By Susie Of Arabia
7 October 2010
AS A WIDOW ESCAPES WITH HER CHILDREN FROM SAUDI ARABIA AFTER BEING TRAPPED HERE FOR TEN YEARS, LET’S TAKE A LOOK AT THIS COUNTRY’S CONTROVERSIAL AND OUTDATED MALE GUARDIANSHIP SYSTEM.
Asima, the Western widow I had previously written about in a four-part series, whose Saudi husband passed away a decade ago, is no longer in Saudi Arabia. Although I am not at liberty to supply particulars, I can tell you that she and her two children are safely outside the country.
Because of the ages of her two children at the time of her husband’s death and because of the way the Saudi system demands that every grown woman must have a legal male guardian, called a “mahram,” the young mother and her children were trapped in Saudi Arabia for close to ten years by her husband’s family. She would have been allowed to leave the country without her children, but she refused to do that. Luckily for her, her oldest child was a boy, and once he reached the required age, he became the legal guardian of his mother and his younger sister, enabling them to finally leave the country. Had her two children been girls, neither one of her daughters would have ever been able to leave this country without the permission of their legal Saudi male guardian.
Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system has come under fire in the past few years, with more and more Saudi women speaking out and demanding their basic human rights to make their own decisions about their education, health care, business, marriage, careers, and travel. As the existing law stands right now, no Saudi woman can pursue her education, or work, or travel without the express consent of her mahram. Despite the fact that in June 2009, Saudi Arabia pledged to the U.N. Human Rights Council to put an end to the male guardianship system, to grant women their own full and separate legal identity, and to make gender discrimination illegal, very little progress has been made.
While many Saudi women are generously given these choices by their guardians, there are also many who are abused by the system and are denied a say in their own lives. This gender discrimination situation has been criticized by human rights groups that are upset that Saudi women are regarded as children in the eyes of Saudi law for their entire lives, with some even saying that Saudi women are considered to be no more than a man’s property.
Sabria Jawhar, a respected Saudi journalist and named by Arabian Business Magazine as one of the world’s most influential Arabs in its “2010 Power 100 list,” wrote about an instance of abuse of the guardian system:
“It was reported recently that a Saudi woman protested that her father rejected several potential husbands because they did not belong to the family’s tribe. The father confined her to the house as punishment and denied her outside employment. He even sent her to a mental institution when she continued her protests. She sued her father in court, but found herself at the wrong end of a tongue-lashing from the judge who said she did not respect her father. She now lives in a women’s shelter.”
Here is another article about what a young Canadian woman had to endure because of Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system.
There are some Saudi women who are perfectly content with the way things are and believe that Saudi women are better off than Western women because of it. These women feel that since they are happy with the status quo, then all Saudi women must be happy. Last year in response to KSA’s agreement to make changes in the guardian system, a group of privileged Saudi women spearheaded by two Princesses launched a campaign called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me,” in favor of keeping the Saudi guardianship system intact. Within a couple of weeks, they had collected more than 5000 signatures. They are also opposed to socializing between opposite genders as well as being against men and women working together.
So while some Saudi women are speaking out to demand the right to make their own decisions on their own merits as perfectly capable adults, there is a counter-movement thwarting their efforts and citing religion, culture, customs, and traditions as their excuses for why things should remain the same. Some Saudi women activists, led by the country’s most visible women’s freedom fighter Wajeha al-Huwaider, have organized the Black Ribbon Campaign in protest of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. Al-Huwaider says, “I am an adult woman that has been earning my own income for over a decade now but according to the Saudi government, I am a dependent until the day I die because of my gender.”
Maybe the guardianship system was a good and logical idea back when it was first implemented many years ago, back when most Saudi girls never got past a 4th grade education before they were married off to an older cousin and started having babies. But today’s Saudi woman is often times better educated, is arguably more motivated than her male counterpart, and with today’s technology, she is much more aware of the basic human rights enjoyed by women around the world that she is being denied. Could it be that an independent and well-educated Saudi woman is considered a threat to the family, or as unwanted competition in the workplace to the Saudi man who has reigned unchallenged and has exercised unlimited control over all women in this country?
The guardianship system failed the widowed Asima, who along with her children, were basically held captive in Saudi Arabia for a decade, and it continues to fail the many other women who are routinely abused and denied the right to play a role in their own lives and destinies. Saudi Arabia should keep its promises that it made in June 2009 to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Set the women here free. It’s time.
The haunting paintings of Saudi women in this post are by Saudi female artist Tagreed Al Bagshi. To me, Al Bagshi has captured the intimacy of life here for many Saudi women who seem to exist in a gilded cage: the boredom, the apathy, the loneliness, the despair, the lethargy, the sadness, the isolation, the hopelessness.
Visit Al Bagshi’s website at http://www.bagshiart.net/index.htm