Saudi women are not free to make any major life decisions without assent from a male guardian. Under the guardianship system, it is impossible for women to enter employment, begin university, rent a flat, marry or travel abroad without consent from a male guardian, usually their father or husband. A petition to end guardianship, the first of its kind, has been signed by over 14,000 Saudi women, with over 2,000 telegrams expressing support for the petition sent directly to the Saudi King’s office. The petition, created by women’s health researcher Hala Aldosari, gained popularity in July following an Arabic Twitter hashtag which translates as “Saudi women want to abolish the guardianship system.” The hashtag went viral in part owing to a damning Human Rights Watch report which Aldosari also worked on. Activist Aziza Al-Yousef said she felt “very proud” of the campaign. However, it has met some resistance from Saudi women who spread a rival Twitter hashtag, #TheGuardianshipIsForHerNotAgainstHer.
The ‘Global Gender Gap Report’, published by The World Economic Forum in 2015, ranks Saudi Arabia as 134th out of 145 countries for gender equality. Male guardianship is a bastion of such inequality, and is grounded in the patriarchal tribal culture inherent to the Arabian Peninsula as well as, arguably less importantly, interpretations of Islamic Law. Beyond marriage, Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim-majority country in the world that has male guardianship. Within this historic socio-cultural framework, guardianship is justified on the grounds of women’s “lack of capacity” (adam al-kifaa’ah) which makes it necessary that they have male guardians (mahram). On guardianship’s basis, female Saudi journalist, Sabria Jawhar, said that “if all women were given the rights the Quran guarantees, and not be supplanted by tribal customs, then the issue of whether Saudi women have equal rights would be reduced.” Similarly, for five years Yousef and other key activists have hosted workshops and written studies debating the religious validity of guardianship.
The ‘Global Gender Gap Report’, published by The World Economic Forum in 2015, ranks Saudi Arabia as 134th out of 145 countries for gender equality.
How likely is the petition to succeed? Will the Saudi monarchy and clerics be persuaded to revoke guardianship? Realistically, the petition’s odds of success are low. While its support represents a significant step towards more progressive ideology and greater gender parity, historical precedent suggests it will not be enough. Aziza Al-Yousef and other activists protested against guardianship five years ago, “but the problem is there is no answer [from Saudi authority],” she said. Whilst a considerable number of Saudi royals have professed open-mindedness to reform, there is unlikely to be change until the clerics, who empower such laws, change their views. In fact, Saudi government has twice promised to abolish guardianship in the past, in 2009 and 2013, following a United Nations Human Rights Council review. But despite some reform such as allowing women to vote and run as candidates in municipal elections, these stopped short of promises to grant women autonomy. As yet, there has been no official government response to the petition.
Saudi Arabia faces little international pressure to end the system. Despite the UN Human Rights Council’s critical review, there remains a Saudi seat on the council. Ultimately, western nations rely too closely on Saudi Arabia for oil to risk souring relations – in this case commercial realpolitik will override human rights issues. Although in the near future, women, who currently represent only thirteen percent of the workforce, will be given more rights out of socio-economic necessity. Saudi government desires outlined in ‘Vision 2030’ to shift the economy away from oil will necessitate more women in the workforce, producing a new internal force for female empowerment. This should also help combat the system directly, as guardianship runs counter to the aim of employing more women because most employers require permission from their guardians. Engaging women in the Saudi workforce is vital to the development of new industries as they outnumber men in higher education, accounting for 58 per cent of Saudi university students. This trend is only predicted to increase as Norah Al Faiz, the Deputy Education Minister and first woman to hold Saudi cabinet-level office, seeks to extend women’s educational opportunities.
As to the potential threat facing Saudi women who signed the petition, Yousef, who in 2013 confronted police after breaking the country’s rule against women driving, seems confident in its legality, saying “I’m not worried, I’m not doing anything wrong.” There have been popular social media campaigns pushing for women’s rights before, with Women2Drive, a Facebook activist page, garnering over 18,000 likes. What’s more, in 2014 the King’s advisory council recommended that the ban on women driving be lifted, though with some limitations, including that women being over thirty years old, not applying makeup and stopping driving by 8pm. Evidently, pushing for better women’s rights in Saudi Arabia isn’t life-threatening or particularly dangerous on a state level, but it may be on a domestic one. It is generally a slow and limited process that, the majority of the time, will be met with little or no response from government. Meanwhile, women with restricted freedom, suffering domestic imprisonment or violence owing to guardianship will continue to suffer.
The existence of opposition to the petition amongst Saudi women raises an interesting cultural question. Namely, why would these women willingly remain legal minors for the rest of their lives? It’s because of “brainwashing”, chimes one Reddit user, but the picture is more complex than that. Male guardianship entails that women are completely reliant on their guardians for expenses, clothes, food and accommodation. For many women, this construct not only gives them security but is a sacred part of Islamic law.
Male guardianship entails that women are completely reliant on their guardians for expenses, clothes, food and accommodation.
The western perspective makes it all too easy to dismiss these women as brainwashed. A 2010 campaign founded by women with more conservative Islamic values which translated to “My Guardian Knows What’s Best For Me” gathered over 5,400 signatures. It aimed to reject women’s rights activism in favour of mild reforms to guardianship’s customs. Saudi journalist Sabria Jawhar argues that whilst guardianship requires reform, Saudi Arabia must “correctly apply guardianship to protect and support Saudi women” because “guardianship is part of Islam.” She also points out that “Saudi Arabia has many faces when viewed from the outside, and few of them are good… [it seems] criminally oppressive to Saudi women,” but “people don’t have the time to read… a university thesis to understand the complexity of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.” The western “narrative completely ignores the reality on the ground,” continues Jawhar.
Evidently, for many Saudi women, not only is guardianship a centrally embedded custom, it also provides them security in a society that makes it difficult for women to provide for themselves. An unavoidable issue that remains is that whilst some guardians will want the best for their women, others may be abusive, rigid and controlling. Moreover, the system’s existence as a whole – be it exercised with cruelty or benevolence – is indicative of a wider systemic gender inequality in Saudi Arabia. True gender parity in Saudi Arabia, therefore, would require complete socio-economic and ideological overhaul. Obviously this will not be achieved in a single petition, but Vision 2030’s aims to drastically increase the number of women in the workforce will certainly help, and the petition still represents a significant step. It is valuable to keep in mind that socio-cultural change is produced by an innumerable number of events that eventually culminate in tangible difference, and 14,000 Saudi women’s signatures to end male guardianship is one such truly remarkable event.