‘I am my own guardian’ Saudi women speak out


The above image is a mural co-created by Australia based Saudi artist Ms Saffaa. Photo courtesy of Ms Saffaa

Feature article from the summer 2019 issue of Middle East Solidarity magazine. Download a pdf or order a print copy here

Ghadeer reports on how women are challenging Saudi Arabia’s abusive male guardianship system on social media campaigns and supporting those who escape the country.

The male guardianship system is an unwritten Saudi law which allows men full control over women’s lives, despite the fact it has no legal basis. This system treats women as minors throughout their lives, although they are treated as adults within the criminal justice system and when facing the legal penalties of Islamic law. This system makes women the victims of exploitation by men, their so-called legal guardians, who are able to marry girls as young as 8 years old. Despite calls for the legal age for marriage to be raised to 18, the issue remains under discussion in Saudi Arabia and has not yet been resolved.

Women employees are also exploited by their male relatives as a result of this system. Their legal guardians may take part or all of a woman’s salary: ‘women don’t need money’ is what they say. Sometimes they will forbid women from getting married, so that men outside the family do not benefit. Around the world work represents financial independence and freedom for women. For Saudi women reality is completely different because of the guardianship system which deprives them of their most basic human rights.

The struggle of Saudi women against the male guardianship system to claim their rights, and in particular their right to drive cars, began at the start of the 1990s. The demands of women activists were rejected and they were imprisoned but then released in the era of the late King Fahd. There is a widespread belief that the cause of Saudi women’s problems was the religious nature of Saudi society and its customs. Women themselves have blamed the Saudi religious community and the so-called Islamic Awakening and the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which targeted women calling from women to be imprisoned in their homes so as to prevent her from “committing abominations” and “destroying society”. But those who watch the Saudi situation closely understand that the Saudi regime is based on an absolute monarchy which completely prevents people from political participation.

There are many true stories which we will cover here, but without using real names. Hind works as a nurse in a hospital in one of the regions of Saudi Arabia. Her husband beats her in order to take away her bank card. Some might ask, ‘why not complain to the police and get him imprisoned? Why do you put up with it?’ and other questions. The problem is that she cannot make a complaint because she has nowhere to go if she leaves her husband as her relationship with her father is tense and he will not take her in, if her husband complains to the police. She will have no home for her children, as she does not live in her own house, but with her husband’s family. If she tried to live independently on her own, she could be jailed, and her children would be taken away from her. If she was taken in the state’s care she would be forced to live in a ‘Girls Welfare Home’ which might as well be jail for every woman or child who cannot escape from them.

The problem of male guardianship extends to education, as women are prevented from completing their studies, so that the right to an education becomes a privilege which men can give or take away. Women may be subjected to blackmail, deprivation, or threat of deprivation by their male relatives. Zahra, who dreams of studying medicine, has arranged her studies outside Saudi Arabia, but she must have a mahram or male guardian in order to be a student. She has a brother who studies in the United States but he refuses to help her without giving any convincing reasons so she ends up remaining in Saudi Arabia to study one of the medical specialisms there.

The same thing happens with medical treatment, because “some medical procedures require the signature of a guardian”, Rahma says. She is a cancer patient, who wanted to hide her condition from her family, even her male relatives, until the hospital asked her to bring a male guardian with her in order to undergo surgery. Her guardian can access her health records without her consent, if Iman is experiencing from problems with her husband. The matter reached the stage of a court battle for custody of the children. Iman visited a psychiatrist in the past, and her husband took advantage of this, exploiting the psychological problems she was suffering in order to win custody of the children.

Twitter turned out to be the best tool to expose the problem. In 2016 Saudi women launched a campaign against the guardianship system on Twitter, sharing stories about their experiences and the  impact of the system on their lives. Girls and women spoke out who had been harassed, abused and raped by their male relatives, and ended up detained in Girls Welfare Homes as a result, unable to leave without their guardian’s permission or without getting married, while their abusers and rapists remained free.

Cosmetic improvements

If we look at the so-called ‘New Saudi Arabia’ promoted by Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and his 2030 Vision document which talks about the empowerment of women, there have been some improvements such as allowing women to drive on 20 June 2018, after decades of demanding this right.  Women are now allowed to attend football matches, to go to the cinema, parties and events. However, they are still deprived of social and political rights because laws which grant men jurisdiction over women.
In addition, the achievements of women’s rights activists who fought for reforms were stolen and they were accused of treason. The reforms were credited to the men and women of the Saudi royal family, who enjoy privileges that Saudi women do not. Only women of the royal family are portrayed as symbols of the imaginary ‘vision’ of the Crown Prince. For example, the image of Princess Haifa bin Abduallah bin Abdulaziz adorns the cover of an international magazine while sitting in her car, while women’s rights activists have been subjected to abuse and jailed.

Despite the appointment of Princess Rima Bint Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud as the Saudi ambassador to the USA, women do not have the right to travel freely. If a woman returns to the country, her father can confiscate her passport or prevent her from travelling by withdrawing her travel permit. A travel permit is required by men until the age of 21, and for women for life. She cannot travel without it, and thanks to Absher app which sends a message telling him that his daughter is at the airport, a guardian can revoke permission with a few clicks. Thanks to Google and Apple, who host the app on the Play Store and the App Store, fathers can monitor women, preventing them from working and studying like any Saudi woman who wants genuine empowerment.

The same restrictions apply to the participation of women in local council elections, a decision made by King Abdullah Al Saud and adopted by King Salman, again under the slogan of empowering women and new reforms. But the male guardianship laws blocked women from becoming candidates, as they could not obtain the documents needed to stand, such as property deeds. In addition, there were a number of feminist activists who were excluded, such as Nasima al-Sada, activist Samar al-Badawi, and activist Loujain al-Hathoul. Even those who succeeded in being elected were not allowed to mix with men and could participate in meetings only via a video link or behind a curtain separating the sexes, prompting some to resign.

Activist Maryam al-Otaibi tried to rent a house for herself to live in after she suffered domestic violence and filed a complaint with the police against one of her brothers, but her father filed a case against her, which resulted in her being imprisoned several times. Many women exposed to violence and the ineffectiveness of laws have taken to Twitter to expose the effect of beatings and injuries. Not all of them were rescued, like Khadijah al-Dhafiri who was killed after she tweeted about the violence she had experienced. There are many women in Saudi Arabia like her, who are imprisoned as a result of laws supposed to ‘protect’ them, while their abusers walk free.

Saudi girls flee abroad

Although there are no precise figures for the number of women migrants, escapees and asylum seekers to Western countries, the escape of women proves the failure of the state to address women’s problems. The flight of girls and women from Saudi Arabia is a disaster for Bin Salman and his ‘New Saudi Arabia’ which he wants to market globally. Yet instead of looking for real solutions rather than cosmetic ones, the ‘New Saudi Arabia’ has been hunting down the fugitives, through the cooperation of the state with the parents through the Absher programme which provides government services to the Saudi Ministry of the Interior but which in turn can monitor and locate girls and women fleeing the country.

They will try to return fleeing women before they can claim asylum, and on their return they are charged with treason and defaming the Kingdom. Rather than freeing women from the guardianship system and modernising the laws and regulations which deny their rights, instead the emphasis is on not embarrassing Western governments by exposing the Saudi human rights record. Meanwhile, within Saudi Arabia we see the development of technology to repress and control movement. Modern Saudi Arabia is completely free of the spirit of modernity.

Women escape for many reasons, but all are within the scope of the male guardianship system and its effect on their lives. In some cases it is because they are deprived of the right to move freely and travel or the right to an education, in others because they have been forced to marry against their will, or because they want to divorce. For me personally, and many others, it is working for human rights and demanding rights and political freedoms which has led us to escape. Dina Ali, a 24 year old woman, attempted to flee to Australia after her uncle – who became her guardian on her parents’ death – tried to marry her against her will. During a transit stop in the Philippines, she was detained by the Philippine government at the request of the Saudi embassy. Despite having signed an agreement not to extradite refugees, the Philippine government handed Dina over to her uncle. Human Rights Watch has documented her case, through eyewitness accounts from those were on the plane which took her back to Saudi Arabia. The last report from those close to her was that she was transferred to a ‘Girls Welfare Home’.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanoon, an 18-year-old girl who had suffered domestic violence, was with her family in Kuwait. From there, she tried to escape to Australia via transit in Bangkok, where she was held in a hotel until her father arrived. Saudi officials withdrew her passport, but the international attention to her case pushed the Thai government to return Rahaf’s passport and the Canadian government offered her asylum and the chance to start a new life.

Maha and Wafaa al-Subaie, two sisters aged 28 and 25, recently also announced their escape. After five years of planning, they fled from Saudi Arabia after being beaten with electric cables and clothes hangers by family members. There are fears that they will be forced to return, especially given Saudi pressure on the Georgian government. The two sisters highlighted the Absher programme and called out Apple and Google’s complicity in restricting the movements of women in Saudi Arabia. The two women’s search for a new homeland to protect them took a step forward when they received passports from Georgia recently,and in May they moved to a third country in order to escape their family and start a new life.

The kingdom’s methods in dealing with women, whether they have fled or are still in the country, come at a great price to the state’s reputation, as well as being costly in financial terms.  The male guardianship system has made the unemployment rate among women very high, since a woman’s employment is up to her guardian. Women are imprisoned in the Girls Welfare Homes at great expense if they do not want to return to their parents, because the state refuses to let them live independently. The same applies to women prisoners who have ended their jail terms, but their parents have refused to accept them for tribal and social reasons, branding them as ‘shameful’. Yet a single royal decree could end the guardianship system. Why does not the state wish to give women the keys to freedom? How long will Saudi Arabia imprison women?

Serious reforms will only be achieved through the real empowerment of women, which can only be achieved by overthrowing the male guardianship system. This will only happen if the Kingdom really wants to change and develop by becoming a modern state with fundamental rights and freedoms.

Ghadeer is a women’s rights researcher for the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights.

Saudi feminist artist Ms Saffaa creates prints, collages and murals to highlight human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Her #Iammyownguardian series voices the rage felt by women at the male guardianship system, and features in a mural created in collaboration with Molly Crabapple, Ania // Inky, Hayley Pigram, 7ala Abdullah, Rujunko Pugh, Allie Ballesteros, Bushra, Evil-Science, Balqis Al Rashed, Precious, Amy StarChild, Kelly King, Gee.Monet. Follow @MsSaffaa on Instagram and Twitter for details of her latest projects and collaborations. Order #Iammyownguardian t-shirts online here https:// goo.gl/QnAUt6

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