Women Take the Mic on Nsawya FM

Saudi feminists are giving voice to obstacles against women’s rights in their new radio show.

 Illustration depicting the impact of restricted women’s rights because of male guardianship.  (Source: Human Rights Watch. Saudi Arabia: ‘Unofficial Guardianship Rules Banned. © 2016 by Human Rights Watch

Illustration depicting the impact of restricted women’s rights because of male guardianship.

(Source: Human Rights Watch. Saudi Arabia: ‘Unofficial Guardianship Rules Banned. © 2016 by Human Rights Watch

On July 27th, eleven women gave life to Nsawya FM, or Feminism FM, with a simple tweet stating their aim to be the “voice of the silent majority.” Since then, their radio broadcasts have detailed stories of women’s rights abuse with just a laptop, editing software (to disguise the voices of the women sharing the stories), and a microphone. According to Ashtar, a pseudonym for one of the women involved, “the voice of women is revolution.”

And women have been raising their voices. Of the 6.3 million Saudis on Twitter in 2016, 40% were women as found in a study by the Rutgers’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership Report. The same study supported the importance of Twitter in Saudi society by stating that it was the “most effective and influential social network.” This is in part because political leaders monitor Twitter, making political activity more likely to be seen on the social media platform.

Still the potential to be blocked by the government on Twitter—which Nsawya FM states happened temporarily—is why they have chosen the radio: they do not want to risk losing the “archive of [their] thoughts.”

Nsawya FM’s archive consists of submissions by Saudi women of their stories, opinions, and criticisms on women’s rights, such as domestic abuse. The first stories told were of Hanan Shahri and Sara. Both stories highlight the effects of male guardianship: a system where a women’s crucial decisions—including travel, marriage, and studying abroad—are made by a male figure. These guardians can be fathers, husbands, brothers, or sons.

Shahri’s story was widely reported in 2013 after she killed herself following a beating by her brother and uncle and their refusal to allow her to marry her fiancé. Then there is Sara, a university student whose dream to marry her fiancé from Yemen, following approval from her parents, was ended when her brother shot her.

So it is no surprise that women began turning to Twitter to push back against guardianship. In 2016 they coined #AbolishGuardianship to highlight abuse and rally support against it. Within two months, 14,000 signatures had been collected for an online petition against guardianship. Although gradual changes have occurred for women, most notably the ability to drive, male guardianship is grounded in religion and cuts across all socio-economic classes.

But to these 11 women producers and their 2500 audience members there is hope that civilian law might one day replace the Islamic law. They are bringing the stories traditionally protected under male guardianship to light and public criticism.

“Of course [they] are scared,” as Ashtar has also been quoted saying. But their fear is driven by a determination for equal rights. For them it begins with placing the women’s narrative before the public’s eyes: Nsawya FM is making a statement on behalf of Saudi women to the world that they exist.

 

 

TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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