Still waiting for Saudi Arabia

Although the government’s Human Rights Commission said it would abolish the country’s system of male guardianship last year, nothing has changed.

muslim women burqa 311 (photo credit: AP)
muslim women burqa 311
(photo credit: AP)
Ahmed al-Ghamdi, the chief of the religious police in Mecca, caused a stir earlier this year when he declared that there were no Islamic texts prohibiting the innocent mingling of men and women. The national head of the religious police duly sacked Ghamdi in April, but he was reinstated, reportedly on orders from very high authority.
Some in the kingdom saw the Ghamdi affair as opening the gates to debauchery, while others thought it a milestone in the struggle for women’s rights. King Abdullah has cautiously but consistently promoted loosening the rigid segregation of men and women practiced in the kingdom.
However, he has done nothing to loosen the stringent ties that hobble women’s most basic rights. The root problem is not segregation as such, but the system of male guardianship: Male relatives can and routinely do dictate a woman’s everyday decisions – to leave the house to shop or study or visit a government office, for example – as though she were a child.
In June 2009, Bandar al-Iban, the head of the government’s Human Rights Commission, accepted the recommendation of the UN Human Rights Council to abolish this system of male guardianship, put to Saudi Arabia during the council’s comprehensive review of the kingdom’s human rights record. The commission noted that guardianship can lead to coercion, saying, “There are no statutory requirements that necessitate guardianship... and the Shari’a notion of the tutelage link [guardianship] between men and women is not a legal stipulation.”
But it appears that nothing has changed in practice. Many Saudi government and private hospitals still require a woman’s male guardian to sign a consent form for her to undergo a medical procedure. I recently spoke with a woman who was desperate because her husband was in incommunicado detention and thus could not sign the required consent form for her to get treatment. After weeks, the authorities allowed her to visit him, obtain the form and finally have the operation.
Guardians – a father, husband, brother or even a divorced woman’s son – must also approve a woman’s foreign or domestic travel. In one current case, Nazia Quazi, a 24-year-old dual Indian and Canadian citizen, has only just left Saudi Arabia after being stuck there for three years. Her father lured her to Saudi Arabia, where he lives, and refused to grant her permission to leave. Saudi authorities acquiesced in preventing her from returning home to Canada.
In January, a court sentenced Sawsan Salim, a naturalized Saudi citizen living in the conservative Qasim area, to 300 lashes and one and a half years in prison, where she remains, because she addressed government officials without a male guardian.
In March, Al-Hayat wrote about a Saudi female student who had to give up her government scholarship for a doctorate abroad after she sent her teenage nephew back to Saudi Arabia because he stopped going to school and began drinking. He was the male guardian whom the Ministry of Higher Education had required to accompany her.
THERE HAVE been some improvements for women, but they have been mostly symbolic, like the appointment last year of a woman as a deputy minister or the appointment of six female consultants to the appointed all-male Shura council, which has some of the functions of a parliament.
The new King Abdullah University for Science and Technology allows men and women to mix on campus, but few Saudis study there. Over the past years, women have been admitted in the kingdom to study law and engineering, previously off-limits to women, and a promised law would allow women lawyers to litigate in court in certain cases, but their ability to practice law will continue to depend on the consent of male guardians.
The 2005 labor law continues to require strict gender segregation at the workplace, making it difficult for law firms to hire female lawyers because they have to create separate offices. The Human Rights Commission until recently did not have a women’s department because, its board members told Human Rights Watch, there were no separate toilet facilities.
Saudi schools, unfortunately, still reinforce the culture of guardianship. A high school textbook on Islamic culture, for example, in a chapter on the rights of wives, states that “it is the nature of the woman to be weak, and if she were left without being taken by the hand, she would corrupt and become corrupted.”
Badria Bishr, writing in March in Al-Hayat against the notions underlying guardianship, put it this way: “Frankly, I say that if those words were said to me in a public place, I would think that someone was insulting me.”
Saudi authorities should end male guardianship over women. No woman should have to get a guardian’s consent to approach a government office, to get medical care or a job, or to go to school or to travel. The Saudi government has promised to end this system. It should keep that promise.
The writer is a senior Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch.