Saudi Women Take Stand Against Male Guardianship, Oppression

Saudi women have taken a historic stand against the practice of male guardianship and institutional oppression in the Persian Gulf state of Saudi Arabia. More than 14,000 Saudi women have signed a petition to end the practice, which has been criticized by human rights advocates within Saudi Arabia and around the world.

Male guardianship of Saudi women is ubiquitous and enforced by law in the Islamic kingdom, which is ruled by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his family, with a great deal of authority in Saudi Arabia being given over to religious tribunals. The practice was highlighted and deeply critiqued in a piece from Human Rights Watch last July, which sparked unrest over the treatment of Saudi women.

Saudi women worship during the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
Saudi Women During The Annual Hajj Pilgrimage [Image by Nariman El-Mofty/AP Images]

Under the Saudi Arabian male guardianship system, women are essentially treated as legal minors, with close male relatives making important legal decisions on their behalf. This male guardian, typically a father or husband but sometimes an uncle, brother, or even son, is granted broad rights over the daily life of a Saudi woman.

Saudi women require the permission of their male guardians to marry, obtain a passport, or travel. They also require permission to rent property or file any legal claim. Often, a woman must also receive permission to be treated at a hospital. While permission is not technically needed for a Saudi woman to pursue an education or to hold a job, many institutions require it anyway.

Many women report that their male guardians extort them for money or other favors in order to get permissions to work, often being forced into giving up half of their incomes. Legal rights for women in Saudi Arabia are thus dependent not on their own agency but the relative goodwill of their male guardian. Some women are able to travel and work more or less freely, but many others are trapped, often with extortionate or abusive men.

BBC News reports that 14,000 Saudi women signed the new petition, though many more signed it anonymously for fear of reprisal from their families or the religious police. As many as 2,500 also sent personal messages to the offices of King Salman demanding an end to the male guardianship laws. The current movement has been building for months on Arabic-language social media, and women have created their own messages, artwork, and a bracelet that has become a symbol of the movement which bears the slogan “I am my own guardian.” Kristine Beckerle, a researcher and journalist with Human Rights Watch quoted by BBC News, claimed to be amazed by the response.

“I was flabbergasted – not only by the scale, but the creativity with which they’ve been doing it,” she said. “They’ve made undeniably clear they won’t stand to be treated as second-class citizens any longer, and it’s high time their government listened.”

A Saudi woman stands outside the polls.
Saudi Women Are Tightly Restricted In The Kingdom [Image by Khalid Mohammed/AP Images]

The Saudi regime has long been pressured by the international community on this issue. The United Nations Human Rights Council forced the Saudi government to address the situation in 2009 and again in 2013. In both cases, the Saudis moved to instate limited reform measures, but these reforms have done little to quell popular discontent among Saudi women or to address the core issue of offering universal female rights.

Under some of these reforms, women were empowered to participate in local elections and 30 women were appointed to the royal advisory body. As these institutions possess little political power themselves, however, the role of women, especially poor women, has remained regulated to the periphery of Saudi Arabian public society.

The new petition proposes that Saudi women who reach the age of maturity between 18 and 21 should be given full legal rights to travel, work, and engage in civic society with the same rights as Saudi men. The Saudi monarchy has yet to address the petition.

[Featured Image by Hasan Jamali/AP Images]