This blog was published on 22 December 2014 and updated by the author on 5 October 2018.
By Halima Tahirkheli
The United Nations 2010 Human Development Report has ranked Saudi Arabia as 128th of the 138 nations in terms of gender equality (Pasquesoone, 2011). One example of women’s limited rights is the male guardianship system. The male guardianship system places all women of all ages under the authority of a specific male guardian. The male relative or husband becomes the women’s official guardian and he has the authority of all of her decision-making responsibilities. The women of all ages are not permitted to study, travel, work, receive medical treatment, or obtain a personal identification card without the permission of their male guardians. It is a system that relegates half of the population as being dependent on their male guardians.
Some Saudi women are convinced that the clerics misinterpreted the Quran verse that names men as the protectors of women. According to Aziza al-Yousef, a Saudi activist named the most powerful Arab by Gulf Business Magazine, has stated that gender discrimination has no religious basis and the restraints practiced on women is not driven by Islamic teachings (Harbi, 2014). Some Muslim scholars believe that the guardianship system does not originate from Islam and these scholars have stated that the verse indicates that men are not superior to women, but are responsible to take care of them. The male guardian system deals more with the issue of control rather than support for the women. These scholars feel that the guardian system was beneficial at first, but now has just become another way to justify the suppression of women by their male relatives or husbands in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is also the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. The ban on women’s driving is one of the biggest obstacles Saudi women continue to face in their daily lives. This system makes women dependent on men for their daily routines, such as going to school or work, receiving medical treatment, or getting errands done.
However, there has been some progress in the country. According to the Thomas Reuters Foundation expert survey published in 2011, Saudi Arabia scored better as compared to other Arab countries when it came to access to education, healthcare, and gender-based violence (McDowall, 2013).
Over the past twenty years, Saudi women’s access to education has increased dramatically. The Saudi Government has spent billions of dollars to improve women’s education. This includes money spent to improve campuses, create better research programs, and establish more university programs, such as computer science and law, for female students in order to integrate them in the work force. However, there is still no public universities for women that offer programs in political science and architecture (Harbi, 2014). The development of Princess Noura University, an institution dedicated to women’s education, was a five-billion-dollar investment (Reisberg, 2011). The campus includes an administration building, a central library, conference centers, buildings for fifteen academic faculties, several laboratories, and a 700-bed hospital equipped with state-of-the-art facilities.
Women make up around 57% of the total student population at universities in Saudi Arabia (Benger, 2013). In 2011, around 6,000 Saudi women were studying at universities in the United States (Wagner, 2011). And in 2010, Saudi university female students accounted for 25 % of the 15,600 studying in the United Kingdom (Wagner, 2011). These women pursue studies in the fields of medicine, dentistry, science, social science, and humanity both in their country and abroad.
There are Saudi women who pursue professions as physicians, professors, teachers, journalists, and business women. And there are women from different academic and professional backgrounds who dedicate their time and energy to fighting for greater rights for women in Saudi Arabia.
As mentioned above, the country still has limited rights for women that need to be addressed and solved. These activists work dynamically in order to further rights for women. Many Saudi women feel it is important to change the negative image of them that is portrayed in the international media. These women aim to prove to their country and the world that they are just like other women around the world who have hopes and ambitions.
Saudi women have been working together to develop different social media campaigns for gender equality. These initiatives include: My Baladi and Women Revolution.The Baladi campaign, Arabic for “my country” was founded by Naila Attar, a Saudi activist, along with a group of women activists after the Government claimed that the lack of institutional capacity prevented them from allowing women to vote in the 2011 election. Saudi Arabia carried out its first municipal elections in 2005 for eligible Saudi men. And it carried out its next municipal election in 2011, but women were still not permitted to vote. Many of the Saudi women were disappointed and decided to launch a campaign to allow the women the right to vote and run for the elections. These activists have created a Facebook page to encourage Saudi women to challenge the ban by attempting to register at local offices and demand voter identification cards.
Dozens of women have shown up at registration centers in Jeddah, Riyadh, and the Eastern Province to demand voting cards. These women’s attempts were unsuccessful to register as voters. Nevertheless, they made a point to the public that women are capable of being part of the political process in their country.
These women activists strongly feel that voting allows their voices to be heard by the government in order to improve the social issues and municipal services for women and their children. The political empowerment of women –beginning with the right to vote is a step in the right direction towards the empowerment of Saudi women in all other domains. An activist based in Riyadh, Norah Alsowayan, has stated that her attempt to vote could eliminate the male guardianship law system (Alsharif, 2011).
In 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia promised that women will be allowed to vote and run for elections in the 2015 elections. At that time, it was still a long time for these women to finally have their voice heard. But there were some women who praised the movement. Naila Attar has stated in the media that it is the step in the right direction towards empowering women (Alsharif, 2011). Muna AbuSalayman, a Saudi TV commentator and an activist, has credited King Abdullah for his bold move to allow women to vote and run for elections in the year 2015 (Lemmon, 2011).
King Abdullah’s decision to allow women the right to vote in the 2015 election came nine months after the start of the Arab Spring. The King may have granted these rights in order to prevent protests in Saudi Arabia as seen in other Middle Eastern countries. Saudi women heard about the Arab Spring though satellite television (Burke, 2012). These Saudi women felt the importance of being politically aware of hearing about the protests in other Middle Eastern countries (Burke, 2012). Although there were lack of protests in Saudi streets, vocal activists, tweeters, and bloggers has increased among Saudi women who demanded greater freedom in their own country, including the right to vote (Burke, 2012). Hatoon Al-Fassi, a prominent Saudi history professor, and an iKNOW Politics expert, feels that the element of Arab Spring, the power of social media, and the women’s fight for change has pressured the government to finally allow the women the right to vote and participate in the 2015 municipal election (MacFarquhar, 2011).
Many Saudi women have been part of the Twitter and Facebook initiative called “Saudi Women Revolution” to exchange messages about their demands for gender equality in their country. The women say they do not want to fight their government, but they just want to send a message to end gender discrimination. These women write about their stories about how they feel marginalized in their own country under the male guardianship law system. One young and well-educated Saudi woman, Mona Al-Ahmed, has decided to join the campaign after her brother refused to let her take a job as a biochemist because it would require that she had to work in a mixed gender environment. In an interview with Bloomberg, Mona stated that she decided to be part of the campaign because she did not want to continue to live under the male guardianship system (AbuNasr, 2011). Many other women feel the same way as Mona Al-Ahmed. The Facebook page had more than 2,000 supporters (AbuNasr, 2011). However, the Facebook page is no longer there, but the Twitter account is still active.
While the guardianship system is an inconvenience for most women, it can be life threatening for some. Many of the campaigners feel that the male guardianship law system can expose many women to suffer from abuse. There have been stories that these women suffered from psychological and physical abuse at the hands of their husbands or fathers. According to The National Family Safety Program, an agency created by royal decree in 2005 with the directive to raise public awareness about child abuse and domestic violence, 30% of Saudi women are regularly subjected to domestic violence (Al-Shamrani, 2013). The National Family Safety Program has also stated that one in every six women is abused verbally, physically, or emotionally on a daily basis in Saudi Arabia, and ninety percent of the abusers are usually husbands or fathers (Salama, 2013).
In 2006, a woman was admitted to the hospital after being shot by her husband in Saudi Arabia (Benger, 2013). She was told by police that they were not able to intervene unless an official complaint was filed by her male guardian. And obviously her husband would not file a complaint against himself. The abuse continued in their marriage. She was re-admitted to the hospital on two separate accounts for gunshot wounds caused by her husband and the police still did not intervene (Benger, 2013). Her injuries were fatal when she was admitted to the hospital for the third time. Sadly, she passed away (Benger, 2013).
Faadwa al-Tayar, a volunteer social worker, who works in the impoverished areas in Jeddah, has helped many women who do not have male guardians (Lloyd-Roberts, 2011). They are either widowed or women whose husbands have left them without the formal divorce process. There is a Ministry of Welfare in Saudi Arabia to provide assistance to these women, but again it is the men who have to go and ask for their assistance. Faadwa also pointed out that these women are too ashamed and embarrassed to ask for assistance. These women continue to struggle on a daily basis for basic necessities. There are many women who have extreme difficulty in getting treatment for their health conditions, because they do not have a male guardian to go to the right offices for help or treatment (Lloyd-Roberts, 2011). These are the marginalized population that suffers dramatically from the male guardianship law system.
Sadly, there are some women who believe that the male guardianship law system should remain in their country. A group of prominent Saudi women has launched a campaign called “My Guardian Knows What is Best For Me.” Yadwa Yousef, a Saudi mother of three young children, runs the organization (Lloyd-Roberts, 2011). She has stated that the women are privileged to have male guardians. She also has stated that guardianship strengthens the family and it is the male family member’s responsibility to supervise her affairs inside and outside the home. But there are many activists who oppose Yadwa Yousef’s campaign against women who are standing for personal autonomy and the right to be treated as full citizens.
There is still a long way to go to improve women’s right in Saudi Arabia. Over time, with the dedication and hard work of these Saudi activists, Saudi Arabia may be directed in the right direction when it comes to improving women’s rights.
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