Saudi women petition to end male guardianship laws

Thousands of Saudi women are petitioning to end laws requiring that a male guardian grant permission for them to marry, travel, or work, reflecting new momentum for an ongoing movement. 

Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters
Saudi women hold national flags as they walk on a street during Saudi National Day in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Sept. 23, 2016.

For the first time, women in Saudi Arabia are petitioning the government to put an end to the male guardianship system currently in place. 

Roughly 15,000 Saudis have signed a petition to abolish laws that require women to have a male guardian's permission to marry, travel, work, or perform a number of other basic tasks. The online petition, submitted to the government on Monday, reflects a new momentum for an ongoing movement that has struggled for years to result in significant change. 

"We want women over 18 or 20 to be treated as adults, to be responsible for their own acts and allowed to make their own decisions," Saudi human rights activist Aziza Al-Yousef told CNN. Ms. Al-Yousef, along with other campaigners, has fought for an end to the guardianship system for the past decade. Now, she says, she's "very proud of the young generation for being so involved in human rights and active on social media about it."

Pushback against the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world with such laws in place, is not a recent phenomenon – nor is optimism that things might change. Previously, the government has twice agreed to abolish the system: once in 2009 and once in 2013, after facing pressure from activist organizations and the United Nation's Human Rights Council. But while Saudi women have seen progress in other areas in recent years, such as earning the right to vote and run for office for the first time in December, the guardianship system still remains largely intact.  

The movement has picked up steam in recent months, however, due in part to a Human Rights Watch report on the topic in July. A viral social media campaign followed, featuring the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian and prompting tweets from women both in Saudi Arabia and around the world. Additionally, this past weekend, roughly 2,500 women sent telegrams to the Saudi King's office demanding an end to the guardianship system. 

Social media and online journalism has "added to the groundswell," in that it "gets the word out" and "allows for collaboration in new sorts of ways," says Elizabeth Bucar, a professor of religious studies at Northeastern University. 

The rise of the internet has also led to "a lot more international interest and knowledge" of the guardianship system, Professor Bucar tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview, putting both internal and external pressure on the government to change its laws. 

Renewed interest in the movement comes at a time when Saudi women have begun to redefine their role in society, earning some new rights and advocating for others. December marked the first time women were permitted to take part in political elections, resulting in the election of 17 women to public office. And, as Cynthia Gorney reports for National Geographic, many women now "say it is a certainty that Saudi women will be driving sooner or later." 

Saudi Arabia was named one of the most improved countries relative to its own starting point 10 years prior in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2015. And in a 2015 poll conducted by the Arab Women's Leadership Institute, the majority of both female and male Saudi respondents said they believed the country was headed in the right direction in terms of progress toward gender equality.

But some argue that the progress achieved thus far, such as earning the right to vote, means little while the guardianship system is still in place. 

"Without a male companion, [women] won't be able to leave their homes to register for the elections," writes Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a consultant for human rights organization Equality Now, for The Guardian. "The final decision-making power lies in the hands of their husbands – or, in some cases, their sons or other male family members. Until this severely discriminatory system is dismantled, participation in political life will remain extremely challenging." 

In order for the system to be put to rest, one of two things must happen, Bucar says. Results could occur if "the majority of clerics in Saudi Arabia get on board with a different sort of interpretation of [Sharia law] and say 'Actually, that situation is based on historical context that is no longer relevant,' " she says. "Here you have a regime that really depends on people supporting an Islamic regime, and if there are rules that they are enforcing that people don't think are legitimately Islamic it undermines the stability of the regime in general." 

Mass protest and widespread dissatisfaction could also spur the government to make reforms, Bucar adds. As growing numbers of Saudi women get an education and enter the workforce, the government could "realize that this is a particular issue that they have to help encourage" in order "to keep the everyday Saudi citizen happy." 

However, some advocates warn that simply abolishing the law will not lead to true gender equality. 

"At the end of the day, I feel our problem here is about the culture," Sofana Dahlan, a female attorney living in Saudi Arabia, told USA Today. "Even if we change laws and regulations, but without changing the mindsets of people, women will continue to be mistreated."

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