I know well the feeling of being helpless. I am a woman, and I grew up in Saudi Arabia.
I was boxed in. A male relative — father, husband, brother or son — had to sign me off. When? It was a required procedure whenever I wanted to travel alone, renew my personal ID, or accept an employment contract. If he disapproves, I’m doomed.
Welcome to the male guardianship system. It is the gripping force against the freedom of Saudi women.
Worse, misinterpretation of Islamic scripture is used to justify the sickness.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on July 16, 2016, titled “Boxed In: Women and Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System.” Every word in that report was a bit too close to home for me.
“In Saudi Arabia, a woman’s life is controlled by a man from birth until death…The male guardianship system is the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country, effectively rendering adult women legal minors who cannot make key decisions for themselves…Every Saudi woman, regardless of her economic or social class, is adversely affected by guardianship policies,” the report states.
The report mentions another bitter reality Saudi women are confronted with: When men use the authority that the male guardianship system grants them to extort female dependents.
“Guardians have conditioned their consent for women to work or to travel on her paying him large sums of money,” the report states.
I know of many Saudi women, relatives and friends, who are the sole breadwinners in their families, yet the country’s system continues to treat them as second-class citizens. A man has to give his consent for her to make important personal decisions including marriage and education.
Editor-In-Chief of Saudi Gazette Somayya Jabarti, and the first Saudi female to hold such position in the country, wrote a column titled “Who is better off in Saudi Arabia, an expat or a Saudi woman?” She compares the Saudi sponsorship system that controls the fate of most expats working or living in Saudi Arabia to the life of Saudi women under the male guardianship system.
“She too, for life, is a dependent bound to, and at the mercy of, a man…She can be divorced in absentia. Inheritance due to her can be confiscated. Even her travel permit can be revoked without her knowledge,” Jabarti said.
The HRW interviewed 61 Saudi individuals, including 54 women and seven men to collect data for the 79-page report. It is published alongside a series of videos that capture the cruel reality of the male guardianship system.
In one of the videos, a Saudi woman is in jail. She cannot leave prison without her male guardian legally accepting her and signing her papers.
“Women who have escaped abuse in shelters may, and in prisons do, require a male relative to agree to their release before they may exit state facilities.” Dr. Heba, a women’s rights activist, explained, “The [authorities] keep a woman in jail… until her legal guardian comes and gets her, even if he is the one who put her in jail,” states the report.
Not all Saudi women suffer from or object to the guardianship system. Saudi journalist Jasmine Bager, born to a Cuban-American mother and a Makkah-born father, doesn’t believe she is “boxed-in.”
In her own words, she says she is lucky to have a supportive family that empowered her. “While I pray that the abusive Saudi guardians mentioned in the report no longer hold these women hostage…it is also worth mentioning that not every Saudi girl or woman is oppressed and not every Saudi man is possessive,” Bager said in her Time article.
While I agree with Ms. Bager, I must point out that this is not just about having a supportive, non-possessive male guardian. It is about structural inequality and the ideology that lies behind having men manipulate and control women’s fates.
It is about the unequal status that women have in the eyes of law and society. It is about unjust relations in roles, functions, decisions, rights and opportunities. It is about the value of a woman’s life.
“Saudi media outlets regularly carry stories of women barred from access to emergency care due to sex-segregation rules. In February 2014, 24-year-old Amena Bawazir, a student at King Saud University in Riyadh, died of a heart attack after officials at the public university allegedly delayed allowing male paramedics to enter the women’s part of campus…a student was forced to deliver her baby inside a university after officials refused to allow her to leave campus in an ambulance without a guardian accompanying her,” the HRW report stated.
Some of the women interviewed in the report made statements like “The guardianship system is always a nightmare…Basically, it is slavery,” and “I would rather you kill me than give the man who abuses me control over my life,” and “It can mess with your head and the way you look at yourself.”
My heart ached as I read more details. Partly because it reminded me of my own experiences. But my heart sank deeper when that little voice at the back of my head recalled Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) words during his last sermon:
“Do treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners.”
Does treating women well and being kind to them entail treating them unfairly while men have absolute authority over them?