A conversation with Saudi women’s rights advocate Aziza al-Yousef

Sunday 06/11/2016

Jeddah - When Aziza al-Yousef registered as a student at King Saud University in the Saudi capital Riyadh in the 1980s, she did not need her father’s permission. When her daughter enrolled in the same university in 2001, she was required to have her father’s signature on the permis­sion slip.

Yousef, 58, the mother of four sons and one daughter, has seen many changes in how Saudi women are treated in public and private institutions. She has witnessed a reduction of women’s rights in reaction to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran but has observed, in recent years, restrictions eased ever so slightly and slowly.

The retired professor — she taught computer science at King Saud University for 28 years — is leading a campaign to abolish male guardian regulations that require Saudi women to obtain permission from their father, brother, son or closest male relative to attend a university, travel or seek medical treatment.

“We are just asking to remove the government rule that affects our daily lives,” Yousef told The Arab Weekly.

Yousef recently attempted to deliver to the Royal Advisory Council a 14,700-signature petition seeking to abolish the guardianship regulations but she was rebuffed and told to mail it. She sent the document but has yet to hear back from the government. Whether the government is taking the petition seriously — it has ignored similar efforts — is unknown but a Twitter hashtag, #IAmMyOwnGuardian, has gone viral to help gain support for the cause.

Yousef said she is optimistic that changes can be made.

“We are used to 26 years of making demands,” Yousef said. “There is nothing we can do but to continue this thing. I hope the government treats this as an economic situation and we hope to get more allies. We have a young population with 50% under the age of 26. It’s time to listen.”

Saudi Arabia’s efforts to diversify its economy mean it must help female university graduates obtain employment in the private sector. They are an untapped resource that women’s rights organisers say can help turn around the kingdom’s sagging economy. The government hopes to increase women’s employment from 22% to 30% by 2030. Women have made progress in obtaining some rights, including appointments to the Shura Council and the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections.

However, the broader issue facing Saudis is not simply allowing women to travel without a man’s permission but how to interpret women’s rights in Islam. In a country where Saudis often ask foreigners to make the distinction between religion and culture, even Saudis can blur the lines. Throwing in government mandates affecting every female citizen only adds to the confusion. Where religious obligations end and culture and tradition, backed by government regulations, take over is often a mystery.

To Yousef and the signatories of the petition the difference in religious obligations and government mandates is stark.

“In Islam the man should be the breadwinner and the woman who gets pregnant and takes care of the household is not responsible for money,” Yousef said. “Islam does not say that women should not work or study but that she is responsible for her own actions and if she has a debt, she is responsible for that debt.”

Yet the very essence of guardianship in Saudi Arabia has morphed over more than three decades into one in which a man who earns the household income “must control the woman”, she said.

A woman under any interpretation of Islam is responsible for her own actions, Yousef noted. She added that if a woman “committed a robbery she doesn’t get half the punishment of a man” because she is female but “in the eyes of the government she is treated the same as a man”.

Conventional wisdom among Western observers is that educated Saudi women understand the difference between male guardianship as defined in Islam and arbitrary government regulations that limit women’s rights, but Yousef said supporters and opponents cannot be pigeonholed into one category.

“We have very educated women who are suffering because of the guardianship laws but we also have a lot of educated women who are firmly against eliminating guardianship,” Yousef said. “We have ladies who go abroad to study, get their PhD and then return and oppose what we are doing. There is no general rule of who is with who.”

She also noted that Saudis are pragmatic when it comes to opposing the petition’s goals: “People may understand the difference between rights for women in Islam and what the government is doing but they hold positions in government and they don’t want to risk their interests.”

Yousef grew up in a free environment in which her father was open-minded. She said she did not suffer the rigid patriarchal control that many of her peers experienced. “We were the lucky ones,” she said.

Yousef enrolled at King Saud University when she was a teenager. She dropped out after one semester to attend Virginia Commonwealth University in the United States, a 178-year-old institution known for its medical research. She was a wide-eyed, 19-year-old with limited English but became a fluent speaker possessing boundless self-confidence during her seven-year residence in the United States. She earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and returned to King Saud to complete her master’s degree.

Yousef said the changes she has seen gave her hope for the future but some of the changes can be discouraging; a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process that can be both frustrating and exhilarating.

She said since the mid-1980s she has seen dormitory rules, which kept female students as virtual prisoners, relaxed. It is a small, but nonetheless important, change in campus life. She has also seen that women, who in the 1980s could arrive and leave campus any time during the day, face restrictions.

“Now the gates are closed, so if a student finishes a class at 9 in the morning, she must wait until the gates open at 12 noon to leave,” she said.

It is a system that treats women as children with maddening inconsistency but it has not always been that way.

In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia was a closed society with strict cultural boundaries and specific, yet unwritten, rules for the roles of men and women. However, women conducted their lives relatively freely only to see that freedom slowly ebb away.

Yousef points to the 1979 Islamic revolution and the Afghanistan war in the 1980s as turning points.

“We had people making statements to young men that they had to fight the Afghanistan war, which brainwashed a young generation. It wasn’t even our war,” she said. “After the war finished, everything became corrupted and now it is difficult to correct it.”