Saudi teen ral­lies op­po­si­tion to guardian­ship

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - REGION -

RIYADH: An 18-year-old Saudi woman’s flight from what she said was an abu­sive fam­ily has ral­lied op­po­si­tion to the king­dom’s male guardian­ship sys­tem, still a ma­jor con­straint on women de­spite the con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim coun­try’s ef­forts to open up.

Some free­doms have been granted un­der Crown Prince Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man, who ended a ban on women driv­ing, eased re­stric­tions on gen­der mix­ing and cham­pi­oned firsts such as al­low­ing women to serve in the armed forces.

Yet those changes have been ac­com­pa­nied by a crack­down on dis­sent, in­clud­ing the ar­rest and al­leged tor­ture of some of the ac­tivists who cam­paigned for decades to im­prove women’s rights – as well as Mus­lim preach­ers who op­posed them.

Many ac­tivists are call­ing for an end to the guardian­ship sys­tem, which has been chipped away at over the years but re­mains in force.

Un­der the sys­tem, every Saudi woman is as­signed a male rel­a­tive – often a fa­ther or hus­band but some­times an un­cle, brother or even a son – whose ap­proval is needed if she is to marry, ob­tain a pass­port and travel abroad.

The plight of Ra­haf Mo­ham­mad al-Qa­nun, who slipped away from her fam­ily last week­end dur­ing a hol­i­day in Kuwait, re­calls the cases of other Saudi women who fled mis­treat­ment only to be forcibly re­turned to the king­dom and never heard from again.

Amid global ou­trage at Saudi Ara­bia over last year’s mur­der of jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi, Qa­nun’s tweets from Bangkok air­port sparked an on­line cam­paign. She bar­ri­caded her­self in­side a ho­tel room for hours un­til the Thai gov­ern­ment re­versed its de­ci­sion to send her home.

In some coun­tries, her adult age would have pre­vented the au­thor­i­ties from telling her fam­ily any­thing about her. In Saudi Ara­bia, her gen­der meant she was her fa­ther’s ward.

“Re­move guardian­ship and we won’t all mi­grate” trended this week on Twit­ter in Saudi Ara­bia.

Mai, who iden­ti­fied as a 36-yearold physi­cian, said she was em­bar­rassed to have two chil­dren and a de­gree from Har­vard Uni­ver­sity but still be viewed as a mi­nor.

“I am trusted to make life and death de­ci­sions for pa­tients, trusted to raise kids … but not trusted to make my own de­ci­sions re­gard­ing MY life. The irony! #EndMaleGuardian­ship,” she tweeted.

Qa­nun was also at­tacked on so­cial me­dia for sham­ing her fam­ily and re­nounc­ing Is­lam, high­light­ing the del­i­cate bal­ance Prince Mo­ham­mad must strike in re­form­ing Saudi so­ci­ety with­out desta­bi­liz­ing it.

Guardian­ship’s sta­tus be­tween law and cus­tom makes it a thorny is­sue for Prince Mo­ham­mad, who in­di­cated last year he fa­vored end­ing the sys­tem but stopped short of en­dors­ing its an­nul­ment.

“If I say yes to this ques­tion, that means I’m cre­at­ing prob­lems for the fam­i­lies that don’t want to give free­dom for their daugh­ters,” he told U.S. mag­a­zine The At­lantic.

With­out a cod­i­fied sys­tem of law to go with the texts mak­ing up sharia, or Is­lamic law, the Saudi po­lice and ju­di­ciary have long cited so­cial cus­toms in en­forc­ing cer­tain pro­hi­bi­tions on women. Many as­pects of guardian­ship stem from in­for­mal prac­tice rather than spe­cific laws.

Saudi Ara­bia, one of the world’s most gen­der-seg­re­gated na­tions, is ranked 138 of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gen­der Gap, a World Eco­nomic Fo­rum study on how women fare in eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, health and ed­u­ca­tion.

Ac­tivists launched the “I Am My Own Guardian” cam­paign in 2016 de­mand­ing le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

King Sal­man is­sued an or­der the fol­low­ing year al­low­ing women to ben­e­fit from ser­vices such as ed­u­ca­tion and health care with­out the con­sent of a male guardian, though rights groups say this is be­ing im­ple­mented only on a lim­ited ba­sis. Other chal­lenges re­main. There is no for­mal bar on women buy­ing or rent­ing prop­erty but it can be dif­fi­cult for them to do so with­out a male rel­a­tive, ac­cord­ing to rights groups.

Au­thor­i­ties have re­moved re­stric­tions on women in the la­bor code and ended for­mal re­quire­ments for them to ob­tain a guardian’s per­mis­sion to work, but some em­ploy­ers still de­mand this and are not pe­nal­ized for do­ing so.

The king­dom also ended re­quire­ments that a woman bring a male rel­a­tive to iden­tify her in court. Ad­di­tion­ally, women can ob­tain a li­cense and drive cars with­out their guardian’s ap­proval.

Mo­ham­mad al-Issa, a for­mer jus­tice min­is­ter who sits on the king­dom’s top cler­i­cal body, told Reuters last year there was no rea­son why women should be barred from ob­tain­ing a pass­port or trav­el­ing with­out the con­sent of a male guardian but it may take time for so­ci­ety to ac­cept that.

Some Saudi women do not want to wait.

“We have the right [to] be treated as adults since we’re above 18 years,” a woman named Fatin wrote on­line. “This guardian­ship is no more than modern en­slave­ment sys­tem!” –

Saudi women take pho­tos next to a pic­ture of Saudi Crown Prince Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man dur­ing the Misk Global Fo­rum in Riyadh.

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