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Breaking down Saudi’s male guardianship system

By Anne-Marie Bissada

In December, a song and video released by Saudi singer Majed al Esa, called Hwages, which loosely translates into 'Concern', went viral almost immediately.

The opening scene shows three women, covered from head to toe in the traditional Saudi dress - the abaya – getting into a car that is being driven by a young boy. Women in the kingdom are prohibited from driving.

They then begin to clap and sing in Arabic: “If only god would rid us of men!"

The provocative and humorous video doesn't sugar-coat the problem it is trying to describe, notably that women in the Saudi Arabia have no rights, or freedoms.

They are forbidden to travel on their own, to say what they want, or to even drive. They live under a male guardianship system that places them under the wing of male relatives, or family members.

Rule by guardians

While many think it’s a system unique to Saudi Arabia, Hala Aldosari, a researcher in women’s health and Saudi activist now living in in exile in the US, disagrees:

“It’s not the only country that implements this kind of a system, it’s implemented to various degrees in different countries, with different conditions, such as Kuwait,” she says.

That said, it does not exist in other countries to the same degree as it does in Saudi where it controls all aspects of women’s choices, where “control is in the hands of a guardian.”

A history of guardianship

But where did this system come from?

To understand this, you have to look at the history of Saudi Arabia, which by comparison to other countries in the region, is a very young country.

Olivier Da Lage, a former middle east correspondent and author of The Geopolitics of Saudi Arabia, explains why the country is what it is today:

“In the 18th century an alliance between a [chief and a] preacher- who was exiled for many years found refuge in a small village in central Arabia. [His name was] Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The chief of the village was Sheik Mohamed al-Saud.”

Da Lage explains that this alliance was supported because the local king gave protection to the preacher for spreading a religion fostered by Wahab, which was soon known as ‘Wahhabism’.

He adds: “Over the years that alliance spread across the Arabian Peninsula, to the extent that the Turks became wary of their influence, [so] they crushed the first Saudi state.Then many years later, in the 19th century, a [second] Saudi state was crushed by the Turks and Egyptians, working for the Turks.”

After the rise and fall of a number of failed states, Saudi Arabia as we know it today was founded in 1932. It was called the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Each time the Saudi state was created, it was built on a foundation of this strict form of Islam, or Wahabbism. Even still, until the current state’s creation in 1932, women in the kingdom had relative freedom by comparison to today.

Changing states

Saffaa (family name not provided), a self-exiled Saudi activist and artist explains how during the 1970s, Saudi society was less restrictive by comparison to today: “I look at pictures of my mom in the 70s; she never wore a head scarf or abaya, she sometimes had photos of her driving around Mecca with my father.”

But things began to change at the start of the 1980s.

Towards the end of 1979, the Great Mosque of Mecca was overrun by a group of extremists who tried to over throw the House of Saud.

For two weeks, Saudi troops along with French and Pakistani troops helped fight the extremists. In the end hundreds of militants were killed or jailed.

The result was that soon after, the House of Saud began imposing a stricter enforcement of Islamic code, which immediately had an impact on women and marked the beginning of the guardianship system.

In addition to this, while much of Saudi law is based on custom, Aldosari says it’s still a country that has no written penal, or personal status code.

For that reason, the guardianship system is particular, because it is based on a “set of law that is written and customary norms, where officials use their own authority to request guardian permission for women, or in things that are not written in the court…not something written but practiced”.

The system extends to all aspects of a woman’s life. While there is no law that says a woman cannot be enrolled in education, the universities themselves have their regulations, so a woman cannot apply for schools or universities “without permission from [their] guardian” explains Aldosari.

Even the health of a woman is affected by the system. Aldosari points to the case of abortion. In the late 1980s, there was an edict, for example, that the right of a woman to an abortion in life-saving situations.

The circumstances which would necessitate such a procedure was listed and approved by the medical community. But then this was left to interpretation by the ministry of health, which then adopted its own regulation. That regulation stipulated “that a husband must approve of such an operation”, which means if her husband does not approve, she can die.

While a woman can appeal certain situations before court, the judge is left to his own interpretation of the law, which is this blend of written and customary laws.

The role of the Ulemma

The King has the highest authority and ultimate power to impose new laws or take away old ones, and his actions are essentially based on interpretation of religious practices. He receives his directives from the religious council called the Ulemma.

Unlike other Sunni Islamic countries that take its religious cue from the highest authority in Al-Azhar in Cairo, the Ulemma is its own entity.

Da Lage explains: “The Saudi religious establishment would not agree that the main authority sits in Cairo. The Saudis argue though that the purist form of Islam is that practiced in Saudi."

The constant dependency on a male, be that the father, the husband, the brother or the son, means women’s movement is consistently checked and limited. The system even extends beyond borders.

Saffaa, for example, says during her time studying abroad in Australia, she had to fly in her brother every so often to prove to authorities that her guardian was still there.

She explains that it was at this point that she decided to concentrate her energy on changing the system:

“I felt it was humiliating. I asked myself why is this happening to me? I am my own person. I’ve been financially independent from my parents for a while, but here I am calling my younger brother to chaperone me.

“But of course they keep telling you that these are the rules, the rules of the country. That was the moment that shifted my career. I wrote my thesis on it. [Since then], my research has been focused on the plight of Saudi women.”

Why Now?

But why is the battle for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia only breaking out now?

Prior to the era of social media, the Kingdom was impenetrable, which meant voices that were trying to be heard, were mute.

In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, the widespread use of social media became a new tool in the fight for change and, as Aldosari says, this is how the movement for change started.

“Social media is the only outlet because we don’t have any political party, or unions or independent civil society to lobby the government in peaceful means,” she says.

Aldosari adds that prior to 2011, the only way to introduce change was to lobby the King directly via petitions.

She said she wrote many petitions to the King and the Shura - the advisory council- but there was never any response.

She initially joined the online movement supporting the right of women to drive, joining forces with Manal al-Sharif.

Since then, Aldosari says “we have used social media in a systematic way to lobby the government, to get attention of the global media."

The original online movement in 2011 was called in Arabic #Saudi Women Revoking Guardianship Law.

The role of social media

In 2012, Saffaa created her own movement in English, which soon joined forces with the Arabic one. Hers is #Iammyownguardian.

Much of her art work now goes into promoting the rights of Saudi women and has become representative of both the Arabic and English movements.

Her popular portrait of a young veiled woman with defiant eyes was inspired by Maryam, one of the first women to be involved in the online movement in Saudi Arabia.

Maryam initially went to prison because she refused to deactivate her social media account from which she was voicing her opinions on freedom.

As her guardian, her father reported her for disobedience and she was put in prison. But with the large following she had gathered online, there was pressure to release her. Saffaa adds: “It was becoming shameful for them to keep her in jail.”

Unfortunately though, Maryam has once again fallen victim to this system. After suffering abuse from the hands of her brother for rejoining the online movement, she tried to file a police report; but the police refused to take her statement. At present, there is an online movement, #JusticeForMaryam to put pressure on the Kingdom to protect Maryam.

While there is a draft law criminalizing domestic abuse, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, it is widely seen as flawed because the men involved can file a disobedience case against their daughters and wives to force them back into their homes.

Saffaa points out that the system is even further convoluted because if a woman is being abused by her guardian, she cannot report him to authorities “without the guardian’s approval”.

Changes to the system?

While working with Human Rights Watch to update a report on the guardianship system last year, Aldosari began to notice the impact posted videos about the guardianship system online line were creating.

So she decided to once again write a petition to the King, adding that “in one month we gathered 150,000 signatures, despite the fear of those who are willing to put their full names.”

Despite all the online action, change remains painfully slow.

Saffaa describes her ultimate goal:

“I really want change, [I want] the country to stop discriminating against its women, the country to recognize us as human beings. For Saudi authorities to look at this problem that they created, and say ‘we did this, let’s fix this.’ It won’t make ‘us less as men’. They must know we can contribute better to society.”