last month in a sign of pressure from campaigners.

Via Twitter, Saffaa’s work was taken up by a grassroots movement in Saudi Arabia and is now synonymous with the struggle to end these laws. In February, her mural in Melbourne’s Brunswick was vandalised.

The vandal defaced images of wom­en wearing the traditional Saudi male head dress and other portraits of Saudi women activ­ists, as well as the slogan “Radical Muslim”.

Green Left Weekly’s Eila Vinwynn​ spoke with Saffaa about her work and its mean­ings, which are not always obvious to those unaware of the details of gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia.

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Your work was recently vandal­ised. What was it about and why do you think it was attacked?

When I created the “I am my own Guardian” artwork in 2012, I nev­er anticipated that it would become a part of the grassroots resistance move­ment. I create art as an act of peace­ful protest where I exercise my right to civil disobedience.

I created this mural to let my Saudi sisters back home and here in Australia know that although I enjoy relatively more freedoms than they do, I will use my privilege to fight with them. I want­ed to add my voice to their ongoing Twitter campaign that started last year that demands abolishing male guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia.

There are several issues to take into account but I would like to highlight the glaringly obvious issue of gender. The gender of the artists involved in the mural — and its message — as well as the gender of the vandals and the messages they send. The vandalism is an act of asserting masculinity, physically and visually.

Since all the artists who have contributed to this mural and myself are female identifying, it felt as though this was a visual assault aimed at silencing women’s voices, erasing our identities, and excluding us from public spaces. I assume the vandals felt the need to act out their fragile mascu­linity and perhaps mark themselves a new territory.

Despite the many gains women made in the arts, it is still men who control and dominate the graffiti and street art scenes. Vandalism, tagging, and graffiti are about control and dominating territo­ries.

Tell us a bit about the women in the murals?

Some of the portraits on the mural are fictional representations of Saudi women. Others are portraits of real life female activists and artists.

The main portrait is of a Saudi female artist called Balqish Al Rashid. She is one of the most pro­gressive and radical emerging Saudi artists. She travels around the world and does beautiful hula-hoop perfor­mances covered from head to toe, de­spite the fact that she does not cover in her personal life.

I used her portrait as my centrepiece because of the highly stylised way she wears the male headdress. Another portrait I included is of Samar Badawi. She is a domestic violence survivor turned activist. She fought and won women the right to vote in municipal elections.

What is the significance of the headdress?

When I first published my work, people often confused the male headdress and thought this was a fashionable women’s head cover or a fashionable hijab. Many viewers who were not familiar with the male headdress have failed to politically engage with the subversive nature of my work and only focus on its artistic qualities.

However, once it became clear to them that this is a woman in a male headdress, they immediately grasp the political overtones of the work.

I use the male headdress as a sym­bol of power. Women would not dare to wear one in public in Saudi Ara­bia. It is culturally unacceptable and would probably get them arrested or harassed.

Dressing women like men may not seem subversive in Western cultures, but in Saudi Arabia it dis­rupts gendered expectations of what women should dress and look like. It is my way of saying that this power belongs to me and I am taking it back.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I am an international student from Saudi Arabia. I arrived in Syd­ney in 2008 to visit a friend, then de­cided to stay to pursue an education in the visual arts.

I started my under­graduate degree in 2009 at Sydney College of the Arts, the visual arts faculty at the University of Sydney. I am now a PhD candidate at the faculty.

Is it common for Saudi women to study abroad? Or to study art?

It is common but not the norm. There are thousands of Saudi women who study abroad. Some sponsored by the Saudi government, others are privileged enough to be able to af­ford the high costs of a Western edu­cation.

One of the barriers that stood between me and getting a scholar­ship was that the Saudi government does not sponsor students to study visual arts. So I paid the expensive international student fees myself the first year.

Then after a few trips to Canberra and countless emails explaining to employees at the Saudi Cultural Attache the signif­icance of having an education in the arts, I was finally given a scholarship in 2010. By the time I completed my Masters, and it was time to upgrade my scholarship to a PhD, I was told the Saudi government would not sponsor me anymore with no clear explanation.

I suspect it was my ac­tivism and the political nature of my work that made Saudi authorities with­draw the sponsorship.

Saudi women won the vote in municipal elections only in 2013. The government has made noises about overturning the guardianship laws. Can you explain the battles faced by Saudi women?

Human Rights Watch pub­lished two reports, eight years apart, highlighting the human rights abuses stemming from the guardianship laws.

The first one, 2008’s Perpet­ual Minors, provides a comprehensive list of lawful abuses used against women: denying women the right to equal ed­ucation, employment, health, equali­ty before the law, freedom of move­ment, and equality in marriage.

The second report, Boxed In, was published last year. It puts forward immediate recom­mendations to ministries that impose guardianship laws and general recommendations to King Salman.

Nothing has changed since these reports were published. However, Saudi women were inspired by last year’s report and launched their own Twitter campaign that quickly gained international momentum and support.

What is the target audience for your art?

When I first started my art prac­tice, it was geared towards raising awareness about the plight of Saudi women. I quickly realised that having a platform to speak about is­sues that affect women in my country was not just about rais­ing awareness.

It was and is about asserting my presence. It is about being able to talk about my issues instead of listening to others talk for me and about me.

So my target au­dience is everyone and anyone in­terested in human rights. My message is universal and cross-cul­tural.

The West is targeting the Muslim community and racism is on the rise. Does your work seek to combat the rise of Islamophobia?

It is not an artist’s responsibil­ity to combat racism, Islamophobia, or any form of bigotry. What I try to do with my work is provide a count­er narrative to that offered by main­stream media about Muslim women. It is then the responsibility of those consuming my work to respond to it, educate themselves and perhaps ask more questions.

Those who accused me of being “just another Muslim putting art up to further Islam” have missed the point. My art is about women’s rights and human rights. It is about our right to exist is a hostile world that is con­stantly trying to limit our voices and expressions.

My work also highlights the diversity and the richness of our cultures and communi­ties. It also highlights the fact that Muslim women are able to speak for themselves and do not need saving from their faith.

What kinds of intimidation have you faced resulting from your work?

When I first started tweeting about abolishing male guardianship, I was reported to Saudi authorities for cre­ating and disseminating “advertising” materials that incite women to break the law.

Then when I was creating the mural in Mel­bourne, the cafe owner was confronted by a Saudi man sponsored by the Saudi government to study in Australia. He threatened to bring his cousins to the opening to intimidate me and prevent me from creating more works.

So I have been subjected to various forms of threats: intimidation, online bullying, targeted harassment, and the defacing of the mural I would consider as an indi­rect threat. My work is meaningless without the personal and political risks it involves. 

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