Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country despite limited reforms over the last decade, Human Rights Watch said in a report released recently. Adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, marry, or be released from prison, and may be required to provide guardian consent to work or get health care. These restrictions last from birth until death, as women are, in the view of the Saudi state, permanent legal minors.
A video, published on Facebook by Human Rights Watch, depicts a Saudi woman being forced to reconcile with her abusive husband.
The footage captioned “Even when they abuse their wives, Saudi men still act as guardians over them #TogetherTo EndMaleGuardianship” shows the woman being beaten by her husband before he orders her to leave the home. She then goes to a shelter and is told the best thing she can do is reconcile with her husband.
It proceeds to show him signing a sheet of paper before pulling the crying woman out of the shelter and beating her in the home again.
The film follows a recent report by Human Rights Watch, “Boxed In: Women and Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System”, which examines the many barriers women in the country face when attempting to make decisions or take action without the presence or consent of a male relative.
To produce the report Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with 61 Saudi women and men as well as analysing Saudi laws, policies and official documents.
As the law stands every Saudi woman must have a male guardian, normally a father or husband, but in some cases a brother or even a son, who has the power to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf.
Another video produced by Human Rights Watch following the report shows a female surgeon in Saudi Arabia receiving an invitation to speak at a cardiac surgery conference in London, but having to get the permission of her son to do so.
Her son declines to give her permission because he doesn’t “feel like it”.
“My son is my guardian, believe it or not, and this is really humiliating… My own son, the one I delivered, the one I raised, he is my guardian.” ~ 62-year old Saudi woman
A third shows a young woman being released from a female juvenile detention centre and hugging her mother, but having to return after her father refuses to grant permission for her release, saying: “She brought shame upon us. There’s no way I can let her come home.”
In light of the report, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said: “The fact that Saudi women are still forced to get a male guardian’s permission to travel, work, or do anything else is a long-standing rights violation and a barrier to the government’s plans to improve the economy.
“The government should do itself a favour and finally, listen to the demands of half its population to be freed from the shackles of the guardianship system.”
Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly called on the government to abolish the male guardianship system.
In 2009 and again in 2013, Saudi Arabia agreed to take some steps to decrease guardians’ control over women, including no longer requiring permission for women to work and passing a law criminalising domestic abuse.
But Human Rights Watch found that despite these limited reforms, the male guardianship system remains largely in place, hindering and in some cases nullifying the reforms.
Women may not apply for a passport without male guardian approval and require permission to travel outside the country and they regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions, such as renting an apartment to filing legal claims, without a male relative.
They cannot study abroad on a government scholarship without male guardian approval, and a male relative must accompany them abroad while they studied, though this requirement is not always enforced.
Women are also barred from driving, and the report found that they face tremendous obstacles when trying to seek help or flee abuse by violent guardians.
Human Rights Watch spoke with women who felt their only safe option was to leave the country after male family members abused and threatened them, but who were unable to convince their guardians, in some cases the abusers, to allow them to travel.
Quotes from the report:
The names of all interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy and security. Saudi terrorism regulations criminalize harming the reputation of Saudi Arabia, and the government has imprisoned human rights activists who have shared information with foreign organizations.
“We are entrusted with raising the next generation but you can’t trust us with ourselves. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“It can mess with your head and the way you look at yourself. How do you respect yourself or how [can] your family respect you, if he is your legal guardian?”
“The guardianship system is always a nightmare. I don’t want to get married because I don’t want a stranger to control me… Basically, it is slavery.”
–“Tala,” late 20s
“I would rather you kill me than give the man who abuses me control over my life.”
“You don’t have power over your body… It makes you nervous every step of your life. Everything that you put so much effort and time into could just end in a second if your guardian decides.”
“It is amazing how much we have achieved despite all the restrictions we face… Now that more women are working, I think there will be further changes. It is inevitable.”