What is the male guardianship rule?
Women in Saudi Arabia, irrespective of their age, education, or employment status, must have a male guardian, typically a father, brother, husband, or uncle (mahram). Women are treated as second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia. All females, girls, and women are forbidden from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians. Women are not allowed to leave the house without a male accompany. The ownership of a woman is passed from one man to another, typically from the father or the brother to the husband. Women are treated as possessions of their male guardians.
Women need their guardian’s permission for:
- Opening a bank account
- Elective surgery, particularly when sexual in nature
- Marriage and divorce and typically for any important decisions in their lives.
Male guardianship is based on Sharia Law, which is not a codified system of law, but more of social customs in enforcing certain prohibitions on women.
How does it affect the lives of women of Saudi?
The male guardianship system affects women’s life and existence from birth to death and has really dire consequences. Women often face severe oppression, abuses, or domestic violence by male guardians, but have no ability to report the crime to the police as filing a complaint or a court case requires the permission of the male guardians! If a woman is detained for any reason, the police will not release her unless her guardian comes to receive her. A woman can be arrested on charges of “disobedience” of the male guardians. In 2015, the Saudi government launched the Absher app hosted on the Google Play and Apple App store. It allows men to track women allow or prohibit women to travel through airports!
Male guardians often abuse their power. In 2008 in a reported case, a father married off his eight-year-old daughter to a 47-year-old man to have his debts forgiven. In another 2009 case, a father sent his daughter to a mental institution as punishment for her attempts to marry outside their tribe. King Fahd hospital in Al Bahah postponed amputating a critically injured woman’s hand in July 2013, because she had no male legal guardian to authorize the procedure. Her husband had died in the same car crash that left her and her daughter critically injured.
The activism and movements to abolish the male guardianship
In 2016, under the leadership of women activists Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul, and Eman al-Nafjan, fourteen thousand people signed a petition, calling for the male guardianship system to be fully abolished. Around 2500 women sent telegrams to King Salman. Twitter hashtags #IAmMyOwnGuardian and #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen went viral as a large scale campaign. Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report on male guardianship in Saudi Arabia describing the activism against male guardianship as “incredible and unprecedented”.
The Grand Mufti, Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, described the petition as a “crime against the religion of Islam and an existential threat to Saudi society”. But five months later King Salman issued a decree allowing women to access government services without being required to obtain a male guardian’s approval.
2018 crackdown and arrests of women activists
Nationally and internationally people started considering Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) as a reformer of women’s rights. Under his leadership, the requirement of male guardian’s permissions was waved off from public services. Saudi Arabia officially lifted the ban on driving for women in June 2018. But quite ironically, the rampant arrest of women’s rights activists just before the driving ban was lifted, shocked the world. Loujain al-Hathloul was one of the most prominent voices in the movement. She and the other activists were accused of treason and collusion with foreign governments. Experts think even though the crown prince MBS took some reformers actions and modern outlooks, activists are feeling more threatened and freedom of speech was never abused so much before. Murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, torture and violation of detained women rights activists finally alerted the International community again the rising leader of Saudi Arabia.
Last year, Saudi Arabia once again landed on the “Ranking of Freedom of the Press” published annually by, as one of the worst places for freedom of the press, coming in at 169 out of a total of 180. It is also one of the five countries detaining the highest number of journalists.
Women risk their lives to Flee from male guardianship and oppression
Dina Ali Lasloom, a Saudi woman who tried to flee her country in 2017 to escape a forced marriage, was detained in the Philippines. She was forcefully boarded and sent back to Saudi Arabia. A witness quoted in The Australian that a woman being pulled out of a room with her mouth taped shut, and her body was wrapped in a sheet. Lasloom’s whereabouts, since returning to Saudi Arabia still remains unknown. Sources stated that she is held at the Correctional Facility for Women in Riyadh. Her case has sparked global outrage due to the extreme and legally questionable nature of her extradition.
In January 2019, a teenager, Rahaf Mohammed, created International media attention and sensation on Social Media about Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia. Rahad, after attempting to flee from an abusive family was detained in Thailand Airport! She barricaded herself and shared her story on Twitter appealing asylum to any other country. Her story created huge attention; the #SaveRahaf reached out to humanitarian activists, journalists, diplomats, and representatives of several International States. She was finally rescued by a team of UNHCR representatives, and received asylum in Canada! Saudi mainstream media has heavily criticized Canada and the incident was described as a “Canadian attempt at stirring up civil strife by inciting the Kingdom’s teenage girls to abandon social mores”. This incident revived the anti-male-guardianship campaign on Twitter, with the trending slogan, “Remove guardianship and we won’t all migrate”.
International Pressure on Saudi Arabia
In January 2019, British parliamentarians and lawmakers sought access to eight detained female activists in Saudi Arabia. The request came following a report by the Human Rights Watch claiming that the women were subjected to abuse, electric shocks, beatings, flogging, and rape threats.
In March 2019, in a statement before the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, the Saudi authorities accepted the recommendations of the abolition of the male guardianship system made as part of its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November 2018 by 18 countries.
Earlier this year, at least 36 countries, including all 28 members of the European Union, have signed a statement condemning Saudi Arabia’s human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Council (OHCHR). The joint statement said, “We call on Saudi Arabia to take meaningful steps to ensure that all members of the public, including human rights defenders and journalists, can freely and fully exercise their rights to freedoms of expression, opinion, and association, including online, without fear of reprisals.”
While there definitely still is a long way to go before women have equal rights in this country, the international pressure on the dire human rights situation in Saudi Arabia will hopefully implement the recommendations made by UPR. In the absence of any penal code, it is very difficult for the International community to assess the improvements. Male guardianship is based on very oppressive and rigid social norms, might take years to abolish till women in all parts of the society receive true freedom!