Saffaa at the only skate park in Saudi's Western province. Source: Supplied by Ms. Saffaa

An artist. A roller-skater. A fighter for women's rights in Saudi Arabia. 

Her name is Saffaa, a name her grandfather picked for her, which is Arabic for serene and pure

But, Saffaa's battle to end the male guardianship system in the kingdom is anything but serene. It's persistent, demanding, challenging, and very much needed. 

Women in the kingdom have demanded their right to be their own guardian, time and again. 

The kingdom's guardianship system prohibits women from traveling, marrying, and working without the permission of a male guardian, typically the husband, father, or brother.

Saffaa, also known as Ms Saffaa through her social media accounts, is drawing the world's attention to the kind of patriarchy Saudi women are battling - using art. 

StepFeed spoke with Saffaa about her artwork, her views on Saudi laws governing women's lives, and her hope for change.

Powerful artwork shared by hundreds of women in support of the campaign

"When I created the work in 2012, it was not meant to be a campaign," Saffaa told StepFeed.  

In 2012, the Saudi artist moved to Sydney, Australia to pursue a PhD under a Saudi government sponsored scholarship. 

But, there was a catch: she needed to live with a male guardian who would supervise her during the course of her stay. 

"The government asked me a few times to prove that my male guardian was with me. At the time I was, I think, 31 or 32, and I found it humiliating, dehumanizing in many ways," Saffaa once said in an interview with PBS.

Saffaa paid for the first year of her studies, and received government sponsorship in 2010 through 2014. She is no longer being funded by the government. 

Still, she managed to create a career out of a distasteful experience. 

Saffaa began making art centered on the kingdom's male guardianship laws, which were initially created for her degree. 

Her message? 

"I am my own guardian."

Thus, the hashtag was born for the sole purpose of disseminating her art. 

At the time, Saffaa's work had not yet reached the masses. Nonetheless, a number of women got in touch with her directly, explaining that they resonated with her work. 

"One fan of mine even appropriated the artwork and sent me an image of her appropriation of my work," Saffaa explains. 

Four years later, Saffaa's artwork inspired hundreds of women to be creative in their expressions and demands. Together, these women united, and have been calling for their rights ever since.

Ultimately, a fully-fledged movement followed.

It all started when the campaign titled 'Saudi Women Demand Ending Male Guardianship' began making the rounds online in the kingdom in 2016. The campaign - which was inspired by the Human Rights Watch 2016 report Boxed In - triggered one Twitter user to share Saffaa's artwork. 

"A Twitter user with many followers tweeted four of my images that feature my work, circulating the images without credit, attribution, or permission. I then reclaimed ownership over my image and it became widely known that I am the artist behind it," Saffaa said.

She has inspired hundreds of women since. Some have even gotten the 'I Am My Own Guardian' permanently tattooed on their skin. 

"I Am My Own Guardian is a universal message," Saffaa writes in an Instagram caption.

The Saudi government and laws governing women's lives

The kingdom's male guardianship system subjects women to full dependence on their fathers, brothers, husbands or sometimes even sons, in nearly all aspects of public life. 

It has received criticism over the years, being described as a hindrance to women's progress. 

The solution?

"The Saudi government needs to abolish male guardianship laws completely and allow women more autonomy. 

It’s not our problem to figure out how the government would do it. This is a problem they created and they need to fix," she explained. 

When addressing women's rights, Saffaa insists that the government should also give domestic workers more rights as well. 

The kingdom has amended a number of laws in an effort to empower women, including a new royal decree allowing women to apply for work permits, medical, and educational services – without male consent.

However, Saffaa believes these "so-called milestones" are not enough. 

"The so-called milestones that every Saudi official tries to promote (ie. the 30 women in the Consultative Council, or the women voting for municipal elections, or even the decriminalization of domestic abuse,) are merely symbolic," she said.

On MBS's new role as crown prince with regards to women's rights

In June, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz - the son of Saudi Arabia's current King Salman - was named crown prince of the kingdom, replacing his cousin Muhammad bin Nayef. 

The move was praised by many Saudi nationals, describing his rise to power as the beginning of a "new era and generation." 

This was all backed by the prince's promised plans with regards to matters such as Saudi Arabia's economy, social reforms, and defense. 

But, Saffaa does not view leadership optimistically. 

"Any leadership plan that does not include the emancipation of Saudi women is a leadership that lacks vision. When King Abdulla was in power, I saw a glimpse of hope. But after his death, the Saudi leadership seemed turbulent and I can’t see how things are going to improve for women now."

On policing women's clothes

As per Saudi law - which is based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law - women, both foreign and local, wear abaya when out in public spaces, and hijab in some areas, including Riyadh.  

What happens to those who choose not to? They are faced with vile death threats and in some cases imprisonment. 

The arrest of Malak Al Shehri is one example. In 2016, Al Shehri's story made international headlines after she publicly shared a photo of herself in Riyadh sans hijab and abaya. 

Earlier this year, another woman identified as Model Kholoud was arrested and later released without charges after a video of her walking without an abaya in Ushayqir, Saudi Arabia went viral. 

Saffaa believes that the "so-called religious rulings don't actually have much to do with religion," explaining that such "modesty is enforced in Saudi on all genders." 

"For example, men are not allowed to wear shorts in Saudi airports and are forced by authorities to take them off," she explained. 

She does, however, point out that the policing of women's bodies in the kingdom is both "institutionalized and social." 

Policing women's bodies is not exclusive to Saudi Arabia

"The policing of women’s bodies and actions is not unique to Saudi Arabia. It happens everywhere in the world and varies from place to place. You see it in English language fashion magazines telling women what is an 'appropriate' dress for a first date or a job interview. You see it happen when African American women get told they can’t wear their fro to work or school.  However, Saudi seems to excel at it."

Like Saffaa, many Saudi women refuse to stay silent. 

In July, an online campaign titled 'niqab doesn't represent me' saw thousands voice their opinions with regard to the controversial face-veil. 

"Revealing one's face or covering it is a matter of personal freedom. Every person has the right to choose what makes them more comfortable," one Twitter user wrote at the time.

"For a Saudi woman to have a choice is a privilege."

Earlier this year, CNN published an article titled 'The Saudi women afraid to go home,' which highlighted stories of women who fled the kingdom for fear of oppression, better education opportunities, and for wider career prospects.

At the time, a number of Saudi women launched an online campaign titled 'I choose to stay' criticizing the article for failing to provide a voice for the women who remain and those invested in social change. 

Saffaa believes the mentioned hashtag "reeks of privilege" saying that many of those who took part in spreading it are "women with class privilege." 

"For a Saudi woman to have a choice is a privilege. Not all women are afforded the privilege of choice. There are many examples of wonderful privileged Saudi women who use their status in ways that lift and empower other women without making a fuss and without undermining the plight of those who did not have much of a choice," Saffaa said. 

"My friend 7alla Abdalla articulated it so perfectly" in a tweet shared earlier this year, she recalls.

About those who "choose to stay"

"Those who choose to stay do not need a platform to amplify their voices. They belong to a category of women who are comfortable and benefit from maintaining the status quo," Saffaa added.

Following CNN's piece, Saudi entrepreneur Nora Okail, alongside many others, said change when in exile is not possible

Saffaa begs to differ. 

"I would also like to challenge the claim that one cannot influence change while in exile. To debunk this myth I want to give the example of Dr. Madawi Al Rasheed, an academic and scholar living in exile," Saffaa told StepFeed. 

Enter Dr. Madawi Al Rasheed

Rasheed, a Saudi professor of social anthropology, has written several books and articles touching on various topics such as Arab migration, globalization, gender, and religious trans-nationalism. 

She is the leading scholar of Saudi Arabia’s history and politics. 

Dr. Al Rasheed's books are banned in Saudi Arabia yet her "seminal work on Saudi Arabia is taught and studied all over the world," Saffaa explained.

"Social and cultural change happens slowly and is unquantifiable. Change would happen faster when these Saudi women who choose to stay and have access to education, social, and institutional resources decide to invest their power and influence in advocating for the rights of those less fortunate instead of promoting their own privilege. 

Solidarity and empathy are important and I want to see more of it coming from within the kingdom," she continued.

To Saudi youth: "I have them to thank for the little hope they've reignited in me."

Saudi sprinter Kariman Abduljadayel at the 2016 Olympics Source: Twitter/dleenews

StepFeed asked Saffaa about the different messages she would like to send Saudi women and youth.

"I don’t like giving advice or sending messages to such a broad category of people. I honestly have none," she explained. 

She also pointed out that Saudis today have much more access to the outside world, as opposed to when she grew up there. 

"Saudi women and youth are far more connected and aware than I ever was when I was younger. I am proud of many of the vocal women who have been reshaping their future and taking a stand against injustice. I am also happy to have connected with many women in Saudi through this campaign. They have allowed me to rediscover my purpose and relearn many parts of my own culture that I seem to have forgotten. I have them to thank for the little hope they have reignited in me."

This profile is part of StepFeed's Featured Arabs series, featuring Arabs you should know about. Read previous profile's here.