New online radio station, Nsawya FM (Feminism FM), has launched a campaign advocating  more progressive women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Avoiding the strict Saudi state control of media, for the last two weeks the station has broadcast an hour-long programme each week from an undisclosed location outside Saudi Arabia. The fact that feminists have to resort to calling for reforms from outside the kingdom highlights the repression and lack of autonomy of Saudi women and the pressing need for actual reform.

Nsawya FM’s two presenters and nine contributors (some of whom live in Saudi Arabia) are reported to use only a microphone and basic laptop editing software to broadcast through the live audio streaming website MixIr. Nsawya FM claims that it wants to show that Saudi feminists exist.  The station seeks to become the “voice of the silent majority.”  

A key aspect of the broadcast is the narration of the stories of individual women within the kingdom, set to some atmospheric background music. In one instance, the presenter is palpably emotional as she discusses the fate of a 33-year-old university graduate, Sara, who was shot five times by her 22-year-old brother simply because she had become engaged to a Yemeni man. The 27-year-old presenter, who uses the pseudonym Ashtar — the name of the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war — has also discussed the story of Hanan Shahri, who is thought to have committed suicide in 2013 after having been beaten by her brother and her uncle who did not approve of her fiancé.

There are also non-violent cases, such as that of a woman named Sara who told the BBC: “I wanted to study law abroad, but my father refused because people would talk about us.” Sara’s brother is currently studying abroad. “I feel insulted…,” she says. “They are proud of him, but they stopped me, just because I am a woman.” Ashtar believes that these and many other stories she has revealed are “only the tip of the iceberg.”

It is important to view the emergence of movements such as Nsawya FM in the wider context of a broader push for more progressive women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The main thrust of this movement is the campaign against the system of male guardianship, which receives up to 10,000 tweets per day under the hashtag #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen. (Twitter is currently the most widely used social media site in Saudi Arabia.) Under the Saudi male guardianship regime, men are given power over several aspects of the lives of their female relatives. In the words of BBC Arabic correspondent Hanan Razek: “If a Saudi woman wants to travel, study or even be released from prison, she will first need the permission of her male guardian. That is usually the father, brother and sometimes the son.”

Some might wonder why a women’s rights campaign via radio is necessary at all in the age of social media. In fact, it is imperative for Nsawya FM to broadcast independently  the audio recordings of their activities, because Saudi authorities could ban Twitter at any moment. Further many in the Saudi population say they oppose women using social media to push for liberal reforms, so a radio station seems to avoid this criticism. 

As a result of women’s rights activism, almost 15,000 people signed a petition in 2016 calling for the guardianship system to be abolished. The grand mufti, Saudi’s top cleric, described the campaign as a “crime against religion. However, it is  not only religious clerics who favor the guardianship system. Perhaps surprisingly, many Saudi women say they support the status quo. Radwa Al Yousef, a female lawyer specialising in male guardianship, told the BBC: “We are Arab, Muslim women. We enjoy our rights under the umbrella of the family. This campaign is aiming at making Saudi women the same as western women, who have no dignity.”

Meanwhile, many Islamic scholars take a far more liberal approach on questions of women’s rights, and large numbers of citizens take more centrist positions. Some argue that those who push such campaigns are too radical in calling for swift reforms such as the immediate removal of the guardianship system. Those espousing this argument suggest that there be longer, more drawn-out discussions about the nature of the practice.

However, women’s rights activists point to King Salman’s removal of the driving ban for women in June 2018 as an example of a swift reform that has indeed worked. They call for the King to act similarly with respect to the guardianship system.

Notwithstanding these partial successes, progressive activism in Saudi Arabia is not only met with societal opposition, but often with brutal state repression. Since May 2018 alone, over two-dozen human rights activists and women’s rights defenders have been arrested and detained in the country. These arrests included  prominent women’s rights activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah. This prompted Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson to remark that: “The arrests of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah signal that the Saudi authorities see any peaceful dissent, whether past or present, as a threat to their autocratic rule.” Some of those detained could face decades in prison if convicted of “crimes” such as “suspicious contact with foreign parties.”

It is quite possible that Nsawya FM could run afoul of such legislation; it has already been accused of inflammatory campaigning. The station itself is now active on Twitter, where the broadcasters invite others to volunteer with the project. A recent Tweet laid out Nsawya FM’s position on using so-called “provocative” tactics: “Religion and feminism are intertwined. We are not a political party, or an opposition group and we do not seek confrontations. But this does not mean that we should not be critical or even avoid discussing politics.”

Ashtar claims that she has sent her work to a number of publications in recent years, particularly in Lebanon. She believes that outlets have not published her work due to what she calls her ‘confrontational” views about society, religion, and politics. 

There is no doubt that some of the views expressed on Nsawya FM could be characterised as confrontational. Ashtar herself has expressed admiration for the pre-Islamic “matriarchal period” in Arabia, when tribes often had female leaders. She told the BBC: “I believe that women are better than men. If women were to hold power again, especially in certain sectors like the judiciary, this world would be a better place.” She says she freely discusses these ideas with friends and family, including during holidays such as Eid al-Fitr.  She notes that many of them have told her she has been “brainwashed” by western media. 

Regardless of how one views these matters, the fact that this debate is being had at all shows the capacity to reshape the way the rest of the world views Saudi Arabia. Many view Saudi as a monolithic society, defined more or less by imposing  one particular interpretation of Sunni Islam on its citizens. Indeed, even some Saudis take this view, and many call activists like those at Nsawya FM ‘electronic flies.” Some even deny that progressives and reformers are even true Saudis.

However, as the online reaction demonstrates, such views are not universal. Nsawya FM intends to demonstrate that Saudi Arabia is a nation of diverse opinions and perspectives. While Ashtar herself lives outside the country, fearing reprisals, she seconds this sentiment: “We started this project to archive this phase for history, so that people would know we were real, we did exist,” she said. The future for women in Saudi Arabia remains unclear, but there are tentative signs that feminist activism is having some effect.

When women were granted the right to drive in Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2018, over 120,000 women applied for licenses on that day alone, according to senior Saudi Ministry of Interior officials. In certain circumstances women have also been given the right to work without the oversight of a guardian. Despite such changes, women in Saudi Arabia and across the Gulf continue to face significant restrictions on their rights and freedoms.  Even with growing pressure from many quarters both inside and out, it remains to be seen whether any significant reforms will materialise. 

The fact that women such as  the contributors to Nsawya FM can only feel secure in raising their voices anonymously, via radio, is demonstrative of the fact that Saudi women are rendered invisible at many societal levels. Nothing illustrates this fact more graphically than the obscenity of Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor seeking the death penalty for five human rights activists last week, including the female rights defender Israa al-Ghomgham. It is a grotesque state of affairs that women advocating feminism anonymously on the radio are viewed by the Saudi state as a threat, but even more egregious that the Saudi state puts women who speak out publicly on death row awaiting beheading. This juxtaposition demonstrates the depth of the problems facing Saudi women and Saudi society today.