The camel in the room': Saudi women driving debate on end to guardianship rule

Saudi women take to Twitter to demand end to guardianship rules

#Women

An open letter to the Saudi king is the latest sign of growing demands from Saudi women for basic rights and end to male controls

Saudi women leaving a shopping mall (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)
Jasmine Bager's picture
Last update: 
Wednesday 28 September 2016 21:27 UTC

The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia recently made an official statement saying that Saudi Arabia would never abolish the guardianship system, which legally grants men the ability to control parts of a woman's life. Some Saudi women, opposing his views, wrote an open letter to the king, petitioning against the guardianship system, and asking that women be treated as adults, not legal minors. That debate has gone viral on Arabic Twitter.

Earlier this month, a clip emerged of the grand mufti in Saudi Arabia, who is the head of the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas, knocking down rumours that the country would ever abolish the Saudi guardianship system, which currently restricts adult women from rights afforded to Saudi men. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh claimed that removing the guardianship system would be a crime against Islam’s teachings and said he saw no merit to the trending hashtags calling for the end of guardianship.

When asked if he was concerned with the recent opposition expressed on Arabic Twitter against the guardianship system, the Sheikh said that the tweets and hashtags were “a crime against Islam” and posed an existential threat to Saudi society. “This is an evil call that goes against the Sharia and the instructions of the prophet,” he responded sternly.

The guardianship system, as it stands now, treats women, in effect, as legal minors. That rule was put into place based on the Quranic interpretation that states that guardians should protect and care for their women.

“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women…” Quran’s Al-Nisa, 4:34.

In Saudi Arabia, the default guardian is the father, whose duty is to protect his daughter until her husband becomes her new guardian. This, of course, complicates issues if a girl is born to a widower or if the girl grows into a woman and never marries. In some cases, a son may become the legal guardian to his mother, thus becoming the authority over her.

Abuse of system

While many men are supportive and protective, some guardians abuse their power and treat women as second-class citizens in their homes. 

Adult Saudi women are often not able to make key decisions in their life without permission: enrol at a university, accept a job, receive medical treatment, renew a passport, or travel. There are countless other restrictions. At this time, women are not able to independently rent a home, or leave prison at the end of their sentence or check out of a nursing home without their guardian’s permission.

The Saudi delegation at the United Nations Human Rights Council has stated twice that the government was committed to removing the guardianship system for Saudi women, most recently in 2013 - yet this has not happened.

The strong words from the grand mufti did not sway many Saudi women who took to the Twittersphere to oppose what they considered to be a narrow and archaic view. It was emphasised that these were mature women asking for their basic rights. A widower should not need to ask for legal permission from her son, for example, to travel or visit the hospital. 

The Arabic versions of these hashtags, #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen, #IAmMyOwnGuardian and #TogetherToEndMaleGuardianship have gone viral with a new online petition soliciting support from Saudis, men and women.

Letter fit for the King

A formal letter started to circulate on Twitter, addressing the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud directly, and skipping any red tape or middlemen. Written in Arabic by Saudi women, it contained several recommendations and requests asking for the king to grant them the right to control parts of their lives that have long required a male guardian’s permission. Men of the same age and status do not have the same rigid restrictions.

“Currently, the system imposes physical and emotional burdens on the women,” the letter said. The note, which was soft in tone but firm in content, called for women to have the right to move freely inside and outside of the kingdom. The letter ended on an optimistic note, offering prayers to the country and asking the king to embrace these Saudi women’s concerns. This was so every citizen - male or female - would have the opportunity to become active and positive members of society, it said.

Borrowing from the crowdsourced Wikipedia culture, the petition has been edited and amended several times since its birth, to incorporate input provided by followers. Supporters were required to not only sign their names on the form, but declare their gender, nationality, occupation and disclose which city they were from.

Since Saudi Twitter is often seen as a place for anonymous dissent, especially on political matters and specifically when it comes to the monarch, this was seen as brave.

“I decided to submit my name. I didn’t care about the repercussions. The demands were reasonable enough in my opinion,” one female Saudi Twitter supporter told MEE.

They decided to go straight to the highest royal to make the biggest impact.

“The subject of guardianship needs a royal decree, and not the proposals of the Shura Council,” Aziza al-Yousef tweeted. The Shura Council is the formal advisory body of the kingdom. The carefully selected group has the ability to propose laws to the king but has no power to enforce or pass any laws.

It is unclear what feedback is expected from the royal camp or what their response might be. The letter has a new notice that it is no longer accepting entries.

At this time, it seems that the grand mufti has no other comments on the subject, but the hashtags definitely do.

An unlikely ally for anti-guardianship system

Isaac Cohen, a 25-year-old “Jewish humanist” from the US, is aware that he is not the most obvious choice to be a spokesperson for anti-guardianship movement of Saudi women. However he chose to use his active Twitter account and growing following to spread the women’s message, because many of the women themselves fear to put themselves forward.

It started last month, when he clicked on a hashtag about the plight of some Saudi women escaping the shackles of their harmful guardians and decided to get involved. Cohen has always been interested in theology and history and recognised that many women's voices were being overlooked on Twitter and elsewhere. He is now the director of the newly created, US-based non-profit named SAFE Movement (Saudi Arabian Female Empowerment), along with other Saudi women who wish to remain anonymous. 

“If they [Saudi Arabia] had fixed their own issues then the [Saudi] women wouldn’t have asked me for help. I couldn't find a single human rights group in the world for Saudi women or dedicated to the Saudi guardianship movement. If one had existed, I wouldn't have made one, along with the Saudi women. But I want to be clear, this is for Saudi women and by Saudi women - I’m only there to support them. I also spend a large majority of my time making videos and attempting to inform people to help end the male guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia,” Cohen told MEE.

Crowdfunding for escapees

Many Saudi women who are unhappy with their guardians have taken extreme approaches to flee their situation. In some cases, they have escaped the country entirely, leaving everyone and everything they love behind. Their only link to their homeland is sometimes via social media.

The challenges do not stop once they land in a foreign airport. These women face additional stigma, as many are unable to work or make money due to visa restrictions, and many do not speak English fluently enough to ask for help either financially or emotionally. In many cases, Twitter is their only support system or outlet.

“My legal guardian doesn’t know that I’m alone here,” a Saudi woman, fearing for her safety, told MEE. "I’m in the USA now, but maybe this will be the last month for me here because I’m not able to pay rent anymore. I’m depressed. I don’t have anyone from my family in the state and I’m fine with that, I can live by myself. In KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), I live in prison, me and my sisters with our mother for many years, we don’t go out, except rarely. We can’t drive and have no money. It’s really complicated and will take a long time to explain how we live there with this father and my family in general," she explained.

For these reasons many adult Saudi women who have left the country have decided to use crowdfunding sites to pay for expenses. One, known as Fatima G, is entitled “Save me from Saudi Arabia,” and asks for financial assistance to help pay for schooling and living fees while she enlists the help of a US lawyer.

Agreement with the Grand Mufti

Not all voices on the Twittersphere are against the guardianship system. In fact, many are in total support of the existing system, claiming that it respects women and Saudi women should not be swayed by Western ideals. These supporters are using a hashtag that translates to #TheGuardianshipIsForHerNotAgainstHer. While it has not gone viral, it has generated much support.

“Before women rebel against the teachings of al-Sharia, or imitate Western women, they should consider the fact that Western women have become a cheap commodity,” one tweet reads.

“The law of God and the regulations [of keeping the guardianship system] are clear, however, the weak among us are defying it to suit personal needs, but we should not all be subjected to that,” another tweeter said.

“[The Guardianship system] is to protect and honour [women], not to prey or restrict,” another tweet said.

“While it is true that some cases exist in which the guardianship system has failed - and we need to study those. But we Saudi women live in honour and privilege and may God always protect our guardians who care for us,” a Saudi woman, who is in support of the guardianship system, declared.

Love it or hate it, Twitter is a weapon

Saudi Arabia produces 40 percent of all tweets in the Arab world, according to Arab Social Media Report. That means that no matter which side of the guardianship debate one is on, Saudi Twitter is a place where conversations on both sides are actively being discussed. Yet as of Tuesday night, many Twitter accounts in support of the of the anti-guardianship were suspended, including that of SAFE and Cohen.

It’s no secret that the guardianship system in the kingdom has been the elephant, or rather, the camel in the room. And the debate is starting to move, at least online. Although many Saudi women have been fortunate to have positive experiences within the system, that is not every woman’s reality.

Twitter has become the virtual meet-up place in which Saudi women who oppose - or support - the system have come together to amplify their voices. In other words, that camel is going into overdrive and Saudi women are driving, even if it's only in cyberspace.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition