Saudi women challenge male guardianship law
LONDON - A 5-year grass-roots movement might finally yield results in Saudi Arabia if the kingdom’s female population has anything to say about it.
A petition signed by nearly 15,000 Saudi women urging King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to end the country’s male guardianship system was posted to the government on September 25th. This came after an unsuccessful attempt by a Riyadh-based activist to deliver it personally to the royal court.
Saudi women’s activist Aziza al-Yousef, who had taken the petition to the court, told the Agence France-Presse news agency that the petition calls for a Saudi woman to be treated “as a full citizen and decide an age where she will be an adult and will be responsible for her own acts”.
Under Saudi law, all females must have a male guardian — a father, brother or husband, or even a son. Girls and women are forbidden from travelling, conducting official business or undergoing certain medical procedures without their guardian’s permission.
The Arabic hashtag “Saudi women want to abolish the guardianship system” trended on social media for months, particularly Twitter, which has an estimated 2.4 million active Saudi users, the highest number of any country in the region.
Newspaper columns and articles highlighting the male guardianship issue have been frequent in recent months, a possible indication of government support.
In Al-Watan daily, based in Abha in southern Saudi Arabia, Abdullah al-Alweet called for the guardianship system to be dropped. “Opposing voices could also be heard in some quarters. The opposition was not based on any valid sharia principle but was rooted in the general suspicion of women in society,” he wrote.
Writing in the Riyadh-based Al Jazirah, Saudi female journalist Nahid Bashatah rebutted the words of Chairman of the kingdom’s National Society for Human Rights Muflih al-Qahtani, who said in an interview with local media that the male guardianship system aimed to protect and help women.
“I call upon Qahtani to pay a quick visit to the female waiting rooms in our courts and listen to the painful stories of injustices inflicted upon those poor women because of male guardianship,” Bashatah wrote.
“Some men are completely irresponsible and immature. How can we give them guardianship over women?” she asked.
The issue has shown some clear divisions within Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment. In an interview with the widely circulated Okaz newspaper, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s highest religious authority, described calls to drop the male guardianship system as a “crime against the religion of Islam” and branded the move as an existential threat to Saudi society.
But Sheikh Abdullah al-Manea, a member of the kingdom’s Council of Senior Scholars, told the same publication that the guardianship system only applied to matters related to marriage, emphasising that women are capable of managing their own affairs and finances.
“All rights that a man has, she has the same,” Manea told the newspaper.
“There is no guardianship for anything, except in marriage, which has a condition that her guardian must approve,” he added.
“Those of us, who have been following the movement over the last five years and especially the petition to the king over the last 81 days know that this was an organic and predictable transition,” said New York-based Saudi journalist Jasmine Bager, who specialises in Middle Eastern women’s affairs.
Bager said the Saudi government officially stated that it would remove the guardianship system as recently as 2013. “The late King Abdullah had said he wished that his daughter could drive, so there has always been support by many men in power. It just needed time to digest,” Bager said.
The government has not commented on the petition but the kingdom’s female populace remains optimistic. “It is taking time but look at places like the United States and the United Kingdom, they went through so many phases to get where they got to today,” Bager said.
“Arabs are notorious for being fashionably late but don’t underestimate Saudi Arabia. It will get there.”